With all the talk about dissatisfaction with the political establishment as the defining characteristic of the elections this year, you might expect Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) to be especially vulnerable. Rangel, 80, has represented Harlem in Congress for 40 years and the House ethics committee recently brought 13 charges against him, including tax evasion on a Caribbean home and use of a rent-controlled apartment for campaign purposes. (And if there’s one thing New Yorkers get bent out of shape about, it’s someone hoarding precious Manhattan real estate.) Last week a New York Times poll found that 70 percent of Manhattanites want Rangel to resign or drop his bid for reelection, and a plurality view him unfavorably.
So will a reformist challenger unseat Rangel, just as he himself did to Adam Clayton Powell III, who also got mired in allegations of ethical impropriety? Probably not: as the Times notes, Rangel remains the prohibitive favorite to win reelection. But you can be sure someone will try. Rangel faces four challengers, and they are giving him his first competitive race in decades. Most media attention has focused on Powell’s son, Adam Clayton Powell IV, a state assemblyman who is an undistinguished legislator even by New York State’s notoriously low standards. But on Sunday Joyce Johnson—a heretofore unknown neighborhood activist—won the Times’s influential endorsement, giving good-government voters a candidate to rally around.
Johnson, 62, is an experienced executive, having served as director of equal employment opportunity at Seagrams and as president of the Black Equity Alliance. But instead of pulling down six figures in a climate-controlled office, Johnson spends her days out with the public buttonholing busy commuters with fliers. Johnson is attempting to unseat Rangel with a campaign staff of zero, a total budget of $80,000 and no office outside of her two-bedroom apartment. And she is not, by the standards of congressional challengers, some obscure fly-by-night candidate. She has been active in local politics, having served as district leader for a local political club and run Barack Obama’s New York State field operation in the 2008 presidential primary. This is Johnson’s third political campaign—after previous unsuccessful runs for City Council and the state legislature—and she hopefully exclaims, “The third time is the charm.” Such irrepressibility serves her well when campaigning. When greeting bleary-eyed morning commuters, “you gotta have a broad smile,” Johnson says.
Johnson wastes no time in getting down to raw identity politics. “I’m the only woman running,” she frequently offers. “A woman’s place is in the house,” she says—momentary pause—“of Representatives!”
A day in the life of a congressional challenger starts early, too early for this reporter. Johnson goes out with a volunteer to put up campaign posters at 5:30 a.m., and by 9 a.m. she’s already been handing out fliers above a subway station for more than an hour. This presents exactly the challenges you might expect, such as a Bronx man who begins shouting about how all politicians are crooks, and another man who corners Johnson’s volunteer, and then Johnson herself for several minutes, to complain about how hip-hop is teaching middle-schoolers to curse. Johnson commiserates, saying she tells her grandson not to wear sagging pants and she even mockingly imitates the bow-legged waddle that such attire causes. Now at least she got one vote out of this, right? Alas, he does not even live in the district.
Things only go downhill from there. As Johnson walks along the street she stops in front of a box of the West Side Spirit, a community newspaper, and squints at the front-page endorsement of Rangel, which is news to her. The endorsement is a testament to the powers of incumbency, which go beyond name recognition and fundraising advantages. The Spirit supports Rangel on the grounds that, despite having given up his chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee, a congressman with Rangel’s tenure can pull more strings for his district. She shrugs it off and traipses down to the Whole Foods, where she wants to stand outside handing out her fliers, but is immediately chased away by the bellowing noise from jackhammers at a construction site across the street. “I’ll start my door-to-door,” she concludes.
New York’s 15th District, encompassing most of Upper Manhattan, is the country’s smallest district geographically. Rangel is such a fixture in the area’s politics that even Johnson says she is “running for Charlie Rangel’s seat,” when identifying herself to voters. For all the eager dissection of which races will flip in November, the vast majority of congressional districts are, like the 15th, one-party states. In the 15th there are three main constituencies: African-Americans, Latinos, and white liberals. None of them vote Republican. Tuesday’s Democratic primary will be the de facto election.
As in most congressional districts, getting attention as a primary challenger is no small feat. Johnson says the hardest part has been fundraising: “I have more donors than in my previous races but lower donations. That’s an indicator of the economy,” she explains. Her total paid media has consisted of ads in the West Side Spirit. Instead, Johnson says, she has relied on “social media, Facebook, and Twitter,” although she cannot remember her Twitter handle. (A volunteer maintains her Twitter account.) What other weapons does the candidate have in her arsenal? Pure retail politics: shake a voter’s hand, tell him why he should vote for you, and if you’ve convinced him, do your best to make sure he comes out on Tuesday.
To hear the responses from residents, you would think that everyone is registered and will vote. Don’t believe it. Primaries in off-year elections are notoriously low-turnout events, and Tuesday is likely to be no exception. The district counted more than 173,000 votes in November 2008, but Johnson thinks 60,000 votes in this year’s primary is about as high she can hope for. That would amount to fewer than 10 percent of the district’s residents. That means Johnson must waste a lot of time and energy pursuing people who won’t vote, a problem that is compounded in Manhattan by the fact that many passersby don’t even live in the district. Always one to find the silver lining, Johnson says, “there are more people at least saying they are going to vote than 10 years ago, especially young people. They used to say, ‘I don’t vote,’ but I think Obama did inspire them and will keep them engaged.”
Campaigning in Manhattan poses its own unique challenges. In a move worthy of the scruffiest guerrilla-marketing campaign, Johnson talks her way into a high-rise apartment building on the pretense that she is visiting a friend who lives there, a trick she says she frequently employs, most recently the day before in the same building. The building is the kind of well-situated affordable-housing development that New Yorkers are loath to leave, so it is filled with retirees whom Johnson cannot meet by standing at the subway during rush hour. Only a half-dozen apartments into her route, Johnson gets accosted by a security guard who says the building superintendent wants her to leave. Simultaneously, an elderly lady opens her door a crack to dramatically fling out into the hall a flier Johnson had just slid under the door. “You’ve called at a bad time!” declares the frail-looking woman in the doorway. After the confusion recedes, Johnson goes to the basement to debate with the super, a harried-seeming man with a Latino accent who is in the middle of some carpentry project. Johnson pulls rank as best she can, noting, “I’ve been here [in the neighborhood] a lot longer than you have”—but to no avail.
Apartment buildings are not the only New York institutions Johnson may be feeling shut out by. Many of her former colleagues in Democratic politics, from State Sen. Eric Schneiderman and U.S. Rep. Jerry Nadler to President Obama, have declined to endorse her. “The establishment sticks with the establishment,” says Johnson. But, with a tone of winking mock certainty, Johnson adds, “Two years from now they’ll be doing the same with me.”