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New lines to stir up primary in NY House district

NEW YORK — Even an ethics scandal couldn't derail Rep. Charles Rangel's four-decade political career, but boundary shifts and demographic changes in his New York City congressional district could make him more vulnerable this year as he faces a contested primary.

Since the last census, Hispanics have become more than half the population of New York City's new 13th Congressional District, while the number of blacks has remained roughly the same and whites have decreased. The district's shape has shifted by losing some of its existing territory in Manhattan and picking up new territory in the Bronx.

And those differences could be in play in the race in the Democratic primary for the district's seat in Congress. Among the opponents Rangel faces is state Sen. Adriano Espaillat, the first Dominican American in the state Legislature who would become the first in Congress if he wins the June 26 primary and then the general election in the heavily Democratic district.

Political observers are loath to predict the outcome, but are quick to say it could be interesting.

"It's not that all bets are off, but some bets will have to be recalculated," said Carlos Vargas-Ramos, research associate at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College.

That's not the usual state of affairs for Rangel, who won his most recent primary in 2010 with 51 percent of the vote in a six-person field, more than double the next highest vote-getter.

Much of the area is located in what was formerly the 15th Congressional District, and been represented by Rangel since 1970 when he defeated another legendary Harlem politician, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Espaillat, first elected to the state Assembly in 1996 and the state Senate in 2010, represents some of the same neighborhoods. He formally announced his challenge to Rangel last week. Two other candidates have also declared: Former Democratic District Leader Joyce Johnson and Clyde Williams, former national political director for the Democratic National Committee.

Congressional district lines are redrawn every decade based on population numbers from the decennial U.S. Census. In the new lines, the district lost some of the lower end of what the 15th District used to include, around the area of Columbia University. It's gained on the upper end, by pushing into the Bronx.

The district is now about 55 percent Hispanic, up from 46 percent, according to an analysis of census data by the City University of New York's Mapping Service at its Center for Urban Research. The black population is roughly the same, at 27 percent, while the non-Hispanic white population has gone down, from 21 percent to 12 percent.

An analysis looking at the citizen voting age population found similar trends, according to mapping service director Steven Romalewski. In that bracket, Hispanics make up 45 percent, up from 36 percent, blacks are bout the same at 33 percent, and whites declined from 27 percent to 17 percent.

"The fact that you have changed the boundaries means this is a different district," Vargas-Ramos said.

Of course, Rangel has the advantage of long-standing incumbency. But he also has to deal with the lingering remnants of an ethics controversy that led to his being censured by the House in 2011, the most serious congressional penalty short of expulsion. Rangel was convicted of 11 ethics violations, including failure to pay some taxes and using congressional resources to raise money for an academic center bearing his name.

That public rebuke of the former chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee didn't keep voters from returning him to office in 2010, but voter Eunice Townsend wasn't sure that it wouldn't be on people's minds this time around. The retired speech therapist, walking her dogs near Marcus Garvey Park recently, brought it up but said it wouldn't affect her vote personally.

She did think that the increase in Hispanic voters could make a difference for a Latino candidate.

"I don't think it's a shoo-in," she said.

Roberto Perez, political columnist for the Spanish language El Diario newspaper, said that it wasn't a foregone conclusion that all Hispanic voters would line up behind a Hispanic candidate. A survey from the Pew Hispanic Center released last week found that a majority of Hispanics prefer to identify themselves according to their families' countries of origin, such as Dominican or Puerto Rican or Mexican, rather than under the "Hispanic" or "Latino" umbrella.

Perez pointed out that some Latino public officials have already announced their support for Rangel.

"Nobody wants to piss off the dean of the New York delegation," he said.

The candidates and their campaigns sidestep issues of racial and ethnic lines in their support.

"His passion is to represent people," Rangel campaign spokesman Bob Liff said. "That's not going to change depending on where the district lines are."

Espaillat, who has photos of himself and Rangel smiling together on his state Senate campaign website, told The Associated Press in an interview that his campaign's message wasn't just aimed at Latinos.

"Our message cuts across racial, ethnic, religious lines," he said, adding, "I think it's a big tent message that resonates."