Rep. Rangel speaks with reporters before voting in Harlem. Credit: Isaacc García
Story and photos by Debralee Santos, Sandra E. Garcia, Isaacc Garcia, and Adrian Cabreja
Those are the number of years over which Jaime Vargas has sought to help his friend seek higher office.
"I have been working with Adriano and his campaigns for over 2 decades," explained Vargas on Mon., Jun. 25th at the campaign headquarters of Espaillat for Congress on Sherman Avenue.
On the eve of the city's first Democratic primary election held in June, Vargas, together with scores of campaign volunteers, sifted through papers, marked posters, and tallied counts one by one.
Elections are, famously, about numbers.
The number of districts, the number of calls made, the amount of dollars on hand – the number of votes cast.
And in the newly redrawn 13th Congressional district, in which Rep. Charles B. Rangel faced his toughest race to date, the numbers ultimately came out in the incumbent's favor – ending a campaign that had captured national attention as it pitted a scion of the black power elite in his 4th decade of service against a particularly robust challenge from a candidate representing Latino political ascendancy.
"I cannot find the words," said an ebullient Rep. Rangel at Sylvia's on Lenox Avenue late on Tuesday evening as he claimed victory. "I'm glad that my community has faith and confidence in me."
With 84 percent of precincts reporting, Rep. Rangel had captured 45 percent of the vote while Sen. Espaillat, who had been seeking to become the first representative of Dominican descent in Congress, received 39.8 percent.
Rep. Rangel eked out a narrow victory in a primary election over four challengers in a new district that, thanks to federal redistricting, included neighborhoods in the Bronx.
Among the contenders fended off were Joyce Johnson, a community activist and liquor executive; Craig Schley, a former model and Rangel intern; Clyde Williams, who had previously served in both the Clinton and Obama administrations; and New York State Senator Adriano Espaillat.
Sen. Espaillat casts his vote in Inwood on Tuesday morning. Credit: Isaacc García
Sen. Espaillat, formerly a member of the New York State Assembly for over a decade, was widely considered the most competitive candidate.
With years of service in elected office, hname recognition among voters in what was a newly Hispanic majority district, and the support of such former Bronx Borough Presidents Fernando Ferrer, Adolfo Carrion and TWU Local 100, Sen. Espaillat sought to unseat a man whose tenure he claimed had gone too long.
"I feel good," said Sen. Espaillat early on Tuesday morning as he and his daughter prepared to vote at P.S. 98 on West 212th Street in Inwood.
"People are energized," he said.
The state senator had reason to be optimistic.
Rep. Rangel, who had first been elected in 1970, was an original member of the Harlem "Gang of Four," who would become the Chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee in Congress.
Rep. Rangel's rise had came to represent the coalescing of African-American political and social power nationally that would lay the groundwork for the presidency of President Barack Obama.
But the 82-year-old was dogged by the ethics violations, in which he was found guilty by the House Ethics Committee in 2010 on 11 counts, including the failure to pay taxes, improper solicitation of funds and the failure to accurately report his personal income tax.
As a result, he suffered censure, was forced to relinquish his Chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee and was saddled with over $2 million dollars in legal fees.
Moreover, Rep. Rangel had been hobbled by health problems with his back that led him to forego vigorous campaigning – and caused him to appear often with a cane or walker while on the stump.
Voter turnout, traditionally low for primaries, was expected to be even more diminished for the first primary ever held in June – a decision made by the federal courts to prevent the disenfranchisement of military voters and allow for sufficient time to submit absentee ballots for the general election.
Approximately only 15 percent of registered Democrats across the city cast ballots.
Rep. Rangel's campaign manager, Moises Perez, the former head of Alianza Dominicana, acknowledged obstacles unique to this campaign.
"Rangel was facing a lot of issues this election," Perez ceded at the celebration held at Sylvia's. "The biggest difficulty was the fact that this year's primaries were earlier, [and] held during a time close to vacation season. This, in turn, led to a very low turn-out."
Still, those who did appear at poll sites throughout northern Manhattan and the Bronx on Tuesday spoke to a range of motivations that propelled them to cast their ballots.
"If the other candidate [Rep. Rangel] wins the election, I will be very frustrated," said Magdalia Alcantara, as she voted in the Bronx's Van Cortlandt Village on Tuesday in the late afternoon. "It is time for him to go. Enough is enough."
