HARLEM — In his first public appearance since suffering a back injury in early February, Rep. Charles Rangel used a walker to enter the room and sat in an office chair for the entire event but said he was ready to take on the toughest election challenger he has faced during his four decades in office.
"There's a day certain I'll be up and around and enjoying the campaign," said Rangel, who blamed his back problems on a virus that infiltrated worn cartilage between his spinal discs. He said he was treated with antibiotics.
"I have often joked that at my age I don't buy green bananas," Rangel, 81, said later with a laugh.
The injury has hospitalized him twice and caused him to miss 103 votes since Feb. 9, according to GovTrack, including votes on the budget and transportation aid.
Rangel's biggest name challenger, State Sen. Adriano Espaillat, alluded to Rangel's recent health problems.
"I’m glad to learn that Rangel is up and about because this must be a campaign where we vigorously debate ideas and issues that affect the people in our district," he said in a statement.
Surrounded by a large portion of Upper Manhattan's political contingent, including former Mayor David Dinkins, Rangel called Espaillat, a "good man" and said he even understood and sympathized with the reasons behind his candidacy.
"It's a terrible thing to get involved in a race to cause your friends to have to take sides because of their concern about their culture rather than the quality of leadership," Rangel said.
But Rangel said he still has the clout and experience required to be a congressman, citing his work in helping President Barack Obama to get legislation through Congress and also organize the small business event he spoke at, which featured the head of the U.S. Small Business Administration.
He hinted that Espaillat may have "jumped the gun" by challenging him for the seat.
"I do know there are a lot of people that hear voices that tell them to do things that really need hearing aids," Rangel said.
Espaillat joined the race for the 13th Congressional seat after a panel of federal judges did not comply with requests from Latino leaders to create a district that could be won by someone of Dominican heritage.
Instead, the judges largely kept the former 15th congressional district, whose seat Rangel has held for 21 terms, intact and expanded it further into the Bronx. The Hispanic composition of the district increased to 55 percent from 46 percent.
Espaillat said the decision would cause political "nuclear war" among blacks and Latinos in Northern Manhattan. That has not materialized as prominent Latinos, including Assemblymen Robert Rodriguez and Guillermo Linares, stood behind Rangel and alongside longtime Rangel allies Assemblyman Keith Wright and Councilwoman Inez Dickens at Tuesday's press conference.
Dickens said she hopes the race doesn't destroy the black and Latino coalition in Northern Manhattan.
"We have all the same issues, health care, education, co-locations in our school," Dickens said. "Whether we are in East Harlem, Central Harlem, Washington Heights, we have the same issues. I hope it doesn't polarize our communities because we've been working together."
Rangel also took the time to once again quash rumors that he would leave office early if re-elected and try to hand the seat over to Wright.
"I wish people would not infer that I'm crooked and I plan to develop some plan where you vote for me and you get Keith Wright in the morning. That's not right," Rangel said.
He also defended his campaign's hiring of Moisés Pérez, former head of Alianza Dominicana, a Washington Heights-based community development nonprofit that serves Upper Manhattan. Pérez resigned last year after a city investigation questioned the group's finances.
Rangel said he was "lucky" to have Pérez who has a "moral, persuasive following."
"People have been talking about it for 10 years but there is no deal," Wright said.
He also dismissed questions about Rangel's health.
"The man is actively engaged, he's funny, he's brilliant, he's smart, intelligent, he has a handle on all the issues. Quite frankly, he's doing everything you would want a congressman to do," said Wright, who cited several older politicians.
"Let's not forget a guy named Strom Thurmond."
Thurmond turned 100 during the last of his 48 years in the U.S. Senate.