Conflict & Justice

New York Lawmaker Seeks to Unseat Charles Rangel and Become America's First Dominican Congressman

Charles Rangel has represented Harlem in Congress since 1971. For Rangel, re-election is normally a mere formality — the African-American Congressman wins with more than 90 percent of the vote. But it won't be so easy this year.

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This is Rangel's first election since the House voted to censure him for ethics violations. His Congressional district, now New York's 13th, was also redrawn this year, and the district Rangel is trying to capture went from 46 to 55 percent Hispanic. Many of those Latinos are Dominicans in the Washington Heights neighborhood.

Now, a state legislator from New York, Adriano Espaillat, is trying to capitalize on these developments and become the first Dominican-born Congressman in US history. He's running against Rangel in New York's primary on June 26th.

Espaillat emigrated from the Dominican Republic at age 9. He worked in his father's New York gas station changing tires. Espaillat went on to college and became a community organizer. In 1996, he became the first Dominican-American elected to the New York state legislature. And now he has a chance to achieve another first for Dominicans in America.

Espaillat's personal history makes for a great story, but he downplayed it when I met him campaigning near a subway stop in the Bronx.

"I think that the issues are the dominant theme in this race, issues cut across race, ethnicity, (and) religious agenda background. I think that if the rent is too high, it's too high for everybody, whether you're black, white or Latino," said Espaillat.

Espaillat said the local media are making a big deal of his background to sell papers.

"I think it's broader than that, I think it's about issues that are impacting the community."

Still, I was a little surprised that Espaillat, and his campaign staff, were steering the conversation away from his Dominican roots. After all, electing the first Dominican-born Congressman… that appeals to a lot people here.

"I think that bells would be ringing in the neighborhood in the Latino population," said Yvonne Stennett, executive director of the Community League of the Heights. "And I think that it would not only be felt here in Washington Heights, but it would be felt back in their native land as well, in the Dominican Republic."

But Stennett added, that's only among the politically engaged.

"There is a degree to which the grassroots folks are not talking about it, because they're worrying about: How do they put food on the table?"

I spent some time chatting with people in Washington Heights at local grocery stores and fruit stands. Most knew the name Adriano Espaillat. But they weren't really interested in talking about him or the election. And it's likely that most won't be voting this month. Many Latinos here either aren't citizens or registered voters; those that are, often don't vote.

So while Latinos may be a majority in this new district, that's not the number that matters, said political scientist Michael Krasner at Queens College.

"In terms of actual voters, the combination of white votes and African-American votes adds up to 51 (percent)."

Krasner said this may be why Espaillat hasn't been pushing his Dominican background too hard.

Krasner added that Espaillat isn't the great Dominican leader for Washington Heights that some might envision.

"I don't know what you would point to as a major accomplishment of his either in terms of legislation or in terms of contributions to his community. I mean, I'm sure that he gets stuff for his district, so I'm sure he does his job OK, but I don't feel like he's setting the world on fire."

Espaillat's opponent, Charles Rangel, has set the world on fire, for both good and bad. Rangel has been dogged by ethics violations. But he's also been an influential member of Congress for four decades.

That's why New York State Assemblyman Guilermo Linares is endorsing Rangel. Linares was the first Dominican-born politician elected to public office in the United States, back in 1991, to the New York City Council. (Another Dominican, Kay Palacios was elected to the City Council of Englewood Cliffs, NJ at approximately the same time.)

Linares said he has nothing bad to say about his fellow countryman, Adriano Espaillat. But, right now, he said his community needs Rangel.

"I just feel very strongly that at this particular moment, what we're facing economically, what we're facing in terms of the Republicans dominating in Washington, the Congressman (Rangel) brings the experience," said Linares. "The fact that he has been our champion for so long is clearly the type of representation we need at this point."

Adriano Espaillat said he's not bothered that his fellow Dominican is backing Rangel.

"It doesn't faze me. I have African Americans that support me, Rangel has got Latinos that support him. I've got Puerto Ricans that support me, Jewish members of the community support me."

Espaillat said this election is about bringing in a fresh leader and that Charlie Rangel has had his time.

"What will he do in two years that he hasn't been able to do in 42 years?" said Espaillat.

And while many Dominicans would celebrate an Espaillat victory, it'd be a different story in Harlem. For many there, it's unimaginable to have the cultural heart of black America not represented by an African American.

Voters in New York's newly-drawn 13th Congressional district can decide later this month on June 26th.

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