In a long-awaited reappearance, Rangel talks about ‘people’ who jump the gun

Rangel. (Azi Paybarah via flickr)
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In his first public appearance in nearly two months, Rep. Charles Rangel said at a town hall meeting with constituents that the state senator running against him is "pretty strong," and that "this is an exciting beginning." He spoke while seated in a swivel chair.

Rangel, 81, missed 103 votes since February 9 because of a back injury that is clearly still bothering him. (He remained seated throughout this morning's meeting, not using the podium located immediately behind him. To allow him to speak to reporters, aides brought over a table and placed it in front of Rangel's chair and after the event, his aides asked reporters to leave the room, at which time Rangel left with the help of a walker.)

The longtime congressman is seeking a 22nd term in office and is facing at least three challengers: former presidential aide Clyde Williams, who has $125,000 on hand; district leader Joyce Johnson, the only woman in the race; and State Senator Adriano Espaillat, who announced this morning that he had been endorsed by one of Rangel's former aides, Vince Morgan, who previously ran for the seat.

The district was altered in this year's redistricting to include parts of the Bronx and, for the first time, most of the voters in it are Latino.

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Rangel sought to downplay the racial aspect of the contest, saying he remembered "when we used to fight and the political blood rolled in the street but for 40 years we haven't had that."

(Espaillat, earlier, warned of a "nuclear political war" between blacks and Latinos if a separate majority-Latino congressional seat wasn't created.)

"Harlem is more than the black Mecca for entertainers and history and wonderful historical stories," Rangel told reporters. "Harlem is representative of what people who have the pride and the energy want to be ... Therefore, every community has a little bit of Harlem."

Rangel said, "Quite frankly, I really thought I could make a difference in reapportionment. I really, truly overstated the influence that I could have."

He said he was running for re-election because he truly intended to serve, and not as part of a plan to facilitate a chosen successor by winning and then stepping down.

"I wish people would not infer that I'm crooked and that I planned to develop some plan where you vote for me and you're going to get Keith [Wright, the Assemblyman] in the morning," Rangel said. "That's not right."

Wright was standing behind Rangel along with Assemblyman Guillermo Linares, who is Dominican and considering a run for Espaillat's State Senate seat, Assemblyman Robert Rodriquez of East Harlem, City Councilwoman Inez Dickens, a longtime Rangel ally, and former mayor David Dinkins, who, at one point yelled out that Rangel was, in fact, younger than he.

When asked, Rangel said he was not seeking the endorsement of President Obama, but would welcome it. Later, he said, "You're not going to see a picture of any bill the president has passed that I'm not there. The very first bill that came out, came out of my committee, under my chair."

When a reporter from Univision asked whether race may drive a wedge between Puerto Ricans and Dominicans, Rangel said it was a "sensitive question."

"It's very difficult for someone not to say 'This is my turn and I'm passing,'" he said. "Of course, there are a lot of older people who understand that you have to build relationships and trust... [S]ome people jumped the gun because of their ambition and others jump the gun because so many people encouraged them to do it."

Later, when asked about what seemed to be a clear reference to Espaillat, Rangel said, "I didn't mean to say that, but I do know that there are a lot of people who hear voices to tell them to do things, but they really need hearing aids."

So was he talking about Espaillat?

"No, no, no," Rangel said. "I'm saying all of us, politically, feel that way."

UPDATE: Espaillat, drawing attention to Rangel's physical challenges today, said in a statement, "I’m glad to learn that Rangel is up and about because this must be a campaign where we vigorously debate ideas and issues that affect the people in our district.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated which lawmaker commented about the congressman's age.