Rangel Reflects on Changing Demographics of the 13th Congressional District

Representative Charles B. Rangel moved to Washington in 1971 to represent a Harlem where almost two out of every three residents were black and nearly 90 percent of voters cast their ballot for him.

Now, on the eve of retirement after 45 years and 23 terms, Mr. Rangel will return to a changed Harlem, where the black population is in decline and the number of Hispanic residents is on the rise. In his last primary race, in 2014, he won by a slim margin, managing to get less than 50 percent of the vote.

Despite the shifting demographics, Mr. Rangel, who grew up on the corner of Lenox Avenue and West 132nd Street, has remained confident that the Harlem he knows will live on.

“No matter what happens, there’s no question that Harlem will be the black capital of the world,” Mr. Rangel, 86, said in a recent telephone interview. The expansion of the 13th Congressional District into the Bronx and Washington Heights “doesn’t take away a darn thing from Harlem,” he said. “I never said that the congressional district is the capital of black Americans. I said Harlem is, and it still is.”

Mr. Rangel rejected the suggestion that any candidate might lose the congressional race because of the Latino vote. However, State Senator Adriano Espaillat, a Dominican-American, almost defeated Mr. Rangel in the 2014 primary, losing by less than a 5 percent margin, and is running again this year.

“There’s no such thing as a Latino vote,” he said. “There’s never been since I’ve been a member of Congress any political divisions in terms of what language one speaks, or where someone is born,” Mr. Rangel said.

Mr. Rangel said he is confident that Assemblyman Keith L. T. Wright, whom he has endorsed, can tap into the changing electorate of the district and win enough votes to succeed him.

“I’m only hoping, and do believe, that Keith Wright will be able to maintain that type of working together,” Mr. Rangel said, a reference to his diverse constituency..

But colleagues say the changing political landscape will pose its own challenges for Mr. Rangel’s successor.

“We live in a different uptown, it’s a different area than it was 40-something years ago when the congressman first happened,” said Elbert Garcia, who was Mr. Rangel’s communications director and policy adviser from 2006 to 2011. “There’s different challenges, it’s a different city. So, certainly, the job is different.”

For his part, Mr. Rangel said that his re-entry into private life has, so far, been a smooth one.

“The transition has been far easier and more satisfactory than I ever thought it would,” Mr. Rangel said. “I had political cataracts in my eyes and could not see what was out there because I was concerned about taking care of my constituents and keeping in touch with my colleges and passing legislation.

“But once I decided that I was not running for re-election, then my whole life became,” he paused. “my grandkids had more meaning, my kids more meaning, my wife and I have more things to think about,” he said, before quickly adding, “but that doesn’t mean I’m leaving politics.”

Mr. Rangel said that he plans to work in education after leaving office but did not elaborate. “The distance of me as a high school dropout and me as a senior member of Congress, that dash is only the G.I. Bill and education,” he said.

As he reflected over his long career, Mr. Rangel said that he was proud that even in the most recent session, he was still among prolific lawmakers when it came to passing legislation.

He also turned away the suggestion that being censured by his House colleagues in 2010 tarnished his record.

“One thing is abundantly clear, that I broke no laws and the prosecutor said that my only crime was being overzealous in trying to raise money,” he said. “I did violate House rules in terms of the campaign pages that the letter has said that I used, but there was no profits.”

“The road was sometimes a little rocky,” he said of his career, “but it never was a bad day.”