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Rep. Charles Rangel defies demographics, censure to win tough primary

Rep. Charles Rangel, an icon in Harlem, called on more than 40 years of a storied history – including bringing home the bacon as former chairman of a powerful House committee – to win a Democratic primary that all but assures victory in November.

Rep. Charles Rangel’s victory in the Democratic primary for New York‘s 13th Congressional District shows that — despite demographic changes in his district, ethics woes, and a censure vote by his House colleagues – he’s still popular enough to win the toughest fight of his 42-year career in Congress.

Tuesday’s primary victory essentially counts as the election in one of the most Democratic-leaning districts in the nation.

“MY district,” is how Mr. Rangel refers to it.

And so it continues to be, for at least a 22nd term. The official statement that he released after his victory sounded a bit humbler.

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“Words cannot describe my overwhelming gratitude to the voters of the 13th Congressional District of our great State for believing in me. I welcome this special privilege to serve the people of the Bronx and those in Upper Manhattan whom I have had the honor to represent in Congress in the past. I will not let them down.”

According to Douglas Muzzio, a professor at Baruch College and a political commentator, Rangel’s storied history was just too much for his opponents to overcome.

“The bottom line is, Charlie’s an icon. He has been a fixture of New York politics, national politics, and certainly the politics of that district,” says Mr. Muzzio. “He was able to capitalize on more than 40 years of history and of bringing home the bacon, and he had a lot of endorsements.”

That history brought out the voters that Rangel needed. At 12 percent, voter turnout was actually higher than usual for many congressional primaries. Research by the Center for Voting and Democracy shows that these elections often have single-digit turnout percentages.

Rangel took 45.7 percent of the vote compared with the 39.1 percent won by his closest opponent, Adriano Espaillat, a Dominican-American state senator whom many thought would benefit from the new district lines stretching into the Bronx, which gives the area a much greater Latino population.

Clyde Williams, a former adviser to President Clinton, took third place, with 10.5 percent of the vote, and the other two candidates took less than 5 percent combined, according to unofficial numbers released by the board of elections. Muzzio says a good portion of that Williams vote could have gone to Espaillat, but probably not enough to win him the election.

The 11 ethics violations that cost Rangel his chairmanship of the powerful Ways and Means Committee and, later, censure by the House in 2010 didn’t seem to make much of a difference.

After all these years on the job, many Harlem voters identify with Rangel, known as “the lion of Lenox Avenue.”

“I’m a Charlie man,” said Alfred Heyward, sitting at a bus stop by 125th Street and Fifth Avenue on Tuesday. “We know Charlie, Charlie’s been here for us, we’re not going to abandon him,” he said.

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Rangel is also known for directing funds to the district. “He gives money to the community, and we need that for the children. He may be old, but I’m glad he’s still with us,” said Marie Brown, after she voted on Tuesday.

Rangel appeared energized in the televised portions of his victory celebration at Sylvia’s, a soul food restaurant founded in 1962 that many consider an icon of Harlem.

Rangel’s victory speech was aimed at silencing those who said it was time for new blood, including  The New York Times editorial board, which had endorsed Mr. Williams.

“If they didn’t think in the past 42 years that I wasn’t the best qualified, I promise them that in the next two years they’ll have no questions,” he said.  

The rest of New York’s primaries didn’t bring many surprises. New York Assembly member Hakeem Jeffries, a rising star, defeated Charles Barron, a famously divisive member of the City Council. In the statewide Republican primary to determine who will run against freshman US Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D), lawyer Wendy Long defeated Rep. Bob Turner (R), the surprise winner in a 2011 special election to replace disgraced Rep. Anthony Weiner in a solidly Democratic district.