Ron Kahlow: Charlie Rangel, Redistricting, and the New York Closed Primary

Who says primaries are not important? Tell that to the candidates and incumbents vying for New York’s US House seats. The 2010 census reduced the number of US House seats for New York from 29 to 27. The redistricting of these newly-redrawn districts means a new shuffling of the cards for the candidates and incumbents vying for these reduced number of US House races.

In the 2010 primary, only 18% of voters turned out for the New York Primary. The turnout this year could be even worse because, in January, a Federal judge moved up the primary from Sept. 11 to June 26. New York voters became accustomed to having a primary after Labor Day. The change in date can only further hurt turnout. So, possibly fewer voters will determine who might be elected to Congress.

Currently three-quarters (21 of the 29) of New York’s U.S. House seats are currently held by Democrats and only one-quarter (8 of the 29) by Republicans. Of the 27 newly-created districts, there are 10 traditionally held Democratic seats (Districts 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 13, 16, 18, 19, 23) being hotly contested. Many contests have between 3 to 5 candidates seeking a place on the November ballot. The Republicans will only have 5 contests on the primary ballot and they are a lot simpler with only 2 candidates in each contest. Three Republican US House district races are selecting a candidate who will attempt to unseat an incumbent Democrat. Two races are selecting a Republican for a traditionally-held Republican district. They also have three candidates hoping to unseat Democratic incumbent senator Kirsten Gillibrand.

Probably the most interesting contests in the New York Primary is New York’s 13th Congressional District, where Democrat Charles Rangel, who was the incumbent from the pre-redistricted 15th District now has to win the primary in the new 13th District. The old 15th District was basically the Harlem neighborhood.  The new 13th District, which is still centered in Harlem, is no longer primarily African-American and has changed dramatically. The District has ballooned to cover all of Upper Manhattan, and extends into the Bronx. The old 15th District was close to 80% African-American, while the new 13th is only about 36% African-American and has a majority-Hispanic voting-age population.

U.S. Representative Rangel has been in the U.S. House since 1971 (i.e., for 41 years) and is age 81. In 1971, he defeated Adam Clayton Powell Jr. by a razor-thin 300-vote margin but has won handily every election since, garnering over 95% of the vote in most elections. He is the third most senior member of the House and Chairman emeritus of the powerful Ways and Means Committee. That seniority has allowed him to deliver millions of dollars to Harlem. But, he now faces four challengers in the upcoming primary election. Whoever wins this primary contest probably will be elected to Congress in this Democratic District.

In the new 13th District, Rangel is facing one of the toughest campaigns of his political life. He faces four very strong candidates.

Probably Rangel’s biggest threat comes from Adriano Espaillat. Espaillat is a Dominican-American and the only elected official among Rangel’s four challengers. He probably will obtain the majority Latino/Hispanic vote in the District. El Diario, the oldest Spanish language newspaper in New York, and is one of the most read publications in the 13th Congressional District, has endorsed and praised Espaillat’s work on behalf of poor and middle-class New Yorkers and said he would be a strong voice on immigration, healthcare, and other critical issues. Also, helping Espaillat is former candidate Vince Morgan. He withdrew from this race and endorsed Espaillat on April 10th.

But, Joyce Johnson also poses a significant challenge. Johnson ran against Rangel and came in third to Rangel and Adam Clayton Powell IV in the 2010 primary. At that time, The New York Times editorial board endorsed her over Rangel. She is a long-time activist, a former local Democratic district leader, and has spent many years in New York City government. She’s smart and is a graduate of Howard University with a degree in microbiology.

Another worthy opponent is Craig Schley. Schley is a highly-motivated 48 year old NYU Dean’s List Scholar and Harlem activist who built his reputation by opposing the 125th Street rezoning in 2008. This is his third time challenging Rangel. His campaign theme is to oppose the status quo. It may be dangerous to under-estimate an African American Bobby Kennedy type candidate.

The last of the challengers is Clyde Williams. Mr. Williams is probably the least threat to Rangel. He too is vying for the Latino vote but unfortunately Espaillat has the endorsement of most Latino leaders and newspapers. His strength comes from his political experience as domestic policy adviser to former President Bill Clinton at his foundation and, he more recently, worked for the Democratic National Committee.

It also doesn’t help Rangel that, in November 2010, the House Ethics Committee found him guilty of 11 counts, including failing to report rental income and improper use of a rent-stabilized apartment and soliciting charitable donations from people with business before Congress. In December 2010, the House voted to censure Rangel 333-79. Censure is the most serious House punishment short of expulsion but imposes no specific restrictions on Rangel. Rangel was hoping for just a reprimand. In March 2012, Rangel agreed to pay a $23,000 civil penalty for using a rent-stabilized apartment as a campaign office.

The biggest factor going for Rangel is his impressive political networks and fundraising. But more importantly, the four challengers will split the anti-Rangel vote, which may give Rangel the victory. Too many names on the ballot may be too much for voters and the Rangel name has been around forever.

So, for voters in New York’s 13th Congressional District, voting in the June 26th primary is probably more important than voting in the November 6th general election. Certainly each vote will carry more weight in determining who goes to Congress for the 13th District.

But, in the end, maybe the apathetic 13th District New York voters are right. The primary election will achieve nothing. Rangel will represent the New York 13th Congressional District, not because he was the chosen candidate of the people, but because he will get the most votes when the anti-Rangel vote is split between four other candidates.

New York’s archaic primary election will deny voters a real choice between Rangel and his strongest opponent. No Republican could pose a serious challenge in November. However, if New York were to adapt an open primary system, as California has done, the top two vote getters would appear on the November ballot, even if they are in the same party. This would give voters a real say in whom their representative should be. But that is not to be!

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