On Tuesday, voters casting their ballots in the Democratic primary in a New York congressional race will end up giving the victory to the incumbent who’s become synonymous with his district, or helping his challenger make history.
U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel, who is 84, is in perhaps the most nail-biting political race of his life as he tries to hold on to the seat he has held for 22 terms. His main challenger, state Sen. Adriano Espaillat, came surprisingly close to defeating Rangel in the 2012 Democratic primary, losing by just 1,000 votes.
This time, Espaillat, who is 59, has the kind of political backing he didn’t have in 2012, including the endorsement of some leaders who were behind Rangel when the two men faced off last time. A recent poll, NY1/Siena College, showed Rangel with 13 points over Espaillat.
A Rangel loss, and Espaillat’s win, would be significant on multiple levels.
It would be the end of a political era, the end of a reign of an outsize figure in the Harlem district — a longtime political center for African Americans, with a rich cultural history.
A win for Espaillat would also be a chapter of the changing demographics of the 13th district, where Latinos now predominate, accounting for 46 percent of eligible voters, compared with 34 percent for African Americans, 17 percent whites and 3 percent Asians, according to the National Institute for Latino Policy.
Espaillat would make history if he won in the November general election, where Democrats generally have an advantage. He would be the first Dominican-American to serve in Congress.
Rangel's district, originally created in 1942 to encompass most of Harlem to ensure an African-American would win a seat in Congress, has seen a Latino majority for the past several years as the district lines were redrawn to include parts of upper Manhattan and The Bronx.
Rangel has been dogged with scandals that have undermined his clout. He was censured in the House in 2010 for ethical violations that led to his losing his post as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee.
Many of New York’s most powerful politicians are throwing their support behind Rangel.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Sunday voiced his support for Rangel, an endorsement that came with less than 48 hours to go before the polls open.
In endorsing Rangel, Cuomo said his "experience, seniority, and steadfast commitment to improving the lives of New Yorkers continue to make him a critical voice in standing up to the Tea Party extremism that is threatening to take over Washington."
Rangel has also gained endorsements from Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand as well as former President Bill Clinton.
Espaillat has been endorsed by City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and City Comptroller Scott Stringer. Campaign Manager Jesse Compoamor pointed to those endorsements and others in responding to the Cuomo announcement, saying, "Adriano Espaillat was 1,000 votes away from unseating Congressman Rangel in 2012 as an insurgent with no political support. Two years later, the call for change is even louder."
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who once managed a Rangel campaign, has stayed out of making any endorsements in the race, and chided Rangel for referencing Espaillat's ethnic background and saying that he was running because the district had become increasingly Hispanic.
In that incident, Rangel accused Espaillat of running on little more than being Dominican.
In a televised debate, Rangel said: “Just what the heck has he actually done besides saying he’s a Dominican?”
“This young fellow…woke up one morning, and found out there were more Dominicans in the Bronx added to it,” said Rangel, “and his ambitions allowed him to believe that he should be the first Dominican” in Congress, according to published reports.
Espaillat pushed back at Rangel, accusing him of stooping to ethnically-charged insults to discredit him. Espaillat said that is was Rangel who was making the political contest about race and ethnicity.
Political experts say, however, that despite the racial and ethnic overtones in the primaries, blacks and Hispanics have a strong alliance.
The experts say they share many of the same concerns regarding education, healthcare and safety, according to DNAInfo New York.
Also running in the Democratic primary, but seen as having the longest shot, is Rev. Michael Walrond, an associate of the Rev. Al Sharpton and pastor of First Corinthian Baptist Church.
Walrond has taken both his opponents to task for exploiting race in their campaign. He said they were engaging in "entitlement politics" and "race-baiting.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.