Sharpton’s Coolness to Rangel Marks Waning of a Political Generation

The Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network reaches into 27 states. Credit Pool photo by Julia Xanthos
The Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network reaches into 27 states. Credit Pool photo by Julia Xanthos

When the Rev. Al Sharpton abruptly summoned the candidates in the Democratic primary for Representative Charles B. Rangel’s seat to the headquarters of Mr. Sharpton’s organization, the National Action Network, this month, the incumbent showed up an hour late.

Mr. Rangel, who is seeking a 23rd term in Congress, said he squeezed the stop into his schedule only after he learned his two main challengers would be there. But if his tardiness struck anyone as ungracious, it was more than matched by what Mr. Rangel received when he arrived: a none-too-veiled scolding from Mr. Sharpton for having brought race and ethnicity into the campaign.

Mr. Sharpton’s unexpected rebuke saddled Mr. Rangel with another round of damaging headlines at a time when he was already in a battle for his political life. Adriano D. Espaillat, a Dominican-born state senator whom he narrowly defeated in 2012, is mounting a more aggressive challenge this year, and the Rev. Michael A. Walrond Jr., a popular Harlem pastor, also threatens to siphon away some of Mr. Rangel’s support. The primary is June 24.

But beneath the surface in the increasingly bitter primary contest is a struggle in which Mr. Rangel, 84, the last serving member of Harlem’s Gang of Four and a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus, is fighting against time to maintain his generation’s weakening grip on political power. At the same time, Mr. Sharpton, who has never held elected office, is seeking to consolidate his own political influence in New York and beyond.

A loss by Mr. Rangel, who was elected in 1970, would put a bold punctuation mark on the end of an era in New York, and for the generation of African-American political leaders who came to power in the 1960s and ’70s. Mr. Rangel and Representative John Conyers Jr., Democrat of Michigan, are the only two original members of the Black Caucus still in Congress. The other members of Harlem’s Gang of Four were the late Basil A. PatersonPercy E. Sutton and former Mayor David N. Dinkins.

The same weekend Mr. Sharpton called in the three candidates as if hauling them into the principal’s office, three of Mr. Rangel’s colleagues in the Black Caucus, Representatives Emanuel Cleaver II of Missouri, John Lewis of Georgia and Maxine Waters of California, were in New York to help him, fanning out to churches to drum up votes and attesting to Mr. Rangel’s importance despite the ethics scandal that cost him a powerful leadership post in 2010.

“We all believe that when members have served their constituency as well as Rangel, there’s no reason for him or her to be pushed aside,” Mr. Cleaver said.

To hear Mr. Sharpton tell it, however, Mr. Rangel and other members of the old guard of black politicians find themselves in a predicament of their own making.

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Source: The New York Times | NIKITA STEWART

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