Colby Hamilton, Writer, WNYC News
Colby Hamilton is a general assignment reporter. He originally joined WNYC as a political blogger. He's a proud graduate of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.
The Democratic primary in the new 13th Congressional District in upper Manhattan is about one issue: whether or not Congressman Charles Rangel should serve another term in office. It’s apparent—despite back problems that landed him in the hospital—Rangel approaches the primary challenge with the full determination to resolve that issue by returning to Washington for the twenty-second time.
But there’s a part of Rangel that sounds like fighting for his political life at age 82 wasn't just about what he wanted: “If you talk with some of the old timers like [Assemblyman Herman] Denny Farrell and what not, they say, Rangel, don't leave us now.”
Rangel sat at his desk in his Harlem office, surrounded by tokens and souvenirs accumulated over his more than four decades in office. It was the end of April and he hadn’t been out of the hospital long. There was still fire in his eyes, but physically he appeared diminished.
He’d just finished talking about the new direction of the country under President Barack Obama. Rangel’s pride in this moment was apparent, and the desire to work with the President again—back in the majority—drove him to return to Congress.
But so did, it seems, the old political guard of Harlem. He spoke more about the feedback he heard: “This reapportionment is going to cause so much cultural, racial problems. That’s because there's nobody that we can come to, to ask to run, if you just pulled yourself out of consideration, they're going to really start things that we'll be unable to control."
That’s really what the political battle is about that’s pitting a Dominican state senator against Rangel, and why three other (relatively) younger African American candidates see an opportunity. The new district—with its demographic shift towards a definitive Latino majority and an aging, ailing incumbent—is in a volatile state. The structure and assumptions that have dictated the political reality for years are facing an uncertain future.
It’s not a stretch then to see Rangel—despite his decades in office—as, if not a reluctant candidate, then one committed 100 percent to an endeavor out of a sense of obligation. That obligation relates to the “they” that Rangel says “the old timers” are worried about. Certainly, that group must include the growing Latino community and the electoral ambitions of those inside it. And the old timers, considering who is being referenced, must include the elected African American leadership from the Harlem area.
As Basil Smikle, a political consultant and former state senate candidate in Harlem, put it to the New York Times:
“I don’t think the older generation was very good at leaving — at perpetuating their legacy through a younger generation,” Mr. Smikle said of Mr. Rangel and his peers.
“In many of their minds,” he added, “black history stops with them.”
Reality, though, has continued to move forward. Harlem has changed. The neighborhoods surrounding it have changed. Some of the old timers, like Londel Davis, the owner of a popular restaurant in Harlem and a former police officer, like the changes.
“I've been in business in Harlem in for 20 or so years, and I’m born and raised in Harlem in this very community, and I've seen it change, I've seen at its height and at its low,” he said. “I'm quite excited about the changes, the new demographic--middle class and such--truly it does represent what new york city looks like now when you look at the makeup of the demographics.”
Davis considers himself a friend and supporter of Rangel—he’s backing his campaign—but he sees the same political problems as Smikle.
“I think some people are just selfish. Maybe they think they're never going to die or maybe they think no one is capable of accepting the responsibilities of the office. I think in Charlie's case that's a point he may admit to or he may not. But that's what I see,” Davis said.
Throughout this campaign, a sense of the inevitable has been right below the surface. Rangel could very well win next Tuesday, but there’s an end point approaching sooner rather than later. When it arrives—when Charlie Rangel leaves the Congress—the ability for the old timers to stave off the “they” is going to be put to a tremendous test—one of their own making.
Because, as Rangel noted during a recent endorsement event, “If not me, who?”