Rangel and Challengers Meet in First Debate To Lead Harlem

rangel-master675The NYTImes article reports that the grizzled incumbent trumpeted his experience, pounding on the table for emphasis while insisting, to laughter, that he wouldn’t cling to his seat “till I drop dead.”The two-time challenger spoke about his immigrant roots and promised to be a “unifying voice” for an increasingly diverse district.

The political novice, for his part, decried the narcissism of career politicians and condemned the incumbent as part of a “do-nothing Congress.”

On Thursday night, Charles B. Rangel, the longtime congressman from Harlem, faced two fellow Democrats in a feisty 90-minute debate, the first of the Democratic primary campaign. Mr. Rangel, 83, came back from scandals to win a hard-fought race two years ago against Adriano Espaillat, a state senator, born in the Dominican Republic, who embodies the hopes of the district’s growing Dominican population. Mr. Espaillat is challenging Mr. Rangel again, along with the Rev. Michael A. Walrond, a Baptist pastor with close ties to the Rev. Al Sharpton.

Today, because of population shifts and the redrawing of political lines, the (Harlem) district is majority Latino — a demographic change that helped Mr. Espaillat come within 1,100 votes of beating Mr. Rangel two years ago.

The debate took place at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, where Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the first African-American to be elected to Congress from New York, and Mr. Rangel’s predecessor, was the pastor in the last century. Mr. Powell’s and Mr. Rangel’s tenures in Congress, which together span nearly 70 years, coincided with Harlem’s reign as a center of black political power. Today, because of population shifts and the redrawing of political lines, the district is majority Latino — a demographic change that helped Mr. Espaillat come within 1,100 votes of beating Mr. Rangel two years ago.

This year, again, the June 24 primary is seen as a contest between Mr. Rangel and Mr. Espaillat. But it was clear on Thursday that Mr. Walrond was not ready to be counted out.

The audience, including many people who waited in a line that went around the block, seemed to be packed with his fans. They responded to his opening statement — in which he inveighed against “career and professional politicians, who have forgotten that they are called to be public servants, instead of thinking that the public is supposed to serve them” — as though it were a rousing sermon.

Mr. Espaillat, for his part, seemed to be somewhat on the defensive.

“Folks would like to promote this campaign as Dominicans versus blacks,” he said in his closing statement. “This is not ‘West Side Story.’ This is not the Sharks against the Jets.”

As for Mr. Rangel, many expected the 22-term congressman to retire this year after he overcame censure in the House of Representatives to win re-election in 2012. On Thursday, he offered a novel justification for seeking one last term, saying he wanted to stay until the end of President Obama’s second term, because he felt that he had the closest relationship of any of the candidates to the president and thus could best help Mr. Obama fulfill his agenda.

Mr. Rangel’s claims of his closeness to the president — and Mr. Espaillat’s attempts to question it — offered some of the many humorous moments in the debate.

“The congressman continues to talk and tout about his relationship with the president,” Mr. Espaillat said, after Mr. Rangel boasted that he had met with Mr. Obama three times this year.

“In fact the president asked him to step down several years ago,” Mr. Espaillat continued, to “oohs” from the audience. (He was referring to a comment Mr. Obama made in 2010, when Mr. Rangel was facing ethics charges, and Mr. Obama suggested he should “end his career with dignity.”)

Later, Mr. Rangel, in response to a question about whether he supported municipal identification cards, said, “I just would like the record to state that in the last few months I have been invited every month to the White House.”

 “If he knows the president better,” he added, tartly, of Mr. Espaillat, “that’s a different story.”

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