I’m not a fan of Congressman Charles Rangel, but I was able to explain to my incredulous father why so many politicians were willing to support him. Rangel is in his 80s, and his influence was diminished significantly two years ago when he was forced to resign the chairmanship of the House Ways and Means committee. His top opponent in the primary Adriano Espillat, has a decent resume, having served in the state legislature since 1997. Considering Rangel’s problems, it seems unusual for the likes of Mike Bloomberg, Chuck Schumer and Andrew Cuomo to endorse him in a tough primary against a qualified opponent.
There is a tremendous benefit to repaying loyalty. It profits the likes of Quinn and Cuomo to reciprocate Rangel’s previous favors, not necessarily because of anything he could do for them, but as a signal to other politicians that support will be returned, even if it’s slightly inconvenient.
Rangel also still has seniority. While Democrats will probably not get back the House in the current cycle, that’s still advantageous. In the short-term, it’s preferable to having a freshman Congressman in the seat. Although it is a bit of a double-edged sword.
All things being equal, it would be better for the Democratic party to have a new guy in the seat as soon as possible. 2012 does not look like a wave year for the party, but New York’s thirteenth congressional district will be one of the safest seats in the nation. When there is a wave election, Rangel’s successor would have a little bit of seniority over all the newcomers from districts where Republicans are currently competitive. That won’t happen if he’s elected during a democratic wave, which would mean that he would be on the same level as all the other freshmen.
The political machine may have other candidates in mind for Rangel’s seat in the future. They may not want someone willing to run against an incumbent in a primary, as that demonstrates an unsavory level of independence, as far as party leaders are concerned. Activists don’t mind primaries based on political positions, but it’s difficult to challenge Rangel from the left. As a result, those who like his record would be loathe to replace him.
In the long-term, it also helps if Rangel’s successor is younger. Rangel was forty when he was elected, and it took him thirteen terms to become the ranking member of the House Ways and Means committee. Espaillat will be fifty-eight in January, so he’s less likely to take advantage of the safe seat by sticking around until he’s one of the most senior members of the House of Representatives. This argument may repulse anyone who supports congressional term limits, but those guys were unlikely to support Rangel anyway.