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Congressman Charles B. Rangel faces his electorate one week from today, in a heated June 24th Democratic primary. Winning on June 24th will mean virtually certain reelection in November to what he says will be his final term, while losing will end his 44 years in Congress. There are four candidates next Tuesday but it’s mostly about Rangel, with the two biggest campaign moments coming straight from his lips. Here’s a close look at the race, featuring our extensive coverage at NYTrue.com:
Wait – a primary in June? Yes. In 2012, New York’s federal primaries, for the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, were moved from September to June. Primaries for all state offices (governor, comptroller, attorney general and the state legislature) remain in September. The result is an essentially “stand-alone” primary as only four congressional districts in New York City have primaries, with only this race being competitive.
Rangel, first elected in 1970 in a close race over Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., has been one of the leading African American politicians in the country. A Korean War combat veteran, he was a vocal and visible opponent of George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq at a time when many national Democrats were cowed into acquiescence, and he rose as high as Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. His power is mostly past, however, both from having been eclipsed in the Obama era by other African American leaders, including the Rev. Al Sharpton, and by his personal misdeeds, including his failure to pay taxes on a villa he owns in the Dominican Republic and his use of House stationary to solicit contributions to a CUNY center named after him. 2010 brought his resignation as Ways and Means Chair and censure by the full House. He’s still a powerful presence in his district, however, skilled in retail politics in a way that few are and a sentimental favorite to his base. At 84 years old he remains a masterful political performer.
Adriano Espaillat, a state senator and former state assemblyman with 18 years in the New York State legislature, is the leading challenger. He ran against Rangel in 2012, losing by 1,000 votes. Having emigrated from the Dominican Republic at age 9, his electoral hopes depend on a strong showing among the District’s significant Dominican community and a good performance with the District’s Puerto Rican voters. He’s a solid presence in his state senate district and among the Dominican-American community, but his legislative record is unspectacular. He’s a skilled politician, but he doesn’t quite match Rangel or Walrond’s oratorical skills.
The Rev. Michael Walrond is a Harlem-based minister in his first run for public office. Senior Pastor of the First Corinthian Baptist Church, he leads a church of about 9,000 members. He’s a powerful, dynamic speaker. He’s also close to Al Sharpton, serving as head of the ministers division of Sharpton’s National Action Network.
Yolanda Garcia, a Bronx resident, is on the ballot but has been reported as not having a campaign website, office or paid staff, and does not appear to be actively campaigning. She’s also been described as not speaking English or living in the district. Some speculate that her candidacy was created by Rangel supporters to siphon off Dominican votes from Espaillat.
It’s really about Rangel. The candidates talk a lot about job creation and economic development, with Espaillat condemning the growth of so-called big box stores and Walrond promoting infrastructure investment, but there is not a policy issue driving the race. Instead, it’s really about Rangel and more precisely which Rangel would return to office. By Rangel’s own description, it would be the “Lion of Lenox Avenue” returning to use his experience, connections and knowledge as the second-most senior member of Congress to help President Obama in his last two years and bringing benefits to the district. Espaillat unsurprisingly describes Rangel as well past his sell-by date, noting Rangel’s fall from power and more limited role post-2010. To Espaillat, a reelected Rangel would offer to the District little but nostalgia. Walrond in turn laments the economic conditions in the District and the lack of improvement during the 62 years of combined legislative experience of Rangel and Espaillat, casting himself as the true change agent.
Support & Endorsements
Elected official endorsements have mostly gone to Espaillat, including City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito (who represents El Barrio, heavily Puerto Rican East Harlem), City Comptroller Scott Stringer, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr and several other members of the assembly and city council. Rangel has long-time Assemblyman (and Manhattan County Democratic Chairman & recent State Democratic Committee co-Chair) Keith Wright behind him. Rangel has the support of former assemblyman and former rival (and son of Rangel’s 1970 opponent) Adam Clayton Powell IV. Rangel has also relied on fellow House members for support, holding a recent event with Congressman Jose Serrano of the Bronx and Congressman Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, both prominent members of the Puerto Rican community. Similarly, Rangel has hosted several members of the Congressional Black Caucus for a weekend of campaigning, including Reps. John Lewis, Emmanuel Cleaver, Terri Sewell and Gregory Meeks.
