It is one of the most hotly competitive races in the country. And unlike many of the most notable contested races so far this year that have been between GOP candidates, this one is taking place in a Democratic primary, in one of the most solidly Democratic congressional districts in the nation: Harlem.
By Tuesday night of this week it will be clear whether voters in New York’s 13th Congressional District will reelect Rep. Charles B. Rangel, who has represented Harlem and northern Manhattan since his election in 1970. Rangel is being challenged by State Senator Adriano Espaillat and the Rev. Michael A. Walrond Jr., the pastor of the First Corinthian Baptist Church in Harlem.
For Rangel, the stakes are particularly high. He is the longest-serving member of Congress from New York and one of the most influential members of the Democratic Party nationally. He was a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus and has become one of the most vocal defenders of the policies of President Obama.
As is often the case in New York City politics, race and ethnicity are a decided part of the political discussion in politics. Rangel represents a district that has had an African-American incumbent since Adam Clayton Powell Jr. was first elected to Congress in 1944.
Espaillat, 59, is seeking to become the nation’s first Dominican member of Congress in a district that is now more than 55 percent Latino, after the redistricting that followed the 2010 census. He challenged Rangel two years ago and came within 1,000 votes of defeating the longtime incumbent.
Meanwhile, there is the lingering question of the impact of Walrond on the race. The popular minister pastors a huge and growing congregation in the center of the district. And, as an up-and-coming African-American pastor, many wonder how his presence in the race might affect Rangel’s prospects. Also, he is an official of the National Action Network, the civil rights organization led by the Rev. Al Sharpton.
For his part, the congressman says he feels optimistic about his reelection prospects.
“I feel very good, but I can’t feel extremely good until the votes are counted,” Rangel said in an interview with BET.com. “This is a peculiar election because there is no presidential race on the ballot, no race for governor or senator. It will come down to who is most effective at getting out the vote.”
While Rangel has been bedeviled by ethics issues in previous years, they have played a far less prominent role in this year’s election. Several polls have shown the congressman with a slight advantage. But voter turnout in non-presidential election years can be notoriously unpredictable.
“Two years ago, Rangel ran in a presidential election and there are tons of casual voters who come out,” said Michael Gaspard, a political analyst in New York City, speaking with BET.com. “This year, you have prime voters and that tends to work in favor of the incumbent. At this point, Dominicans are not necessarily prime voters. “
Gaspard and others point to the uncertainty of how white voters in the district may vote, representing about 12 percent of the electorate.
Rangel has been endorsed by former president Bill Clinton, former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, among others. Meanwhile, Espaillat has been endorsed by a wide number of local officials, most prominently City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito.
While Rangel said he appreciates endorsements and that "it’s clear that my Democratic collegaues in the Congess are eager for me to return," he added: "Endorsements are great to have, and I have more than my share. But it’s the voters who will decide what’s in their best interest. That's what's really important."
Follow Jonathan Hicks on Twitter: @HicksJonathan
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(Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images)