Rangel, back in D.C., embraces his role as a target of conservatives and Adriano Espaillat

Charlie Rangel. (Azi Paybarah, via flickr)
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Referring to the anti-incumbent super PAC that added him to its list of targets earlier this week, Charlie Rangel said, "I've been on enemy hit lists all of my political life. I was so honored to be on the Nixon political hit list. I was almost equally as proud to be on a hit list where Secretary of the Treasury Geithner was one of a handful with me, to be targets for destruction. And now I find out that the PAC who has a very limited number of Democratic targets has picked me as a target."

The Geithner reference was to a reported meeting of top Republicans on the night of President Obama's inauguration, when a group that included Eric Cantor and Newt Gingrich plotted ways to chip away at the Democrats' new dominance. One idea from Gingrich was to target Geithner and Rangel as tax scofflaws.

"And there's a web," added California Representative Kevin McCarthy, according to Do Not Ask What Good We Do, a new book by Robert Draper about the last two years in the House of Representatives. "There are freshmen who accepted campaign money from Rangel. They're caught in the web."

The account has become a sudden source of pride to Rangel, the 21-term congressman who has been forced to re-assert his relevance in recent weeks, while facing what might be his toughest primary challenge in decades from State Senator Adriano Espaillat, who was staked to a demographic advantage when a federal court redrew the historic Harlem district to include a majority-Latino population.

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A person close to the congressman said Rangel has been bringing up Draper's book at every opportunity, as he did to me.

Rangel was in good spirits, speaking by phone from his office in the Capitol, after having just returned after a nearly three-month absence that saw him in and out of the hospital with back pain. 

He said he expected to be walking without any help soon, and was looking forward to a positive primary race about his record in Congresss.

"I don't intend really to say anything negative about one of them, that is, the senator, because there's hardly anything he's ever done that I haven't been supportive of, including just achieving this new aspirational goal that the Dominicans had for the State Senate," he said.

And he presumes he'll be accorded the same treatment.

"I can't think of anything unpleasant that my opponents can say of my service," he said. "If you want to start a fight, you can start one. But I can't think of anything. I don't think any of them will tell any untruths, and having said that, I don't think any of them would say anything negative, except 'I want to be congressman and I think I'd be a better congressman than Rangel.'

"If I had to think of something that concerns me, it would not be what the candidates are saying, but sometimes your followers are so enthusiastic that they go overboard and it's kind of difficult to overcome that," he said.

So far, the most direct attack on Rangel has come from the Campaign for Primary Accountability, the super PAC that entered the fray this week with the promise of a "six-figure" investment, and a press release challenging Rangel's role in securing a favorable tax break for General Electric

"This is a very serious issue, but it's almost comical if you take a view of their tax policy, and where they're getting their money, it's abundantly clear that receiving an endorsement from this group--strike that, that accepting an endorsement from this group--warrants more explanation than my comments," he said.

Rangel said he wasn't worried about being targeted for his missed votes, which totaled 148 before he returned on Monday to vote in favor of a celebration for the former Hawaiian ruler King Kamehameha.

"I'm always worried when I'm not able to respond in votes, that's what people expect of me," he said. "But I'm not that concerned. When they know the circumstances and they recognize that these things happen and they know my voting record and quite frankly they recognize that when you're in the minority, as we are and have been, those votes are not nearly as meaningful in winning than normally, when I was chairman.

"But having said that, of course I would be concerned, but I don't see where it has anything to do with who is the best person to serve the new 13th Congressional District. I mean it's something that should not be overlooked, but in terms of choices that people have, I don't see how that would be relevant."

Rangel made Adam Clayton Powell's missed votes a major component of his campaign in 1970, when he was the young insurgent running against Powell, a Harlem institution who had decamped to Bimini, in part to avoid an arrest warrant for an unpaid slander settlement. I asked Rangel if he saw any parallels between that race and his own.

"No, I was too close to that situation, than I am with the decision that's being made by the senator," he said. "The senator decided for reasons that are not very clear to me and others that he wanted to run against me. I had supported him in every recent political endeavor he's had.

"Having said that, the situation that I found myself with Reverend Adam Clayton Powell, was that I was sent to Bimini by Governor Rockefeller to try to persuade Adam Clayton Powell to come home, and to remove all the impediments that would allow him to freely communicate. My wife and I went to Bimini, spoke to Adam Clayton Powell, and pleaded with him to come back to the district. And Adam Powell made it abundantly clear that he was not coming back.

"My being in the hospital with a spinal condition is far from being in Bimini, I can assure you."