The man who is poised to succeed Democratic longtime U.S. Congressman Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) says he is elated to be part of a pivotal move toward a new era in New York politics.
State Sen. Adriano Espaillat, who started his life in the United States at the age of 9 as an undocumented immigrant from the Dominican Republic, said he's overwhelmed by his journey from humble beginnings to the halls of Congress that he seems certain to be walking next year.
“You can come here undocumented, and you can rise to go to the U.S. Congress,” Espaillat said in an interview Wednesday with Fox News Latino. “The American Dream is still alive.”
Espaillat won the Democratic primary last week, beating State Assemblyman Keith L.T. Wright, who was endorsed by Rangel.
It was a hard-fought win. Espaillat had run in primaries for the seat against Rangel two times before, but lost both times. When the 86-year-old representative, who has been in Congress more than 40 years, announced that he was retiring, Espaillat saw another chance to go for his longtime goal.
The 13th District was at one time largely African-American, including iconic elements of the black experience in the U.S. like Harlem and the Apollo Theater. But the district, which has seen its borders moved around over the years, now includes heavily Latino sections of Washington Heights and the Bronx. Today, the district is 55 percent Hispanic.
In the overhwhelmingly Democratic district, Espaillat is now virtually guaranteed to win the general election against Republican attorney Tony Evans.
Espaillat would be the first Dominican-American ever elected to the U.S. Congress, a milestone that is being celebrated already by his compatriots, who describe baseball and politics as the community’s twin passions.
“This opens a window of opportunity for the Latino community, the Dominican community,” he told FNL.
“I’m very proud of that obviously,” Espaillat said of making history as the first Dominican member of Congress. “But it’s not just important to become the first, it’s equally important to be the best.”
The changing of the guard – from 70 years of having African-American representation in the district to a Latino – is not unfolding without some misgivings by some in the district.
Some leaders, including Rangel, had described it as unthinkable that the district that includes Harlem would be represented by a non-African-American.
But after Wright conceded defeat, Rangel expressed support for Espaillat, and he and other African-Americans called for unity.
The diverse district, Espaillat said, “imposes a great deal of responsibility to ensure that we’re equitable across the district for every neighborhood.”
“The issues that we confront, whether you’re born in the Bronx or in Washington Heights, are similar,” he said. “We have common issues that will bring us together, and we must find the will to confront them and bring solutions to the issues.”
His priorities in Congress would be to work toward affordable housing. Espaillat said he would brainstorm with housing advocates, lawyers and other experts to find solutions.
“They’re the main issues in the district – how do you make enough money and continue to stay in New York continues to be a major hurdle,” he said.
And as someone who has lived the experience of illegal immigration and negotiating the complex system of gaining legal status, Espaillat hopes to play a key role in making immigration reform a reality.
“That’s very personal to me. It touches very deeply my soul,” he said, adding that his family came on visitors' visas and overstayed them. They returned to the Dominican Republican and worked on obtaining permanent U.S. residency there, eventually getting their green cards, he said.
Immigrants, he said, can achieve major feats in the United States if they get the chance, and he is an example. “I will make that message be very clear in Congress,” he said.