Former Enemies Seek Retiring Charlie Rangel's Blessing in New York

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After years of fractious primaries, Rangel has maintained influence over his congressional district by floating the possibility of endorsing former challengers.

By Jack Fitzpatrick, National Journal

Now that he's retiring, Rep. Charles Rangel finally has his district's politics under control.

It's become a Harlem tradition for Rangel to fight off Democratic primary challengers in personal, vindictive races. Now, some of his recent antagonists seeking to run again for Rangel's soon-to-be-vacated seat are courting his endorsement.

"I have a sense of who I would want," Rangel told National Journal. "But that person has to first show that they have support in all parts of the community. And since I have encouraged so many other people to do that, I don't want to announce who it might be."

That could include Adam Clayton Powell IV, a onetime adversary whose father once represented the district—until Rangel beat him in a 1970 primary. The younger Powell ran against Rangel in 1994 without making much noise but later waged a rough-and-tumble, ultimately losing, campaign for the seat in 2010 as Rangel faced ethics inquiries.

Since then, Powell (who has already announced his candidacy for the seat) has supported Rangel in each of his past two Democratic primaries, working his way back into Rangel's good graces.

"I don't have any expectations," Powell said. "The congressman is free to support whoever he wants and make that decision on his own. … I've heard him publicly state that I'm qualified."

And without tipping his hand as to a future endorsement, Rangel has nothing but good things to say about Powell. "He has dramatically reversed himself and has proven himself to be one of my strongest supporters," Rangel said. "There's no question in my mind he has earned right to be a candidate and to fulfill his lifelong ambitions to succeed his father."

That's a much different tone than when Rangel and Powell were opponents in 2010. At the time, Powell said in a debate, "My dad fought the system his whole career. Charles Rangel became part of the system."

Powell has plenty of competition for Rangel's affection. Clyde Williams, a former political director for the Democratic National Committee who challenged Rangel in 2012 but then endorsed him in 2014, has reportedly spoken with Rangel about a possible endorsement in 2016.

And then there's a potential candidate who's never run before: Longtime Assemblyman Keith Wright, an African-American and longtime Rangel ally. New York Democratic consultant Eli Valentin said Wright is assumed to be the most likely Rangel endorsee—but nothing's in the bag, and in the meantime, no one will run as an anti-Rangel candidate if his endorsement is in the balance.

"This is his way of keeping everyone in check," Valentin said.

Not every potential candidate has made up with Rangel, though. State Sen. Adriano Espaillat, who came perilously close to toppling Rangel in both 2012 and 2014, is the one candidate whom Rangel has essentially ruled out. In both races, Rangel accused Espaillat of running for purely racial reasons—redistricting in 2012 drew many of Espaillat's fellow Dominican-Americans into the district—and Rangel repeated that claim when asked about potential endorsements.

"In the last couple of elections, Espaillat, a state senator who has never had any complaints—as a matter of fact, who has been one of my strongest supporters—obviously saw they extended the district to the Bronx," Rangel said. "And there were a lot of Hispanics in the Bronx, and he announced and continued to announce, and I continue to win, and I suspect that he will continue to run."

Following his new friend's lead, Powell has railed against Espaillat so far during his young campaign. Earlier this year, Powell, 52, told the New York Observer that Espaillat, who is 60, is too old to run for Congress a third time.

"Adriano's a great guy, but he ought to be planning his retirement rather than Charlie Rangel's retirement," Powell told the paper.

Despite the narrow age difference between him and Espaillat, Powell stood by that criticism, tellingNational Journal that whoever wins Rangel's seat should follow in his footsteps by building up enough seniority to have significant influence in Congress, and that Espaillat would have less time to do that. Citing Rangel's former chairmanship of the House Ways and Means Committee and his father's chairmanship of the Education and Labor Committee, Powell even compared Rangel (whose 1970 win set off an intergenerational family feud) to his father.

"It's good to send someone to Congress who, if they're good enough to be reelected, they can spend 15 to 20 years there," Powell said. "That's why Rangel and my father were able to reach the chairs of committees they chaired."