By Edith Honan
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The political fate of Charles Rangel, a once-towering figure in New York politics who has seen his reputation tarnished in recent years by an ethics scandal, hung in the balance on Tuesday as voters in his district cast ballots in a primary election.
The 82-year-old Democrat, who has represented Harlem in the U.S. House of Representatives 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.
Most political watchers still expect him to be re-elected.
"There's a job to be done," Rangel said in an interview with CNN on Tuesday. "I was there at the beginning to start it. And for my country and for my district and for my family I want to make sure I'm there to finish this job."
Rangel's opponents in the Democratic primary include state Senator Adriano Espaillat, who has strong Latino support, and Clyde Williams, who worked in the White House under former President Bill Clinton and got a boost when he won endorsements from the New York Times and the New York Daily News.
In an interview, Williams swatted down discussion that he might be angling to run in two years, after Rangel's presumed retirement.
"This is not about any time in the future. This is about right now," Williams said, adding that he was the only candidate talking about issues, which he said included unemployment, achievement gaps in education and disparities in health care.
On 125th Street, Harlem's main commercial stretch, many voters approached on Tuesday night - younger people in particular - said they felt it was time for a change.
"He's a legend. But he's everything that the Congress represents, which is complacency, just being too comfortable," said Salim Mhunzi, 27, a marketing strategist. He planned to vote for Williams who "knows how to maneuver with the DC crowd."
Others said they were solidly in Rangel's camp.
"He's been a staple in our community for years and years," said Thomas Berkley, a 53-year-old carpenter. "He's my guy. He's my man."
Once one of the most powerful members of Congress, Rangel now walks slowly through the halls of the Capitol with a cane.
The House censured him in 2010 for ethics violations, including failing to pay some income taxes, and he stepped down as chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means committee. But Rangel retained his seat in the 2010 election.
Two other House incumbents from New York have stepped aside this year, paving the way for a new generation of lawmakers. Representative Gary Ackerman of Queens and Representative Ed Towns of Brooklyn, both Democrats, are not seeking re-election.
In Ackerman's district, now 40 percent Asian-American and also heavily Jewish, Democratic state Assemblywoman Grace Meng is vying to become the first Asian-American member of New York's congressional delegation.
Meng's Democratic rivals include state Assemblyman Rory Lancman, who has made support of Israel a central issue in the campaign, and City Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley, who is hoping for a strong turnout among her working-class voter base.
In the district that Towns has represented since 1983, state Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries is touting his record of legislative achievements in the Democratic race against City Council member Charles Barron, a former Black Panther who has strong support in some of Brooklyn's poorest areas, including East New York.
Jeffries has won the endorsements of much of the Brooklyn political establishment, and his fund-raising has dwarfed Barron's. Barron has the support of Towns and the city's public employees union.
Appearing at his local polling station with his two young sons, Jeffries said he was confident he would win the district, which includes largely black areas like Bedford-Stuyvesant and the heavily Russian Brighton Beach.
"This district is incredibly vast and diverse," Jeffries said. "But there are things that unify people all across this congressional district."
On the Republican side, three candidates are locked in a race to face Democratic U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand in November: Representative Bob Turner, who last year won an upset victory to replace liberal congressman Anthony Weiner; attorney Wendy Long, who won the New York Conservative party's nomination; and Nassau County Comptroller George Maragos.
Primaries also are being held on Tuesday in Utah, Colorado and Oklahoma, while South Carolina will hold primary runoffs for both parties for a newly drawn congressional seat.
(Additional reporting by Vicki Allen; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and David Brunnstrom)