Rangel vs. Espaillat: A Test For Progressives

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Sen. Adriano Espaillat shaking hands with voters outside the Dyckman Street subway station

At a campaign stop outside the Dyckman Street subway station in Inwood early Wednesday morning, State Sen. Adriano Espaillat greeted voters with a handshake, his blue striped shirt and tie as crisp as the team of supporters who turned out with him in a show of strength

It’s a second shot for Espaillat, who just missed beating incumbent Congressman Charles Rangel in 2012 by about 1,100 votes. Asked about a campaign pledge which he made back in February — to campaign so hard he’d lose 20 pounds and wear out three pairs of shoes — Espaillat said he’s already working on his third pair.

Next Tuesday’s primary election may feel like déjà vu for voters in the 13th congressional district in Upper Manhattan and parts of the Bronx, but the city’s politics have shifted in a decidedly more progressive direction.

Espaillat has appeared to capitalize on that, scoring endorsements all spring from supporters on the crest of the city’s rising progressive tide. But there are signs that Espaillat’s progressive platform may have a few leaks.

“Espaillat, yes, has definitely picked up lots of progressive endorsements, but in many ways that is them prospecting, making the assumption he will actually be able to win,” said Christina Greer, a political science professor at Fordham University.

In other cases, the endorsements may be only symbolic.

Take the Working Families Party, which endorsed Espaillat at their convention in May. There are few signs that they are working to get out the vote in the Democratic primary (registered WFP members can’t vote until November). The WFP ballot line is actually held by a lawyer named Kenneth Schaeffer. If Rangel wins next week, he could still end up on the WFP ballot in the fall.

Greer said the WFP seems divided and “there are some internal division that they need to figure out.”

U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel at Caridad restaurant in the Bronx. (Brigid Bergin/WNYC)

Rangel does know how to win, having done it 22 times in the last 44 years. His backers include former President Bill Clinton, U.S. Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand and 1199SEIU, the health-care workers’ union known for their prowess in getting voters to the polls on election day.

That union gave candidate Bill de Blasio a major bump in his bid for City Hall.

Rangel has been chided for using Espaillat’s heritage as a wedge issue. But the wily veteran of the streets of Upper Manhattan is not backing down. “I wasn’t that confident when this election started, but I can’t begin to tell you, a lot of Dominicans want a Dominican in Congress but they don’t want Espaillat," he said.

Candidate Michael Walrond, far right, with volunteers in East Harlem. (Brigid Bergin/WNYC)

At the Lincoln Houses in East Harlem, a third candidate hoped that the back-and-forth between the incumbent and the challenger would create an opening for him.

Michael Walrond, the Pastor of the First Corinthian Baptist Church in Harlem, spent an hour door-knocking his way down the 14 floors of one of the buildings.

His campaign is small, but the volunteers are enthusiastic, often wearing Walrond for Congress t-shirts. For years, he said, people have been discouraged from running for this seat because of the local “machine.”

If there’s a lesson he will take away from this experience, it's that “You don’t have to get permission to run,” Walrond said.

The fourth candidate on the ballot, Yolanda Garcia, has been absent from the campaign trail.

The primary is Tues., June 24.