What’s at Stake in the Nasty Charlie Rangel–Adriano Espaillat Rematch

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Photo: Spencer Platt/2012 Getty Images

It was bound to be bitter, this rematch between Charlie Rangel and Adriano Espaillat, two years after the ancient Harlem congressman hung onto his seat by 1,086 votes. But as a brutal final weekend of campaigning looms, leading into the Democratic primary vote on Tuesday, even some of the people getting paid to fight this battle have soured on it.

“We knew it was going to be ugly and didn’t want to be at the center of it,” says an operative for a labor union that is marshaling troops for one of the combatants.

“I regret incredibly taking this race,” a strategist on the opposite side says. “This campaign can’t be over soon enough.”

There have been plenty of heated and absurd episodes. Rangel, in one debate, used his opening statement to fake a cell-phone call and mock Espaillat. The state senator’s camp claimed a Rangel supporter crashed an Espaillat rally while carrying an “unconcealed weapon” (none were found). At another debate Rangel erupted, “Just what the heck has [Espaillat] actually done besides saying he’s a Dominican?” which earned the 84-year-old congressman a scolding about the inappropriate injection of race and ethnicity from Reverend Al Sharpton. Al Sharpton!

All the dramatics are being deployed to win a fairly negligible prize. Whether Rangel returns to Washington for his  23rd term or Espaillat goes south for his first, the representative from New York’s 13th congressional district will be in the political minority, stuck in a house ruled by right-of-center Republicans.

Which is not to say there’s nothing at stake. There's Rangel’s pride, and his ability to end his political career on his own terms. There's Espaillat’s attempt to become the first Dominican-American elected to Congress. And, more significantly, how fast the city’s political tectonic plates realign.

If Rangel wins, it preserves a bit more of what’s left of the old-guard black establishment. If he loses, Sharpton and others, like State Assemblyman Keith Wright, will jockey to fill the void.

On the challenger’s side, though, the person with the most to gain could be Melissa Mark-Viverito. The new City Council speaker has endorsed Espaillat. What’s crucial, and complicated, is whether she can deliver votes from her home district, in East Harlem, where Mark-Viverito isn’t especially popular: Last September she limped to re-election, scoring just 35 percent in the Democratic primary. Now Espaillat is counting on the speaker to add Puerto Rican votes to his Dominican base.

“If his margin comes from East Harlem, where Rangel did pretty well two years ago, then she can take credit,” an Espaillat ally says. But in the fractious world of next-generation city politics, Mark-Viverito may profit simply by having made an effort. Her backing of Espaillat has put her in alignment with Manhattan State Assemblyman Robert Rodriguez and Bronx leaders Carl Heastie and Ruben Diaz Jr. – all of whom have been rivals in other races. “Win or lose, she’s building relationships and making peace in her backyard,” a Democrat says. It might not last, but any increase in harmony to come out of this contest would be the biggest upset of all.