On a historic challenge to Charlie Rangel, and what it means to be an icon

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Charlie Rangel. (Betsy Morais)
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While waiting for election results to come in for the special Senate election in Brookyn on Tuesday night, I asked a number of Democrats at Lew Fidler's event what they thought of the potential primary between 21-term Democratic congressman Charlie Rangel and freshman state senator Adriano Espaillat, who is Dominican-American.

Before circulating petitions for the race, Espaillat warned that if a new Latino congressional district wasn't drawn in northern Manhattan to go along with Rangel's historically black district, there could be a "nuclear political war" between Latinos and African-Americans.

The boundaries of the Rangel district were altered in the latest redistricting process to take in more Latino voters, and notwithstanding the historic importance of the district as a bastion of African-American representation in Congress, the proportion of black voters in the area has been in decline for years.

City Councilman Leroy Comrie, a three-term Democrat from Queens who is African-American, said Rangel deserved to be re-elected because he can be more effective than a freshman replacement.

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"Charlie Rangel is an institution in that community," Comrie told me. "With the leverage that he has and the power that he still has. He's been more than open and gracious in sharing with the Hispanic community there. I think it's in their best interest to keep Charlie Rangel in Washington D.C. to deliver for the delegation."

When I asked about the changing demographics in the district, Comrie was somewhat skeptical.

"The district has been changing for a while and the demographics have been changing but the census numbers, as you know, there is an undercount," he said. "So who knows what the real count is. But Charlie has been open and participatory with all the people in his district. It's not about their ethnicities, it's about your ability to deliver."

Kevin Parker, who serves in the State Senate with Espaillat and is African-American, was more conflicted about the race.

I asked if that's because Rangel, a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus, represents something more than just the district, and something iconic in politics.

"But so does Espaillat," Parker said, before adding that Rangel "certainly does. He's more than just iconic, he's someone who provided real representation."

There has never been a Dominican member of Congress. Espaillat has circulated petitions to get on the primary ballot against Rangel, but has yet to announce a final decision about whether to run.

Parker said Rangel was "a path-clearer for many of us. Even though I live in Brooklyn, I stand on the shoulders of Charlie Rangel. Similarly, Adriano is for Dominicans."

"I certainly understand where he's coming from," Parker said. "It's unfortunate because of the way the lines were drawn, not because these are naturally political enemies. That's not what it is at all."

When I asked longtime Democratic district leader Frank Seddio of Brooklyn about the race, he responded by listing various neighborhoods in Brooklyn and northern Manhattan that have been dominated by successive waves of different ethnic groups over generations.

"Sometimes it's hard to recognize," he said. "Demographics do change."

Seddio is a strong ally of the Democratic county leader in Brooklyn and known for forming alliances with a wide array of people. He said demographics is one factor to consider in the race. So is seniority.

"Sometimes we overlook seniority," he said. "In the United States Congress, seniority is everything. And if the Democrats are ever in the majority again, it would make a difference. If you're going to look from a New York perspective, I'd love to see the guy with seniority continue to be in office."

"However," he added, "we're not in the majority anymore."

Not everyone I talked to looked at the Rangel-Espaillat race in terms of shifting demographics.

When I asked Darlene Mealy, an African-American city councilwoman from Brooklyn, about Rangel's race in Harlem, she looked surprised.

"It doesn't even affect me," she said.