HARLEM — When the initial results from Rep. Charles Rangel's hotly contested Democratic primary began to trickle in Tuesday night, volunteer campaign coordinator Desiree Thompkins-Harris couldn't believe her eyes.
With less than 5 percent of the vote counted, Adriano Espaillat, the state senator who was vying to become the first Dominican ever elected to Congress, had 50 percent of the vote compared to the 21-term congressman's 38 percent.
"I was bawling my eyes out. I felt like he was deserving of another term," said Thompkins-Harris, who retreated to her car from the Martin Luther King Jr. Democratic Club to sob.
But by the time she had dried her eyes, the numbers had begun to surge in Rangel's favor. At 11:30 p.m., when Rangel sped off in the front seat of a town car with his wife, Thompkins-Harris pushed her aching back and knees into a victory dance to celebrate Rangel's victory with 45 percent of the vote.
"As long as we keep voting him in, he will go back to D.C," Thompkins-Harris said. "Every year we get a different fight but his opponents are fighting a losing battle. He's the champion."
After overcoming his toughest election challenge yet where his opponents openly said the 82-year-old should have considered retirement, many Harlemites concluded that Rangel could be destined to hold the seat as long as he wants.
Over the course of the last two elections, Rangel has conquered challenges that would have knocked many candidates out of office.
Tuesday night's victory comes just 18 months after Rangel was censured by his House colleagues for ethics violations. The newly redrawn congressional district is 55 percent Hispanic, which provided an opening for a strong challenge from Espaillat. And early in the campaign, Rangel faced a back problem that hospitalized him twice and forced him to use a walker.
"What last night's victory says is that he will leave on his own terms, and anyone who wants that seat will have to wait," said political consultant Basil Smikle.
A primary victory in the heavily Democratic district means almost certain victory in the general election.
"What we've experienced in these last two campaigns is a community pushing back against naysayers. They are saying: 'He's our hero, and he will leave when he wants.'''
Rangel supporter, Eizack Akyempon, 45, stood outside of Sylvia's with a crowd of other fans and said he knew Rangel was going to win.
"If he was going to lose, it would have been last time when he had that political scandal," said Akyempon, a student. "Now, he's going to be there a long time, if not forever."
Vidail Centino, 57, a retired home health worker who is originally from Guatemala, said she didn't even consider the other candidates.
"Rangel is my choice because he's black like me," she said.
Juliana Cedeno, 56, a social services supervisor, said she voted for Rangel despite his past ethics issues and questions about his age because of his history with the neighborhood still considered the soul of black America.
"We are loyal to Charles because he has been good to Harlem. He's done a lot in terms of sticking up for the black community. He represents us and no one can take that away," said Cedeno.
Rangel's political allies, including Assemblymen Keith Wright, who is often named as a potential successor, did nothing to dispel the notion that Rangel could leave on his own terms.
Wright even went so far as to compare Rangel's decades-long tenure to that of one of the longest-serving senators, reformed segregationist Strom Thurmond, who served in office until he was 100 years old.
"Charlie Rangel may become the Strom Thurmond of Harlem," said Wright.
Former Gov. David Paterson also used a Strom Thurmond analogy as he introduced Rangel for his victory speech as "the man who ran for congress in 1970 and has been re-elected every two years."
With victory in hand, Rangel joked about his health problems during his speech.
"I hate to disappoint my opponents for misjudging the importance of medical science when it comes to being ill," said Rangel.
He did not talk about how long he intended to seek re-election, saying that he looked at the primary as "an application to extend my job for two years."
Rangel's spokeswoman, Hannah Kim, said the congressman hopped an 8 a.m. train to D.C. to pick up a hectic schedule that included a meeting of the Congressional Black Caucus, which Rangel helped found, presenting an award to former New York City Mayor David Dinkins, and voting on the transportation bill, as well as a contempt vote against Attorney General Eric Holder.
Smikle said he wouldn't be surprised to see Rangel serve through a second Obama presidency, if the president wins re-election.
"For many, the congressman is the most visible face of Harlem, still the symbolic soul of black America. If you're Rangel, you want to be there for the tenure of first black president. At this point, it's too historic for him to sit it out," said Smikle.
But it'd be foolish for Rangel supporters not to be concerned about the future. Rangel received 45 percent of the vote compared to Espaillat's 39 percent and 10 percent by former presidential advisor Clyde Williams. The voter turnout was a dismal 15 percent for the unusual June primary, which may have worked in Rangel's favor.
"His margins of victory are decreasing. If Rangel came out with under 50 percent of vote with one very strong candidate, multiple strong candidates will make the race even tougher going forward," said Smikle.
Those around the congressman described a genuine sense of relief at the victory. In the end, they said Rangel's 40-plus year record was too much too overcome.
"He literally spent 40 years of his life dedicated to this neighborhood and this work," said State Sen. Bill Perkins who described Rangel's victory in this rugged primary as an "anointing by the people."
"He had a bump in the road with this ethics situation, but nevertheless the people decided he was worthy of another chance and that, in the context of the candidates, he was the best choice," Perkins added.
Nzinga Ashely, 52, a visual arts teacher who says she was turned off by Rangel's ethics scandal, agreed. After polling five of her friends, many of whom are older, she eventually decided on a vote for Rangel.
"I can't believe I voted for Rangel. I swore I would never vote for him," said Ashley after voting at P.S. 134 in Central Harlem. "But I voted for Rangel because there is nobody else."