NEW YORK -- Charlie Rangel still has it. The 82-year-old, 21-term member of Congress flashed his trademark wit at a debate on Monday to swat away a veiled dig from the man who could pose him a serious challenge in the June 26 Democratic primary.
After New York state Sen. Adriano Espaillat suggested that Rangel had "been on the job too long" and feels there "is absolutely nobody on the planet that can do as good as a job as he," Rangel was ready with a response for reporters afterward. He never said he was the only person on earth who could represent New York's 13th district, he explained -- just the only one running.
It was a response designed to elicit laughs, which it got, and tamp down suggestions that he might not be willing to put up a fight. The Korean War veteran and former House Ways and Means chairman is legendary for his cantankerous turns of phrase. Observers seem unanimous, however, that Rangel needs more than his silver tongue to win re-election.
Polling so far has been non-existent. But Rangel is running at a time when there are signs of anti-incumbent sentiment elsewhere in the country. He is doing so as two other longtime New York City congressmen, Ed Towns and Gary Ackerman, are retiring. Perhaps most seriously for a politician who has long been the voice of black Harlem, Rangel's district was redrawn this year to include heavily Latino parts of the Bronx.
As the candidates' forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters seemed to confirm, there are few major policy differences between Rangel and Espaillat. Both lauded President Barack Obama. Both called for humane immigration reform. Both decried the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The race, then, may turn on how voters view Rangel's long tenure in Congress, which was marred in 2010 when the House of Representatives censured him following an investigation by the Ethics Committee. In recent days, however, Rangel has fought back, suggesting that despite a plea agreement he signed, the Ethics Committee probe was a politically motivated attack by Republicans.
Espaillat and his allies haven't focused on the censure. But they may not need to.The unorthodox anti-incumbent Campaign for Primary Accountability Super PAC has said it will target Rangel with the same message about a corrupt incumbent it used to help take down eight-term El Paso Rep. Silvestre Reyes. So far, it has spent only $5,500 on the race, but it has promised spending in the "six figures" range.
At the end of March Rangel had $226,306 in campaign cash on hand, compared with Espaillat's $56,292, so the Super PAC could help erase that disparity.
Rangel, for his part, is responding the same way that Reyes did -- by touting his seniority in Congress as a way of getting things done. Like Reyes, who secured endorsements from former president Bill Clinton and Obama, he has big-name backers: Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former mayor Ed Koch.
Rangel seemed blissfully unconcerned by his challengers at the Monday debate, sponsored by the League of Women Voters, which he described as a "very educational discussion" in his closing remarks.
"I look at as though they're applying for my job. And while nobody seems to believe that I haven't done a good job, I think they think it's time for a change. Well, we're all putting applications in," Rangel said. Looking at all the candidates, "who has produced and not who would like to produce, I kind of think that the job would be weighted in my favor."
Espaillat, meanwhile, emphasized his support for the Dream Act, which could help undocumented Latino immigrants receive citizenship after attending college. A 57-year-old Dominican American, he has at some events campaigned almost entirely in Spanish. He said the race represented "a historic opportunity for change, to turn the page."
After their debate, Rangel said his greatest concern is turnout in the primary election. It will come months earlier than usual this year because of a court order meant to allow military service members to vote.
"The biggest fear of this election is that it's not in November, it's not in September, and no one's ever heard of a damn election for anything being on June 26. And it's going to be so difficult for people during the summer months to find out why they should come back," Rangel said.