U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), fighting to hang on to his congressional seat of more than four decades, went for the jugular in a debate against his opponent in the June 24 primary.
Rangel, whose upper Manhattan and Bronx district has gone from being primarily African-American to being largely Latino, accused his challenger, state Sen. Adriano Espaillat, of running on little more than being of Dominican heritage.
In the debate, which took place Friday and aired on WABC-TV in New York on Sunday, Rangel said, “Just what the heck has he actually done besides saying he’s a Dominican?”
To come here and spew division is not becoming of you and your title as a congressman. You should really apologize.
- State Sen. Adriano Espaillat, to Rep. Charles Rangel
“This young fellow … woke up one morning and found out there were more Dominicans in the Bronx,” said Rangel, who is 83, according to published reports. “His ambitions allowed him to believe that he should be the first Dominican” in Congress.
Espaillat, who is 59, pushed back at Rangel, accusing him of stooping to ethnically-charged insults to discredit him. Espaillat said that it was Rangel who was making the political contest about race and ethnicity.
“To come here and spew division is not becoming of you and your title as a congressman,” said Espaillat while looking at Rangel, who avoided looking back at him. “You should really apologize.”
Espaillat came within about a thousand votes of beating Rangel in the 2012 Democratic primary. Many observers proclaimed it the biggest political fight of Rangel’s life.
In recent years, Rangel has been dogged with scandals that have undermined his prestige. He was censured in the House in 2010 for ethical violations that led to his losing his post as chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee.
City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who in the past supported Rangel but now has endorsed Espaillat, defended the state senator.
“Adriano has a long record of achieving for New Yorkers and there is no need for these kinds of comments in political discourse,” she said when the debate was over.
A third candidate, the Rev. Michael Walrond, who is running for office for the first time, scolded both lawmakers during the debate.
"Both of my opponents have used divisiveness as a strategy," said Walrond, according to published reports. "I think at some point we have to transcend the pettiness and divisiveness and put the people first."
Rangel continued hammering away at Espaillat, saying that he had not participated in more than half of the votes in the state Senate.
“There he goes again,” Espaillat said. “The fact of the matter is I’ve passed over 70 pieces of legislation in Albany.”
If Espaillat succeeds, he would essentially cruise in the November general election since the district is heavily Democratic. As Rangel suggested, Espaillat would also become the first Dominican in Congress – a milestone for a community that has been growing, in size and political power in the last two decades.