At a small business development seminar in Harlem this morning, Congressman Charlie Rangel made his first public appearance since injuring his back in February.
The 81-year-old Rangel was fully possessed of his raspy voice and general humor, despite a back injury that hasn’t fully healed. The Congressman did not stand at all during the entire public appearance.
Today’s press conference, almost three months in advance of a June 26th Democratic congressional primary in which he is expected to face a serious challenge from Dominican-American State Sen. Adriano Espaillat, was designed to help allay fears about his physical well-being.
Rangel, in a red tie and white shirt cuffs monogrammed with the initials “CBR,” sat in a swivel chair in front of a podium during the small business seminar, and rifled through a binder with a U.S. Presidential seal on it.
For the press conference, his aides placed a table in front of his chair for reporters’ microphones, ensuring the Congressman would not have to stand to take questions.
“I’ll be out there,” Rangel said, in response to questions about how his health would impact the campaign.
Doctors, he implied, “they have their own timetable.”
“And they had this darn thing that was supposed to be over. What it is, is I’ve never had a backache in my life, but if you’re not nice to me I’ll put you on a list and wish you one. Because what happened was, at a certain age, all of us have the cartridge(sic) that separates the spinal disc and they wear out,” Rangel said.
“Well, I had no idea, and had no pain coming from that, but one of the viruses found out it was vulnerable and bang! It went in there, and we thought we’d gotten it all out, so they went back in there and so now, I’m all beaten up on by antibiotics. But no, they’re certain that I’ll be up and around and enjoying the campaign.”
Rangel’s mention of a virus gives context to what had previously been reported as an injury sustained while moving furniture, but a campaign spokesman couldn’t say exactly what Rangel had been diagnosed with or what virus he’d contracted.
Health questions dispensed with, Rangel moved on to Espaillat. The senator’s primary challenge was understandable, Rangel said.
“In terms of the campaign, well, I guess if you really want to set out as to what you think is wrong with government and you have a case to be made, then, every two years that what the elections are all about,” he said, describing Espaillat’s candidacy as an inevitable side effect of the democratic process.
“I certainly have to be sympathetic to any person or group of people that believe that their particular culture, language or background should be in the Congress, and the City Council and I’ve always supported that because that’s what America is all about,” he said.
A reporter asked, “On the campaign some people see this as the first time you have a pretty strong opponent in the form of Adriano Espaillat. Is that a fair assessment?”
“Yes it is.” Rangel said.
“You think he’s pretty strong?” the reporter asked.
“I think he’s pretty strong. He’s a good man; he’s done a lot of good work for the community.”
Rangel’s district was redrawn in the new Congressional maps so that it’s more than 50 percent Hispanic and roughly 20 percent Black. The Congressman was concerned the new political maps could create long-lasting unrest among different ethnic political factions.
“Before we get involved in who’s black and who’s white and who’s running for what, let’s try to make certain that when this campaign is over that there’s no permanent damage being done politically. For those of you who are older, this place used to be a mean place for district leaders,” Rangel said.
“Whether you came from the south, whether you came from the Caribbean, whether you came from Puerto Rico, it was mean and families stopped talking with each other and some don’t even talk to each other today. We cannot afford the luxury of doing that,” Rangel said, smacking his hand on the table again.
A reporter pointed out that Dominican-American Assemblyman Guillermo Linares had not yet decided to endorse either candidate in the race. “Do you see that as a good thing?” a reporter wondered.
“No, no, no, it’s a terrible thing to get involved in a race and cause your friends to have to take sides because of their concern about their culture, rather than the quality of their leadership,” Rangel said, apparently unaware that Linares was in fact standing exactly behind him.
“This happens with every group and I only hope that with the integrity of the people that you’re talking about, that we’ll all be able to say that we’re one family and we’re working together.”
“Congressman, Mr. Linares is standing right behind you,” someone said.
Rangel, limited in his range of motion from his low-seated position, swiveled as much as he was able and looked up at Linares.
“Hey, Oh my god! I’m glad I said the right thing!”
Rumors are circulating that Rangel plans to retire mid-term, in a strategy to help choose his own successor, possibly Assemblyman Keith Wright. Rangel dismissed that idea.
“How do you do that, because you know I’ve heard a lot about that too,” Rangel joked, gamely. ” Do you have a formula that you pass on and say this is your seat? Let me make it clear,” he said, once again smacking his pam on the table.
“There are a lot of people that figure that I’ve been around so long that they have to create questions when they really know the answers to most of them. The fact is that if I went to my constituents and asked for two more years, it means, that they trust me enough to serve for two years. There’s no one that I love dearer more than Keith, he’s worked hard, but elections are elections. I wish people would not infer that I’m crooked and I plan to develop some plan where you vote for me and you’re going to get Keith in the morning,” he said.
“I mean, that’s not right.”
Would the Rangel-Espaillat race create lasting divisions between Dominicans and Puerto Ricans, another reporter asked?
“That is a very difficult and sensitive question,” Rangel said.
“In the civil rights movement, when it was to the benefit of the Democratic party that blacks stayed and supported white congress people because they would have more political power, fathers and mothers couldn’t tell their black children to wait because ‘the man is such a nice person,’ so that it’s very difficult for someone not to say, this is my turn and I’m passing,” he said, referring to Espaillat.
“Of course there are a lot of older people that understand that you have to build relationships and trust, and it’s not that this is not your turn, it’s a question of working out so that everyone doesn’t feel, or that no one feels that they’re behind,” Rangel said.
The Congressman suggested some candidates think it’s “their turn” prematurely.
“Some people jump the gun because of their ambitions. Others jump the gun because so many people encourage them to do it. But I’m certain whether we’re talking about Adriano or not, it’s not an easy choice for him. And I said it to him and others, there’s nothing that this campaign can say or do, that’s going to cause me to think anything derogatory because of one person’s ambition,” he said.
Rangel fielded a few more questions and the press were herded out of the conference room. After that, as Capital New York’s Azi Paybarah reported, the Congressman “left with the help of a walker.”
Espaillat, responding to Rangel’s appearance, emailed a statement: “I’m glad to learn that Rangel is up and about because this must be a campaign where we vigorously debate ideas and issues that affect the people in our district.”
Trackback from your site.