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On the Ropes, Charlie Rangel Fights for Re-election

Image: Harlem Parade Honors African-American Army Regiment From WWII

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 18: Democratic congressman Charlie Rangel leads a march of soldiers, veterans and various other military aligned groups in the 369th Infantry Regiment Parade in Harlem on May 18, 2014 in New York City. The parade, which takes place on the historic Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, looks to celebrate the contribution African Americans and Puerto Ricans have made to military. The 369th was home to the "Harlem Hellfighters", a unit made up of both African Americans and Puerto Ricans, which fought in both World War I and World War II. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images) Spencer Platt / Getty Images

Rep. Charlie Rangel has faced plenty of political fights since becoming a congressman in 1970, but a primary challenger is trying to make this one his last.

As his home district of Harlem – historically a stronghold of African American political power – becomes increasingly Hispanic, Rangel is at risk of losing his long-held seat to 59-year-old Dominican-born state Sen. Adriano Espaillat.

The famously blunt-talking 84-year-old still sounds much the same.

"It's not that I'm an egomaniac," explains Rangel, dressed in all white and standing on the corner of 112th and Park Avenue in Spanish Harlem on Friday morning, "but the most important thing is to get people to realize how important this June 24 election is."

Image: Senator Adriano Espaillat sings while giving a thumbs up to supporters during a caravan to get out the vote in New York
Senator Adriano Espaillat sings while giving a thumbs up to supporters during a caravan to get out the vote in New York, June 21, 2014. REUTERS/Darren Ornitz (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS) DARREN ORNITZ / Reuters

Is it time for new blood after more than four decades in office?

"Well if you're winning the race, why the hell would blood have something to do with it, if you're the winner?" he says, defiant.

How does he respond to his opponent's charge that he's cozy with Wall Street?

"You know, I don't even think my opponent knows where the hell Wall Street is, to be honest with you," Rangel says.

Is the ethics scandal that cost him the powerful Ways and Means Committee gavel in 2010 the reason why he's facing such competitive primary?

"Hell no," he says.

Rangel was first elected the "congressman from Harlem" more than forty years ago. He's a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus, participated in President Richard Nixon's impeachment hearings and is responsible for bringing Empowerment Zones to Harlem, dramatically changing the neighborhood. A poll late last week shows him with a comfortable 13-point lead--much more comfortable than the 9 points of a few weeks before.

But Rangel's district -- now numbered the 13th -- has changed dramatically in recent years. Redistricting in 2010 pushed the boundary far to the north of Rangel's political base in Harlem, centered on 125th Street in Upper Manhattan. Now it includes the heavily Dominican neighborhoods of Washington Heights and Inwood up in the 200s, and also encompasses part of the Bronx. The new lines meant a new demographic makeup, with the district becoming majority Hispanic for the first time.

This, combined with Rangel's diminished power in Congress, helped leave him vulnerable. He lost his top committee post after being accused of cheating on his property taxes and illicitly using a rent-controlled apartment as a campaign office, among other infractions, though he was never convicted of a crime. In 2012, he beat Espaillat in the primary by just over 1,000 votes.

Rangel blasts VA failures 6:42

Now Espaillat, a prominent Hispanic voice in the state legislature, is trying again. Rangel dismisses him as an empty suit -- "I haven't yet found anybody, anybody, anybody, that says I'm not the best qualified, experienced candidate to return to Congress," he says. In the campaign's first debate, Rangel said of Espaillat: "What the heck has he done, besides saying he's a Dominican?"

Rev. Al Sharpton rebuked that remark as divisive; Espaillat says Rangel has focused on Harlem to the exclusion of other neighborhoods.

"I think this district feels splintered, it doesn't feel like it has a big tent where everybody can be inside," Espaillat says in an interview at his consultant's office in Washington Heights. "You know there's more than one street. There's more than 125th Street, you know, there's 181st Street, 116th Street, 135th Street, Kingsbridge," he says, ticking through streets that now are part of the 13th District.

Whether Espaillat wins depends almost entirely on turnout -- "getting out the vote, GOTV, you know, old school type of elections," as he puts it. Neither candidate is running TV ads in the prohibitively expensive English-language New York market, though Espaillat has a Spanish-language ad that features his mother. Instead, it's all about subway stops, senior centers, door knocking.

"Adriano Espaillat por Congress!" Espaillat hollers as people stream off the 6 train in East Harlem on Friday afternoon. There are some friendly faces, but many refuse to take his flyers; one man emerges from the stairwell and begins shouting, "Charlie Rangel! Charlie Rangel!" Across the street is an Espaillat sound truck covered in American flags and blaring music; eventually, the shouting man is drowned out by a noisy rendition of Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York."

Espaillat's Washington Heights campaign office showcases a more calculated get-out-the-vote effort. Plastered on the wall is a giant color-coded spreadsheet that lists, block by block, the number of voters in each neighborhood polling place that the campaign needs to turn out if they want to win. The 2012 version of this spreadsheet (also wall-sized) has been saved; on Friday, the tallies are being carefully copied onto the new version, along with the phone numbers of volunteers in each area who helped the campaign last time around. The list amounts to a demographic map of the district: In red, listed first, are areas like 4862 Broadway and West 182nd Street, where Espaillat expects to do well. On the other side of the wall are streets printed in black: West 125th Street, West 106 Street, areas where the campaign feels it's unlikely to find much support.

Image:
Rep. Charlie Rangel D-N.Y., left, speaks with constituents at a community center in Harlem, Thursday, June 19, 2014, in New York. Rangel, who represents the 13th district, is being challenged in the upcoming primaries by New York state senator Adriano Espaillat. Rangel is running for his 23rd term. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson) Julie Jacobson / AP

Also saved from last year are notes about who came to which polling place and at what time; if a friendly polling place hasn't seen enough voters turn up by a certain hour, law students stand ready to check for signs of voter suppression. There are two other candidates in the race; Michael Walrond, a pastor, is expected to draw votes from Rangel; Yolanda Garcia, to siphon some from Espaillat.

The effort makes clear why the campaign has been so focused on racial differences, though both candidates say that's not the case.

"There's always a level of pride in being the first," Espaillat says when asked how he would feel about becoming the first Dominican American elected to the House. "But that's just not enough anymore, and you really have to really do better for everybody and have a big tent approach to politics."

Says Rangel: "If we're talking about immigration, affordable housing, job opportunity, education -- how the hell is it going to be black, Dominican or Latino? It just doesn't happen. And if you were to take a look at the backgrounds of the people in central Harlem and the people in the Bronx, it's the same."

Still, Rangel has increased his outreach to Latino communities, spending Friday at a street-naming ceremony for Charlie Palmieri, who played piano for jazz legend Tito Puente, in Spanish Harlem. Many of the neighborhood's longtime residents came from Puerto Rico; Rangel is half Puerto Rican.

But it's just one stop on a packed day of campaign activities that also includes a walk through central Harlem. That's an easier task for Rangel these days, as he's recovered from a severe illness that hampered him during the 2012 campaign.

"I'll tell you one thing, whatever I'm doing," Rangel says, "there's nobody doing it better."

Ben Mayer of MSNBC's "Morning Joe" contributed to this report.