By Edith Honan
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Charles Rangel, a 21-term congressman and once-towering figure in New York politics whose stature was diminished by an ethics scandal, survived a vigorous challenge on Tuesday to win the Democratic primary.
The 82-year-old Democrat, who has represented Harlem in the House of Representatives since 1971 and is a founder of the Congressional Black Caucus, was running against a crowd of younger politicians in a redrawn district that is now heavily Latino.
In a defiant victory speech in Harlem, Rangel took a swipe at those who endorsed his opponents.
"If they didn't think after 42 years that I was the best qualified, I promise them that in the next two years they'll have no question about the fact that you elected the best," Rangel said.
Rangel's opponents included state Senator Adriano Espaillat, a Dominican-American 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 earlier in the day, Williams swatted down talk 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 like unemployment, achievement gaps in education and disparities in health care.
On 125th Street, Harlem's commercial spine, 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 powerful tax-writing House Ways and Means committee. But Rangel retained his seat in the 2010 election.
(Editing by Christopher Wilson and Philip Barbara)