Can Rangel Win the Upper West Side?

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By Dan Rivoli

Here are some words and phrases used to define the Upper West Side Democrat: liberal, progressive, civic-minded, reformer, good-government.

So how will a Congressman charged with 13 counts of ethics violations fare in the Sept. 14 primary on the Upper West Side?

If you’re Rep. Charles Rangel, probably well.

Rangel is fighting the charges against him, which stem from failing to disclose rental income from a villa in the Dominican Republic and an investment on his taxes, using House stationery to solicit funds for a CUNY center named after him, and using one of four rent-stabilized apartments as a campaign office.

Residents of the Upper West Side, which Rangel’s district covers from north of West 89th Street, are likely to stick by him as well, according to interviews with Democrats.

Before Rangel, 80, was formally charged by the Office of Congressional Ethics, news outlets reported on possible ethics violations. He also gave up his powerful chairmanship of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee in March after a House ethics panel decided he broke rules by taking corporate-sponsored trips to the Caribbean.

Yet Democratic clubs endorsed him and carried his petitions to help him get on the ballot.

More importantly, Democratic voters were willing to sign the petitions, which also included other candidates that clubs had endorsed.

“Most people had no problem signing a petition that featured his name prominently,” said one Upper West Side district leader, an unpaid elected position within the Democratic Party.

Bob Botfeld, another district leader and former president of Three Parks Independent Democratic Club, said the politically-engaged voter understands the subtleties of the charges against Rangel.

“He’s not asking for money to go on vacations or he’s building a house,” Botfeld said. “Rangel is asking for money for a City College unit. So that doesn’t bother people.”

Botfeld believes the most serious charge against Rangel is failing to pay his taxes from the Dominican villa.

Rangel’s prospects for a 21st term in the House are buoyed by his record in Congress.

“He says what I would say if I were there and he votes the way I would vote if I were there,” said Ed Sullivan, a former member of the Assembly representing Upper West Side’s Morningside Heights neighborhood for 25 years. “What else do you want in a representative?”

The votes and positions he has taken often matches the views of Upper West Side elected officials.

“One wants to look at his political history and see the good he’s done,” said Lorraine Ashman, a Democratic voter who lives on West 98th Street. “On the other hand, we’re reminded of the quote, ‘Absolute power corrupts absolutely.’”

Kate McDonough, a food writer who lives on West 97th Street, recently moved into Rangel’s district from the East Side. She has a fresh perspective on Rangel and called the charges against him “troubling.”

“I wouldn’t rule [voting for Rangel] out, but I’m hoping to find an alternative,” McDonough said.

Finding another candidate for West Side Democrats to coalesce around will also help Rangel get re-elected, several Democratic officials said.

Vince Morgan, a community banker and former aide to Rangel, jumped into the race first. Joyce Johnson is a former aide to elected officials and ran for local office twice.  Labor activist Jonathan Tasini, who ran a failed primary against Hillary Clinton for Senate in 2006, dropped his challenge to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand this year and instead is running against Rangel.

But Rangel’s biggest challenge comes from East Harlem Assembly Member Adam Clayton Powell IV. He ran against Rangel in 1994 and lost. His father Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., held the Harlem-based Congressional seat until 1970, when Rangel beat him in a Democratic primary.

But Powell has problems of his own.

He has one of the worst attendance records in the Assembly. In the last legislative session, from this January to July, Powell missed the third most sessions, with 27 absences. The two lawmakers with worse attendance records missed sessions because one was ill and the other is retiring this year to focus on her private law practice.

For a lawmaker elected in 2000, Powell has a thin legislative record.

On his Assembly website, he is listed as the prime sponsor of five bills. None of them left a committee.

Perhaps the most serious charge against Powell is his 2008 arrest on the West Side Highway on suspicions of driving drunk. His case went to trial in 2010, where jurors saw a police video of Powell taking sobriety tests and admitting that he was not “drinking that much.”

Powell beat the drunken driving charge but was found guilty of driving while impaired.

“This is not a referendum, up or down on Charles Rangel,” said Curtis Arluck, a district leader since 1979. “It is an election between Charles Rangel and a bunch of opponents…. [There is] one who is terrible and others who are unknown. Under that scenario I think he wins and wins on the Upper West Side.”

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