See the video of the debate below.
Monday night turned into a game of "spot the difference" for Harlem and Bronx residents as the candidates for the 13th Congressional district primary squared off in two televised debates.
While all five candidates appeared for the forum hosted by the Manhattan Neighborhood Network, incumbent Rep. Charlie Rangel's chair was empty while State Senator Adriano Espaillat, Clyde Williams, Joyce Johnson and Craig Schley shared the cameras at Lehman College's BronxNet public access channel.
BronxTalk host Gary Axelbank moderated the event and read a statement from a Rangel spokesperson that said the congressman was unable to attend due to a previous engagement, but Axelbank came down hard on the absent candidate, despite admittedly understanding Rangel's position.
"We reject his excuses and apologies, and in plain language, he should be here," Axelbank said on behalf of the show and co-hosts the Norwood News and Riverdale Press. "In any case, we focus now on the candidates who thought enough of the program and the people of the Bronx to join us."
Espaillat also took a moment to welcome the other candidates into the fray as he dinged Rangel for his absence.
"First of all, there was an attempt to knock these candidates off the ballot so they won't be part of this discourse," Espaillat said before he pointed at the seat on the stage saved for Rangel. "Then of course there's theres this empty chair. That's egregious."
Espaillat argued that Rangel's inability to show up was more egregious than a mistake that Williams owned up to earlier in the night. Axelbank asked Williams about his website not addressing the Congressional district's latest additions of Norwood and Kings Bridge Heights. Williams apologized and explained that the final congressional districts hadn't be finalized when the website went up.
"The Bronx is important to me," Williams said. "I know historically people have felt that this is an area of the district that people have overlooked."
[Note: The Williams campaign responded via Twitter to the accusation that it didn't feature the Bronx on its website on the night of the debate. It provided links to multiple instances where the borough is mentioned: http://tinyurl.com/6tn7plv and http://tinyurl.com/7jeff35]
Johnson was taken to task for her endorsement of Mayor Michael Bloomberg for reelection, with Axelbank asking her what the mayor had done to justify her support.
"Nothing," she said. "Absolutely nothing."
She called the endorsement a mistake and said that she had high hopes for Bloomberg on education but that "spoke a good game and did not deliver."
On the subject of education, Schley argued that talk about more bailouts and stimulus ignores the need in public education. He said that the district in particular is invested in resolving the issue of co-location for public and charter schools.
"They should have separate facilities invested in separately and not compromise the environment that our children are being learned in," Schley said.
While most of the candidates present agreed on most of the issues, there was a slight difference between the candidates when Axelbank asked the candidates if they thought marriage equality should be a federal issue.
Williams and Espaillat unequivocally said that they support same-sex marriage, while Schely compared the issue to women's rights and religious freedom. Johnson called it a states rights issue that the government should consider if it rises to the same level as the civil rights movement. All agreed, however, that there should be a national discussion on the issue.
No candidate would say that ethnicity plays a role on the race, and Espaillat denied that he is running as "a Dominican candidate, per se" and that he was proud of his diversity of his district. He added, however, that there's nothing wrong with pride in his background.
"I do think that every community is entitled to its Jackie Robinson moment," Espaillat said. He extended the baseball metaphor by saying that the that the game changed when Robinson's teammate Harold Henry "Pee Wee" Reese came out in support of the first African-American major league player.
"It was really when Pee Wee Reese put his arm around him that everybody felt that this was a moment for everybody," he said. "Not just for African Americans in baseball, but for all Americans."