It was past midnight, Charlie Rangel had been speaking for a half hour, and he was just getting warmed up. The stage he was standing on in an East Harlem ballroom was buckling — didn’t matter. He kept going for nearly an hour altogether. “The Teamsters are in the house!” Rangel rasped. “My office is in the house! My wife is in the house! My girlfriend is in the house!”
Whatever that last line meant, the bottom line was that Rangel was in the House, the House of Representatives — still. Last night he won his 23rd straight race — unofficially, until the Board of Elections opens the absentee ballots — by about 1,800 votes, in a bitter Democratic primary rematch with State Senator Adriano Espaillat.
All the data and demographics mattered: the redrawing of district lines to include a section of the Bronx. The fact that black New Yorkers continue to vote more dependably than Latino New Yorkers, and that Latino New Yorkers are by no means politically monolithic. The money that Rangel has delivered for the district since he first took office in 1971.
But there is also the highly unscientific, unquantifiable quality that kept Rangel talking last night: The man wanted it very badly. Voters, whatever their grasp of policy, respond intuitively to politicians who need them, who care so much it hurts. Two years ago, Rangel campaigned through scandal and a debilitating spinal infection. This spring, the sight of an 84-year-old man sweating it out on street corners, alternately grinning and raging, contrasted with the curiously lackluster effort of Espaillat.
Even Rangel’s greatest “gaffe” was evidence of how deeply he wanted to win, and how crafty he remains. Claiming that Espaillat had no qualifications “besides saying he’s Dominican” earned Rangel high-minded rebukes from Reverand Al Sharpton and the Times editorial page. But the jab made it trickier for Espaillat to appeal to ethnic pride in the homestretch (actually, Rangel’s camp was stunned Espaillat hadn’t run harder on the Dominican angle all along), and it may have reminded enough Puerto Ricans, a crucial swing vote, that Espaillat wasn’t one of them.
Or it may have simply been a proud old man saying whatever the hell he wanted. Which is the visceral core of why the congressman seems to have survived, yet again: He may be a rogue, but he is an indomitable one. Rangel’s combination of toughness and neediness too often spills over into selfishness. But his sheer willfulness is riveting, and it appears to have earned Charlie Rangel enough respect and loyalty to send him back to Washington for two more years. At least.