I recently asked Mayor de Blasio whether he plans to endorse a candidate in the race. His answer? No. Shortly before that, I asked Rangel whether he expected to receive either the mayor or governor’s endorsement. He suggested yes, but didn’t say so specifically. We haven’t heard whether Governor Cuomo will endorse a candidate, but stay tuned.
Another significant potential endorsement is that of the Rev. Al Sharpton. He has a long relationship with all three candidates and is an influential voice for many in the District. With Sharpton’s House of Justice located in Rangel’s district, they have had many interactions, crossing paths and cooperating on many occasions. They’ve also had a fair amount of conflict and disagreement and in the Obama era Sharpton, with his strong relationship with the President, has eclipsed Rangel. As noted above, Walrond heads the ministers division of Sharpton’s National Action Network and the two appear to have a strong relationship. Sharpton also has a long relationship with Espaillat, supporting him in 2005’s nine candidate borough president primary. It’s unlikely that Sharpton would ever endorse Rangel and, with a strong relationship with the two other candidates, he appears likely to refrain from choosing between Walrond and Espaillat. Sharpton recently hosted the three candidates at his weekly Saturday morning rally and radio show, with some harsh words for Rangel. We have a full report and video here.
The five debates have produced the two most memorable moments of the campaign.
Their second debate, held at St. Luke A.M.E. Church on 153rd Street, featured Rangel’s infamous “phone call” opening statement. Although Rangel was later defensive about it, it was a brilliant bit, humorously getting in his critiques of his rivals in the opening moments of the debate.
In their third debate, held in a TV studio without an audience, Rangel uttered his “[j]ust what the heck has he done except say he’s a Dominican?” barb directed at Espaillat. Although seemingly directed at what Rangel sees as Espaillat’s lack of legislative accomplishments, and the corollary that Espaillat’s electoral hopes depend significantly on support from the Dominican-Americans in the District, it’s been widely portrayed, especially by Espaillat supporters, as racially offensive. Rangel has stood by his statement, pointing out the widely expressed view that the 2012 redistricting adding latino voters to the district made Espaillat’s challenge viable.
The debates began at Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church (our report and the full debate are available here), followed by the St. Luke’s A.M.E. debate (our report and the full debate are available here), a debate hosted by WABC TV in their studio, a debate hosted by NY1 at Lehman College (post-debate press Q&As with each candidate are here) and a debate hosted by the BronxNet TV channel on it’s BronxTalk political talk show (post-debate press Q&As with Espaillat and Walrond are here.)
That’s the key question, of course. It’s hard to tell, but the one public poll issued so far (a New York Times/NY1/Siena College Poll released on May 21st), gave Rangel a 41%-32% edge over Espaillat with Walrond trailing at 6% and Garcia at 5% (MOE +/- 3.8%). Espaillat supporters are correct when they say “it’s a tough race to poll”, with a significant number of voters who don’t speak english, as well as more typical issues with reaching many voters.
The outcome will depend, as all elections do, on who votes. Without a driving policy issue in the race, who votes, and therefor who wins, will be a combination of voter awareness and motivation. The stand-alone nature of this primary brings an added challenge to motivating more casual voters as the typical reminders of an approaching election day, such as TV ads, a mailbox stuffed with campaign literature and campaign signs in the street, are absent. It may be a challenge for all of the candidates, but it’s probably somewhat more of a challenge for Rangel with his fading base of longtime loyal voters. Another consequence of being the only significant city race is that endorsers/elected officials will be able to devote any and all resources, such as phone banks and volunteers for election day get-out-the-vote efforts, to this race. Those resources might typically devoted to the endorser’s own race, or spread around to multiple candidates they support, but on June 24th there will be only one place to devote those resources. This seems likely to benefit Espaillat, the candidate with the most endorsements. As he looks to turnout a prospective base that contains fellow Dominicans and other latinos excited about his candidacy but who are outside his senate district and have not voted for him before, that assistance may prove critical.
Stay tuned for more of the final week of the race, including a look at labor endorsements and our prediction as primary election day approaches.
Please visit us regularly at NYTrue.com and follow me on Twitter (@jjk607). For insight into New York’s biggest issues, what counts is not just being true, but being New York True.
P.S. While all of our reports are worth watching, here’s one that gives a good look at all three candidates, as they separately talk with the press following a recent debate at Lehman College.