By Edith Honan
NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. Congressman Charles Rangel, a once-towering figure in New York politics whose reputation was diminished when he was censured in Washington, is again fighting to keep his seat as a group of Democrats prepare to challenge him in a primary on Tuesday.
Rangel, who has represented Harlem since 1971 and is a founder of the Congressional Black Caucus, is battling a crowd of younger politicians in a redrawn district that is now heavily Latino. Yet most political watchers still see him being re-elected.
Rangel's opponents in the Democratic primary include state Senator Adriano Espaillat, who has strong Latino support; Clyde Williams, who worked in the Clinton White House and whose got a boost when he won endorsements from the New York Times and the New York Daily News; Harlem community activist Craig Schley, and businesswoman Joyce Johnson.
Espaillat has called the 82-year-old lawmaker the "poster child for dysfunction in Washington." And at a recent campaign event in Washington Heights, a Manhattan neighborhood just north of Harlem, Schley, a youthful former model, likened Rangel to a rotting fruit that had fallen from its tree.
Rangel has survived difficult times before. The U.S. House of Representatives censured him in 2010 for ethics violations, including failing to pay income taxes, and he stepped down as the chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means committee. Rangel also had to fight a tough battle on Election Day that year to retain his seat.
Once one of the most powerful members of Congress, he now walks slowly through the halls of Capitol Hill with a cane.
But in seeking another term, Rangel has been defiant, insisting that his experience and influence is unrivaled by his opponents. "My record is out there for what I have done," Rangel said during a contentious debate on cable television.
"If you're Rangel, when it comes to opponents, the more the merrier" because the other candidates are likely to split any anti-Rangel votes, said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion.
Miringoff also said a string of endorsements, including from the state's popular Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo, are important. "With all the controversy that's surrounded Rangel, having the Cuomo endorsement seems to suggest he is still a force to be reckoned with," Miringoff said.
While most political watchers agree Rangel is still strongly favored to win re-election, this year two other New York incumbents have stepped aside, paving the way for a new generation of ambitious lawmakers to come forward.
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