06/26/2012 11:44 am ET Updated Jun 26, 2012

Charlie Rangel, Primary Challengers Battle For Veteran Congressman's Reshaped District

HARLEM — On Monday, a navy blue van with a poster of Rep. Charlie Rangel on its side crawled through the late-evening traffic on Frederick Douglass Boulevard, reminding Harlemites to go out and vote on Tuesday for the candidate, one of the nation's highest-profile black politicians.

Just a few blocks north, Craig Schley made a very different case to voters. "Why am I running?" the radio commentator asked his audience at a new Harlem restaurant. "They have a lockdown here. The old guard from the civil rights movement, God bless them, have the nerve to tell some of us in this generation to get in the back of the line."

"I believe that this generation deserves an opportunity to represent itself," Schley said, saying that Rangel had been Harlem's representative in Congress since the U.S. first put a man on the moon. (Rangel's long stint in Congress actually began two years later, in 1971.)

And not far from the restaurant, Joyce Johnson, a former corporate executive and longtime Democratic operative, threw on her Delta Sigma Theta sorority hat and planned her next move after a day of campaigning. She was mulling whether to drop by another nearby event, deejayed by the hip-hop legend Doug E. Fresh. Clyde Williams, a former political director for the Democratic National Committee with ties to both the Clinton and Obama White Houses, would be there. He, too, is angling for Rangel's seat and has secured the endorsements of The New York Times and the Daily News.

"I think [Rangel's] base -- his small base -- is nervous," said Johnson, who is running for office for the fourth time. "It's going to be a crap shoot. It's going to be low turnout."

Even though low-turnout elections favor incumbents, Johnson said that voter fatigue is such that even the reliable parts of the Democratic establishment, like local unions, would not be turning out for Rangel with any zeal.

"I don't think the congressman is gonna squeak this out," she said. "Do I believe an upset is in the making? I do."

In this overwhelmingly Democratic district, Tuesday's primary winner would almost certainly go on to represent the 13th -- which includes Harlem, the heavily Latino neighborhoods of Washington Heights and a sliver of the Bronx -- in Congress.

The district's boundaries and demographics have been in flux, and the newly redistricted map, officially only months old, puts Latinos in the majority. That shakeup has made Adriano Espaillat, a state senator who is hoping to become the first Dominican in Congress, a serious challenger to Rangel. The new racial reality has caused some anxiety over whether Harlem, long the district's political axis, would lose its influence.

Espaillat has downplayed the supposed tension between blacks and Latinos. "I have African-American supporters, the congressman has Latino support," he said to Politicker on Monday. "This has been a very fair fight, and I think one that hasn't pitted one community against each other.”

As might be expected of someone with such a long career, the dapper, raspy-voiced Rangel has hopscotched between roles of local hero, kingmaker, horse trader and scoundrel. The congressman, as locals refer to him, was part of the powerful "Gang of Four," alongside David Dinkins, the city's first black mayor; Basil Paterson, a former New York Secretary of State; and Percy Sutton, the former Manhattan borough president. At the height of their influence, they were the nexus of official black political power in the city. (Paterson's son, David A. Paterson, would become the state's first black governor in 2008 after the sudden resignation of Eliot Spitzer.)

At one point, Rangel oversaw the powerful House Ways & Means Committee, but stepped down from that post after he was buffeted by ethics allegations and censured by his fellow lawmakers.

And Rangel's challengers smell blood in the water.

But even with Rangel supposedly weakened by the ethics charges and the district's new demographics, he enjoys broad support among the local party establishment. Gov. Andew Cuomo, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former Mayor Ed Koch and City Council President Christine Quinn have all endorsed Rangel.

That institutional backing might make for a rough transition should Rangel lose his seat.

Johnson, who expressed confidence that she would win, said that anyone who replaced Rangel would have to play nice. "You don't go and call someone a lowdown dirty so-and-so if you need them to open the keys to the cabinet," she admitted.

Landon Dais, an activist who ran for city council in 2008, said that Congress' seniority rules bolster Rangel's local support because nonprofits and businesses in the district rely on his sway in the House. "There's going to be a very serious ripple effect throughout the city [if he loses]," Dais said. "Wednesday will be a whole different day."

Rangel, for his part, has appeared unworried in the press. "It's not a challenge that requires any type of original effort," Rangel said to the Daily News last week. "Same thing, same people."

But Johnson evinced much more confidence. "You want a prediction?" Johnson asked. "We'll win by 227 votes," she said with a laugh.