Former Gov. David Paterson at the Rangel victory celebration in Harlem. Credit: Isaacc García
In Washington Heights, near I.S. 52, Maria Martinez was adamant that her vote – and volunteer work – was based not on ethnicity, but on the need for change.
"It is not important that he is Dominican," said Martinez. "We've voted for Rangel in the past, and he is not Dominican. However, it is time for a change. Rangel has been in power for forty plus years."
Martinez said she was also angered by the lack of resources and attention offered to immigrants.
"We [immigrants] become citizens," she said, "so that we could contribute to our community, but we also want help in return."
Fellow campaign volunteer Victor Rivera agreed.
"We are helping Espaillat for the work that he has done not because he is Hispanic," emphasized Rivera as he offered campaign literature to passerby on Broadway.
"We don't want a Congressman who serves only one sector," said Rivera. "We want a Congressman that'll work for the whole community, and that is what Espaillat knows how to do."
Rep. Rangel, for his part, denied that the ethics violations or health woes would impair his capacity to effectively deliver for constituents if re-elected for his 22nd term.
Speaking after casting his ballot in the late morning on Tuesday at P.S. 175 on West 134th Street in Harlem, Rep. Rangel was cheerful, and even made a few jokes.
Asked what he would do if he were to lose, he responded, "If I lose tonight, I will sleep just like a baby and cry myself to sleep."
His supporters were adamant that there would be no such scenario.
"You have to understand that Rangel is a lion. You can't mess with a lion," said Chad Silver, a Harlem resident who had spent the day working for the incumbent's campaign. "The lion is the king."
When polls closed at 9 p.m., early returns seemed to indicate Sen. Espaillat in the lead.
As his supporters gathered at campaign headquarters and at local restaurant 809 on Dyckman Street, many began a cautious celebration of sorts, with volunteers high-fiving and hugging.
But the lead gave way within the hour to more sobering news, and Rep. Rangel was soon shown to be pulling ahead.
At his victory celebration at Sylvia's, surrounded by former Governor David A. Paterson, New York State Assemblymember and Bronx Democratic County Chair Carl Heastie, and New York City Councilwoman Inez Dickens, among other supporters, Rep. Rangel referenced the high emotions.
"There've been all kinds of questions asked of me in the last few minutes," said Rep. Rangel. "Most of them is, 'How do you feel?' And I cannot find words to describe that."
His supporters cheered.
"Everybody thought that Espaillat had the Latino vote and that would secure him a victory," said Milagros Vargas, who had cast her vote for Rep. Rangel. "Rangel has also done a lot for the Latino community. Everyone remembers that."
Surrounded at 809 by supporters that included New York City Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez, New York State Senators Gustavo Rivera and Jose Peralta, as well as Ferrer and Carrion, Sen. Espaillat ceded defeat shortly before 11 p.m.
"We came in slightly short this time," he said.
But he insisted that the campaign's themes would outlive the election.
"The summer of 2012 will always be remembered as the summer when northern Manhattan came together," said Sen. Espaillat, who pledged to work with Rep. Rangel going forward. "Though we didn't make it to the finish line tonight, the values we fought for and the communities we seek to improve will continue to light a fire in us."
"We made history," added Sen. Espaillat, referencing the desire to bring "bold, new ideas."
Former Borough President Carrion listened intently as the senator spoke.
"It is extraordinarily difficult to go against established incumbents, particularly someone like Charlie Rangel," said Carrion. "But if it were easy, anyone could do it. Leaders step up, and Adriano did. Irrespective of the outcome, this community – and this city – benefits from the exchange of new ideas and new dialogue."
During his own victory speech, Rep. Rangel noted that his victory was unlike any other, as it came with a new responsibility – a larger district that would include neighborhoods in a new borough.
"I have to earn the Bronx's trust," said the Bronx's newly minted first African-American Congressmember. "But I feel the Bronx in their minds and their ambitions."
Back on Dyckman Street, as it neared midnight, Jaime Vargas smiled when asked about what would come next.
"We fight, we work, we go on," he said quietly, as weary volunteers huddled in groups and merengue music began to play in the background.
"There is more for us to do," he said. "And Adriano has always done the work that was needed."
Rep. Rangel signals victory to the crowd gathered outside Sylvia's Restaurant. Credit: Isaacc García