By Edith Honan
NEW YORK (Reuters) - New Yorkers began voting on Tuesday in a primary election that will decide the political fate of Congressman Charles Rangel, a once-towering figure in New York politics who has seen his reputation tarnished in recent years by an ethics scandal.
Rangel, who has represented Harlem 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.
Rangel's opponents in the Democratic primary include state Senator Adriano Espaillat, who has strong Latino support; Clyde Williams, who worked in the Clinton White House and got a boost when he won endorsements from the New York Times and the New York Daily News; Harlem community activist Craig Schley; and businesswoman Joyce Johnson.
Once one of the most powerful members of Congress, Rangel now walks slowly through the halls of the Capitol with a cane.
He has survived difficult times before. The U.S. House of Representatives censured him in 2010 for ethics violations, including failing to pay income taxes, and he stepped down as chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means committee.
Rangel fought a tough battle on Election Day that year to keep his seat.
Two other New York incumbents have stepped aside this year, paving the way for a new generation of ambitious lawmakers to come forward.
Representative Gary Ackerman of Queens and Representative Ed Towns of Brooklyn, both Democrats, announced they would not seek re-election.
In Ackerman's district, now 40 percent Asian 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.
On the Republican side, three candidates are locked in a race to face U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand in November: Congressman 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.
While voters approve of Democrat Gillibrand's job performance by a margin of six in 10, more than three-quarters of voters said they do not know enough about her Republican rivals to form an opinion of them, a Quinnipiac University poll found last month.
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.
In Utah, veteran U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch will face off against his Tea Party-backed challenger, Dan Liljenquist, who was able to secure enough votes at the state's Republican nominating convention to force a head-to-head primary.
Hatch, a 78-year-old senior stalwart of the Republican's mainstream branch, was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1976. Liljenquist, a former state senator, has billed himself as a face for change.
Heavily Republican Utah last elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate more than four decades ago, so the victor in the state's Republican party contest is usually considered the presumptive winner of the general election in November.
(Reporting by Edith Honan; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Vicki Allen)