A Contentious Reelection Battle in Harlem for Charlie Rangel

The longtime congressman is again in a highly competitive race with challengers Adriano Espaillat and Michael Walrond.

Posted: 03/27/2014 03:16 PM EDT

Charlie Rangel, Michael Walrond, Adriano Espaillat (Photos: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images; Courtesy of National Action Network; Andy Jacobsohn/ MCT/LANDOV)

It promises to be one the most closely watched and highly contentious primaries of the 2014 election season, largely because it will determine the fate of Congressman Charles B. Rangel, a Democrat who has represented Harlem since his election in 1970.

The 83-year-old congressman is facing some stiff competition in the Democratic primary. His rivals include Adriano Espaillat, a state senator from northern Manhattan who came within a few percentage points of defeating Rangel two years ago, and the Rev. Michael A. Walrond Jr., the pastor of one of the largest and fastest-growing churches in New York City.

As is often the case in New York City politics, race is a decided part of the political discussion in this race. Rangel, who is a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus, represents a district that has had an African-American incumbent since Adam Clayton Powell Jr. was first elected to Congress in 1944.

Espaillat is seeking again this year to be the first Dominican-American member of Congress. As a result of redistricting after the 2010 Census, the congressional district was redrawn with a majority Latino population, causing many observers to suggest two years ago that the longtime congressman might not prevail.

Proving again the difficulty of beating an incumbent, Rangel prevailed in that 2012 race with 45 percent of the vote to Espaillat’s 39 percent. Yet, this year’s primary has many of the congressman’s supporters concerned once again, largely because of the presence of Walrond. The 42-year-old minister is known as a dynamic speaker who has attracted a huge following at the First Corinthian Baptist Church in Harlem.

The June primary is seen as tantamount to victory in a district that is one of the most Democratic-leaning areas in the nation.

Rangel doesn’t seem to share any of his supporters’ concerns about his reelection prospects.

“One of the things about my political life is that there is not much more that I can do that don’t already do every day,” Rangel said, in an interview with BET.com.

Rangel said that he has been steadfast in his work as a champion of job creation, immigration reform, health care and other issues in support of the agenda of President Obama. He said he is driven to serve just one more term in Congress to continue to pursue the president’s agenda for the remainder of Obama’s presidency.

“I think this is one of the greatest presidents the country has ever had and he’s had a rough time by the tea party,” Rangel said. “Now that he’s going to use executive orders to get things done, I want to continue to be a part of his legislative agenda.”

Espaillat contends that Rangel’s desire to serve a final two-year-term is irrelevant when the district suffers from high unemployment and an escalating cost of living.

“Harlem has been the epicenter of income inequality,” Espaillat said, speaking with BET.com. “You have luxury housing on one end but a good number of people having a hard time making ends meet. You have small businesses that are being swallowed by large companies. There are a lot of needs here.”

Espaillat, who is 59, pointed out that Rangel first ran as an insurgent who defeated a longtime incumbent, the renowned Adam Powell.

“At that time, he didn’t refrain from running in order to let Adam Powell remain in office,” he said. “This is a democracy and the seat is not some inherited entitlement.”

Meanwhile, Walrond is decidedly the wild card in the race, particularly as the candidate without a political track record. Yet, his huge congregation is widely viewed as a source of potential votes, particularly from younger voters who have not been politically active. And he is an official of the National Action Network, the civil rights organization led by the Rev. Al Sharpton.

Walrond says his goal is to create partnerships between government and the private sector to create new opportunities to improve education conditions and to create jobs.

He rejects as immaterial and misguided criticisms from some in the district that he, as a popular Black minister, might well split the African-American vote and assure an Espaillat victory.

“That assumes that all Black and Latino voters will vote in the same predictable way,” Walrond said, in an interview with BET.com. “That’s not a good assumption. There are 30,000 in central Harlem who voted in the general election but not in the primary two years ago. If we get those people to vote in this year’s election, there won’t be a conversation about splitting voters.”

Walrond said his desire is to excite a grassroots group of voters who have been disconnected from politics.

“I pastor a diverse congregation and I try to speak to human needs and the commonality of our experience,” he said. “That’s more important than whether a Black, Latino or white person wins.”

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