One week after U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel proudly claimed victory and said he’d been re-elected to a 22nd term in Congress, his once-commanding lead has now plunged to just three percentage points – 802 votes — and some New York Democrats are hoping for a recount.
As the drama continues to unfold in one of the nation’s most closely-watched congressional races, Rangel, 82, is embroiled in the political fight of his life against New York state Sen. Adriano Espaillat, a charismatic Dominican-American whose message of change is resonating with many of Harlem’s Hispanic voters.
Espaillat knows that Rangel’s back is against the wall: Rangel is forging ahead without the endorsement – or support – of President Barack Obama.
With 93 percent of precincts in the 13th Congressional District reporting, Rangel had 43.98 percent, or 16,898 votes, compared to Espaillat's 41.18 percent, or 15,823 votes, a difference of 2.8 percentage points.
Even though Espaillat has not called for a recount, he is alleging a possible discrepancy in the voting process, insisting that six precincts have not reported all of its vote totals. Espaillat said many of those precincts are in neighborhoods where he was expected to do well.
While Rangel was beaming with pride and celebrating with friends at Sylvia’s restaurant in Harlem last week, the not-so-subtle implication by Espaillat’s campaign is that the voting process appears to be shady.
Representatives for Espaillat went to court Monday after Espaillat filed a petition in State Supreme Court in Manhattan against the Board of Elections, the New York Police Department and Rangel, asking the court to supervise the process.
“Four days after polls closed, we finally have a preliminary vote count, excluding thousands of paper ballots,” Espaillat’s spokesperson, Ibrahim Khan, said in a statement. “With each new tally, Senator Espaillat’s vote total increases. As paper ballots begin to be counted and this dead-heat race continues, we are grateful to all of our supporters and will continue to push for full transparency in counting every single vote.”
Elections officials said more than 2,000 absentee ballots must be counted before all the votes can be tabulated but Bill Lynch, a political consultant for Rangel, told reporters that once the final votes are in, Rangel will be re-elected.
“He’ll still be victorious when this is over,” Lynch said.
Rangel is coming to grips with the new boundaries of Harlem’s congressional district that were redrawn last year during an unprecedented redistricting process. Parts of Manhattan were taken out of the district and parts of the Bronx were added in. Because the district was redrawn, Hispanics now make up more than half of the residents — and almost half of the eligible voters – in Harlem.
Many of these new Hispanic voters in Harlem are backing Espaillat, New York’s first Dominican-American state senator.
Rangel, however, dismissed the notion that redistricting could topple his re-election bid.
"I was pleased to see that a lot of people knew me. There was a connection," Rangel told reporters. "When you're there for four decades, it's kind of hard for you to not be known by most people."
And there’s also another significant intangible element that Rangel is facing: Obama did not endorse Rangel for re-election – and, in fact, Obama strongly suggested that Rangel retire “with dignity” after Rangel was censured by Congress for a range of ethics violations.
"I think Charlie Rangel served a very long time and served his constituents very well. But these allegations are very troubling," Obama said during a CBS News interview. "And he's somebody who's at the end of his career. Eighty years old. I'm sure that what he wants is to be able to end his career with dignity. And my hope is that it happens. "
The relationship between Obama and Rangel remain strained ever since Rangel backed Hillary Clinton for president in 2008. It’s unclear whether Obama’s non-endorsement of Rangel played a significant role in Rangel’s election.
Would Rangel have garnered more votes if Obama had publicly supported him? Perhaps. And it’s clear that Rangel’s supporters wanted Obama, the nation’s first black president, to back Rangel, Harlem’s long-serving black congressman.
“Do I wish he had [endorsed]? Of course,” New York Democratic Party Chairman Keith L. T. Wright, a Rangel loyalist, told reporters. “But we are confident that Charlie Rangel will be going back to Congress.”