Members of the Barack Obama Democratic Club packed into a room in Manhattan’s Church of the Intercession last week. The church, located on West 155 Street, is almost directly in-between the northern Manhattan neighborhoods of Washington Heights and Harlem. It’s a perfect middle ground for a political club that draws its members from the diverse communities that call these neighborhoods home.
The club and the church are also located in the heart of the congressional district represented by Congressman Charles Rangel, who was first elected in 1971, during the Nixon administration. Rangel is a political fixture in both the city and in Washington DC, even as the communities he represents have changed significantly.
Years of mostly Latino and Hispanic in-migration, and African American out-migration - along with the more recent gentrification phenomenon - showed in the results of the 2010 Census. When a judge went to work redrawing congressional district lines to better reflect the new census data, she created a district that reflects the changes northern Manhattan has gone through over the decades: Far more Hispanic, far less black, and increasingly gentrified.
These changes, as well as the residual taint Rep. Rangel has acquired from corruption allegations (he was ultimately cleared of almost all of the ethics charges made against him), has led to a field of primary contenders seeking to oust him. None is a more serious threat than state Senator Adriano Espaillat. He was at the Barack Obama Democratic Club meeting to ask its members for their endorsement.
"This neighborhood has come a long way but we need to do more," he said. "We could change the political culture and the political landscape for upper Manhattan for the next 20 years."
The club bought Espaillat’s pitch.
Espaillat made history in 1996 when he won an incredibly close Assembly election to become the first Dominican representative to serve in Albany. In 2010, Eric Schneiderman left his state Senate seat to become attorney general. Espaillat beat three other Democrats to win that seat, which stretches from Riverdale in the Bronx, through the heavily Dominican neighborhood of Washington Heights, down to the 86th Street 1 train station.
Mark Levine, one of those candidates Espaillat defeated in that race, said his congressional campaign represents the future of the new congressional district.
"I think in voting tonight, our club made a very strong statement that we're looking towards the future in this district," he said. "We see Senator Espaillat being a uniquely strong voice for that vision, and in a unique position to build a multicultural coalition in a very diverse district."
As multicultural as Espaillat’s campaign may end up being, the decision to run most certainly came down to the rise of a singular culture in the district. In 2000, the district Rangel represented was about forty eight percent Hispanic. Now, it’s around 55 percent.
But seeing Hispanics as a uniform voting bloc is a mistake says Adam Clayton Powell the fourth. His father, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., represented greater Harlem before Charles Rangel, paving the way as the first African American member of congress from New York. His son, who is also of Puerto Rican descent, tried to unseat Rangel in 2010, but received less than a quarter of the vote.
He says the idea Hispanic voters will come out against Rangel is highly unlikely: "Sure, there's talk this district is more Hispanic now, but these are the same Hispanics that have been voting over and over and over again for Charlie Rangel - in some cases as the only congressman they've known."
Looking at some of the early endorsements Rangel has received from local politicians supports Powell’s point. In the mostly Puerto Rican area of East Harlem, both Assemblyman Robert Rodriguez and state Senator Jose Serrano—both of whom are of Puerto Rican descent—have thrown their support behind Rep. Rangel.
Despite the obvious racial narratives, supporters of the campaigns downplay the role race and ethnicity will play in the election. The issue, says Espaillat supporter Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez, is which candidate is better at representing the whole district.
"I think we should not look whether the candidate is black or Latino in order to be elected," he said. "This is a moment that after someone has served a district for so many decades, for the period of time that Congressman Rangel has served... I think it is time for change."
While Rangel’s opponents often point to his four decades in office as a negative, to Rangel supporters such as Assemblyman Keith Wright, the time the Congressman has logged in the nation’s capital make him an invaluable asset for all of northern Manhattan.
"Congressman Rangel has represented all neighborhoods, all ethnic groups, all religions in upper Manhattan quite, quite well," he said. "I think every one of those groups have been awfully proud to have called him their congressperson."
The reality is Congressman Rangel’s career is going to end sooner rather than later. He’ll turn 82 just days before the primary election on June 26. After four decades, communities that may be proud of Rangel as their representative see a new source of pride in electing on of their own.
Antonio Cabreja is a 30-year resident of Washington Heights after coming here from the Dominican Republic. Standing by his vending table on St. Nicholas Avenue and 181st street, he says it’s time for change.
"The Latino community supports Adriano because he has been doing his job," he said in Spanish. "[Rangel] did his job, but he has already worked long enough. It’s time to open the office for other people. And Adriano can be the substitute."
Additional reporting by Anna Sale, Yasmeen Khan and Walyce Almeida