UPPER MANHATTAN — It had threatened to spark a race war — a bitter showdown between black and Latino voters in Upper Manhattan that would set the stage for "20 years of nuclear political war."
Instead, some prominent Latino leaders, including key early Espaillat backers, are throwing their support behind the longtime Harlem politician instead of the up-and-coming star who would become the country’s first Dominican-American congressman.
Most visible is Dominican-born Maria Luna, a Democratic district leader and longtime fixture in Washington Heights, who is backing Rangel despite having appeared by Espaillat's side at rallies ahead of his announcement and having served as one of seven members of Espaillat’s Congressional exploratory committee.
"Charlie's an incumbent and as a district leader I will not support somebody turning against an incumbent," she explained. "I think Charlie has done a good job for us."
Luna said that, while she would have endorsed Espaillat in a run for a new, majority Latino district, the effort was never intended to take the seat from Rangel, who has represented Harlem, the Upper West Side, Washington Heights and Inwood for more than 40 years.
When Albany was mulling how to redraw congressional district lines in accordance with new Census data, Espaillat lobbied hard for the creation of a new, majority Hispanic district linking upper Manhattan, the northwest Bronx and parts of Queens, which would have preserved Rangel’s seat in Harlem.
But the courts decided otherwise, lumping all of upper Manhattan into a single district that is now more than 50 percent Hispanic — a situation Espaillat had earlier warned would set the groundwork "for 20 years of nuclear political war" between Latinos and blacks.
But as uptown leaders are forced to take sides, allegiances are proving more complicated than a simple break along ethnic lines, demonstrating the enduring power of Rangel's legacy despite his 2010 censure for a series of ethics violations and a severe back injury that has put him out of commission for nearly two months.
At least one other member of Espaillat’s exploratory committee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, will also not support Espaillat in the primary against Rangel, DNAinfo has learned.
Political experts agreed that it is "highly unusual" for members of a candidate’s exploratory committee to endorse rival candidates.
"It's very unusual and it's not helpful," said veteran Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf. "It shows disunity within a campaign."
Espaillat's campaign downplayed the decisions.
"We understand that different individuals will make different decisions on whom to support, and we will continue to make our case for everyone's support in our quest to bring bold and new ideas to Congress on behalf of Manhattan and Bronx voters," a spokesman said in a statement.
"The senator will always be grateful to the hundreds of supporters and volunteers who have made his candidacy possible, particularly those who willingly place their names on an exploratory committee."
Rangel has also received a wave of support from Hispanic leaders with Puerto Rican backgrounds, including Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., East Harlem Assemblyman Robert Rodriguez, and State Sen. Jose Serrano Jr.
"While I have a great deal of respect and admiration for Sen. Espaillat, my support for Congressman Rangel is longstanding," Serrano said in a statement. "Charlie is a proven leader who has been a tireless advocate for the people in his Congressional District."
The break has led some to speculate the race may, in fact, do more to exacerbate tensions between Puerto Ricans and Dominicans than Hispanics and blacks.
Other potential supporters, including one who may be vying for Espaillat’s endorsement in his own political fight, are also still hanging on the sidelines.
Upper Manhattan Assemblyman Guillermo Linares, the country’s first Dominican elected to public office, said he is still debating who to support.
"At this point I am consulting with the leadership of the community with how I approach what is now unfolding politically," said Linares, who also said he is "seriously considering" a run for Espaillat’s Senate seat Wednesday night.
But others are already on board. Dominican-born City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez, who represents Inwood and Washington Heights, has declared his support for Espaillat, as has Dominican-born Assemblyman Nelson Castro, Espaillat’s former chief of staff, who represents the West Bronx.
Democratic District Leader Mark Levine, who challenged Espaillat in 2010, also formally announced his endorsement late Wednesday night after his Barack Obama Democratic Club of Upper Manhattan voted overwhelmingly to back Espaillat, 38-to-2.
"This club is looking for leaders who can bring us together, and I think they found that in Adriano," he said after the vote.
But Espaillat supporters insisted that Rangel’s share of early endorsements from leaders uptown should not be read as a sign that his base is weak.
Levine said it is expected for incumbents to garner early support, but that as time goes by, the scales will equalize.
"I expect there will be a lot of news in the coming weeks," said Levine, who said he also believes that fears over a black-Hispanic showdown have been overstated.
"I think that’s always a risk, but I think that, in the end, it’s not going to come down to that," he said.
"I think the winner of this race is going to be the one that builds the most diverse coalition," he added. "It’s really going to come down to much less a question of people’s loyalties and much more their vision of leadership."
"It doesn’t matter if we are black, white, Asian or Latino, Dominican or Puerto Rican. All of us want to preserve federal housing, to see more money coming in," he said.