The 40-year Congressional career of Representative Charles B. Rangel seemed to come apart over the last year and a half, amid an unrelenting swirl of accusations…that he dodged taxes, hoarded rent-stabilized apartments and accepted corporate-sponsored junkets to the Caribbean.
Suddenly, the genial, gravelly voiced prince of Harlem became a symbol of malfeasance and self-dealing Washington insiderism. Republicans talked of building their midterm election strategy around him. Democrats returned his campaign contributions. And Mr. Rangel, 79, relinquished the chairmanship of the powerful Ways and Means Committee.
But back in his Congressional district, a very different attitude has emerged: a fierce determination that Mr. Rangel, whatever his transgressions, should end his public life on his own terms and be given one last term.
That sentiment is frustrating his Democratic challengers and propelling Mr. Rangel, who formally announced his candidacy on Sunday, into a surprisingly strong position just months after predictions of his demise.
“When it’s time for him to go, he will make that decision,” said Jackie Rowe Adams, 62, a Parks Department employee and union local leader who grew up in Harlem. “He’ll leave gracefully.”
“That time,” she said, “is not now.”
Mr. Rangel’s re-election prospects are all the more striking given that incumbents around the country are imperiled, as voters seethe and approval of Congress plunges to its lowest point in decades. The talk in Harlem is not of ethics investigations and potential penalties, but of dignity — Mr. Rangel’s and, by extension, Harlem’s.
Assemblyman Keith L. T. Wright of Harlem, the chairman of the Manhattan Democratic Party, said of Mr. Rangel, “He can’t go out like this.”
Now, he said, “It’s about protecting and enhancing the legacy.”
No formidable opponent has yet emerged, and the Democrats who are trying to challenge him are struggling to raise money and excitement.
“He wants one last shot, and frankly, most of the political establishment seems ready to give it to him,” said one of the challengers, Vince Morgan, a 41-year-old banker who argues that the district needs new energy.
Mr. Rangel acknowledged that he did not want to leave office with an ethical cloud over his head. “It would be awkward,” he said.
During a wide-ranging interview on Saturday, he invoked athletes like Muhammad Ali, and said, “If they needed one more chance to go out at the top of their game — I buy that.”
He added, “This is not the time to be hanging up the gloves.”
Of course, no independent polls have been published that measure Mr. Rangel’s support, and political fortunes can always turn. One big unknown is when findings will be issued by the House Ethics Committee, which is probing the congressman’s rent-stabilized apartments, his failure to report income from his Dominican villa, and his use of official stationery to raise money for a building that will bear his name.
And even as the congressman feels buoyed by the embrace of old Harlem, he is aware that in his changing district — which spans the Hispanic neighborhood of Washington Heights and heavily Jewish areas of the Upper West Side — he needs to be attentive beyond his most loyal constituents. He is reaching out in ways that are decidedly un-Rangel-like: via Twitter, Facebook and digital town hall meetings (he calls them tele-town halls).
The congressman’s staff has invited thousands of his constituents to phone in to the conference calls, in which his distinctive, disembodied voice can be heard, holding forth on national defense, health care and the economy. Then he takes about a dozen prescreened questions. “Now remember,” he says, as his office chair squeaks audibly over the telephone line, “Press star three to ask me a question.”
During the latest session, one bedridden caller thanked the congressman profusely for creating such a convenient way for her to interact with him.
While some Democrats nationally are distancing themselves from Mr. Rangel, on Sunday in Washington Heights he was surrounded by the leaders of Manhattan’s Democratic establishment, from Gov. David A. Paterson to the speaker of the City Council, Christine C. Quinn.
Still, Mr. Rangel’s opponents believe a campaign built around the idea of giving him a valedictory term to preserve his dignity could backfire.
“It strikes me as a symbolic term, rather than a real term of public service,” said one opponent, Assemblyman Adam Clayton Powell IV, a Democrat, whose father held the seat before Mr. Rangel.
Mr. Morgan said, “Why should we give him an ego stroke when the needs of the district are bigger than the needs of this man’s ego?”
Another hopeful, Jonathan Tasini, a Texas native, is trying to use Mr. Rangel’s deep support among Democratic leaders against him; Mr. Tasini says that he is running “a campaign for the people, and in opposition to the dysfunctional political machine.”
In interviews, few voters expressed concern about Mr. Rangel’s giving up his Ways and Means chairmanship. They pointed out that he had brought much-needed money and attention to the district.
“We in Harlem need someone who can get in every room in Washington and can deliver the things that are needed here,” said Walter J. Edwards, who runs a real estate development company.
Mr. Rangel was elected in 1970 and has rarely faced a real challenge, routinely winning re-election with more than 90 percent of the vote. He declared on Sunday that he would run this campaign “as if it is very a close one, and the whole Congress is relying on this to keep the majority.”
But it is clear this has been a difficult period. In the interview, he described the last 18 months as “painful” for him and his family, and seemed taken aback by the suggestion, made by his Democratic challengers and many critics outside of New York, that he should step aside.
Displaying the bravado that is beloved by his fans and abhorred by his foes, he wondered aloud who could fill his shoes. “It’s hard for me to think of somebody better than me to do it, in the country, let alone the district,” he said.
Donors have not shared his confidence. Mr. Rangel’s fund-raising has fallen since the previous election cycle, and legal bills from the ethics investigation are consuming much of what is left. He has paid more than $1 million to Zuckerman Spaeder, a Washington firm. By the end of March, he had $635,000 in his campaign account. That amount, however, dwarfs anything raised by his challengers.
On Sunday at Boricua College in Washington Heights, Mr. Rangel beamed and occasionally pumped his fist as elected officials trumpeted his accomplishments and joined in a chant of “Run, Charlie, run!”
Upon leaving the event, the congressman stopped to talk to reporters. As he was peppered with questions about the ethics inquiry, the absence of his Congressional colleagues at his announcement and his rationale for running again, he told reporters that he remained fully engaged and energized.
“Hey, when I get tired, it’s time to leave,” he said.
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