With a Solid Lead, Rangel Entertains on Primary Night

With a Solid Lead, Rangel Entertains on Primary Night

With a Solid Lead, Rangel Entertains on Primary Night
June 25, 2014

The lion of Lenox Avenue may not have officially roared yet, but he sure left the crowd roaring. 

When Rep. Charles Rangel and his wife, Alma, entered the gymnasium at Taino Towers in east Harlem, the rather drab venue for his election night party, the audience buzzed with anticipation. Did his opponent, state Sen. Adriano Espaillat concede? Would Rangel declare victory? Instead, the 84-year old congressman sauntered up to the stage, embracing his horde of supporters and proceeded to launch into a meandering, off-the-cuff speech that was part stand-up comedy, part awards show emcee presentation.

"They told me how many people and friends were down here and how much press was down here, and I looked at my wife and said, 'Well, why are we upstairs?' " Rangel said as he took the mike at the podium. 

Never mind the fact that Espaillat had yet to concede to Rangel, despite trailing him by roughly 1,800 votes. Or the fact that when Rangel took the stage, 20 percent of the voting precincts had not reported their results. Rangel was there to liven up the mood, official victory be damned.

And, boy, did the party need a spark. The atmosphere in the gymnasium was right out of senior prom central casting, complete with an awful deejay, who desperately needed to update his playlist, a mediocre buffet (with two different kinds of fried rice balls), and a bunch of Rangel supporters, media members and politicos standing and wandering around awkwardly, as if trying to avoid the slow dance. 

But then the prom king arrived, and Rangel put his familiar charm on display. What started out as a typical election night speech quickly veered off into a routine. He defied his political advisers, several of whom were waving their hands in the audience during his speech imploring him to stop short of declaring victory. Instead, he did as only Rangel could do: riff.

"Is one of the political advisers here?" Rangel asked no one in particular. "At what point can we declare victory? What should I do? Should I go home and have a victory party or wait until the results are in?"

He pestered the press mid-speech for election result updates: "What was that? Pass it up. 70 percent [of precincts reporting]? Do we know what precinct locations have yet to report? Pass it up!"

On his primary opponent Rev. Michael Walrond: "I want to take this opportunity to…wish Rev. Walrond whatever spiritual goals he wanted to achieve."

On another opponent, Yolanda Garcia, and her "spoiler" potential: "Yolanda Garcia, she didn’t have much to say, but she sure didn’t spoil anything." 

A political consultant standing nearby was in stitches as Rangel proceeded to roast some of his supporters. He had worked with the congressman in the past and was hardly surprised at Rangel hamming it up onstage.

"This is what he does," the consultant said. "It’s like herding cats with Charlie, you can’t script him. And he’s also smarter than the rest of us."

Despite the celebration, when the night was all said and done, after Rep. Gregory Meeks, of all people, provided the night's crescendo with a passionate chant ("The chairman has won! The chairman has won!"), after Pharrell's "Happy"—the new musical victory cigar—blared from the speakers, and after the red, white, and blue balloons cascaded out into the crowd, it is possible that for all the excitment and hilarity of the event it might not ultimately  translate into a win for the 22-term congressman. 

A 1,800-vote lead is nothing to sneeze at, but it is not exactly a convincing margin. Espaillat, who staked much of his political clout, and that of some of his supporters, on this race, will surely protest the result and there are already rumblings that the senator will file a legal challenge. Thousands of affadavit and absentee ballots still have yet to be counted, and despite Rangel's potshot at Walrond, with nearly 8 percent of the vote the popular pastor fulfilled his spoiler destiny and then some. Walrond's vote tally, with 84 percent coming in districts where Rangel was winning, no less, proves that he could potentially seize the successor baton if Rangel is reluctant to hand it to him.

But last night, there was no harm in letting Rangel have his fun. He had come a long way from the battered, scandal-scarred exhausted 2012 version of himself that could barely bring himself to campaign. On Tuesday night his energy was palpable and his laugh infectious as the sound bites rolled off his tongue.

"The question was to leave all of you down here sweating it out while we were upstairs separate from you sweating it out," Rangel said to the audience. "So, we said, 'What the heck, let’s go sweat this one out together.' "

Nick Powell