UPPER MANHATTAN — As the race to unseat Rep. Charlie Rangel comes down to the wire, the candidates are making a final push to try to rally supporters and get out the vote.
"Nobody expected this to be so competitive,” said Manhattan Young Democrats New Media Director Jon Reznick. “In the past races there wasn't really a choice to make, but now you have to look closely at the candidates."
State Sen. Adriano Espaillat is widely considered to be Rangel’s strongest challenger in a newly redrawn 13th Congressional district, which has a Hispanic majority for the first time. If he wins the primary in the heavily Democratic district, he would likely become the first Dominican-American Congressman — a fact he hasn’t been shy about repeating.
“In the streets, all over the district, what you hear is, ‘We need change,’” Espaillat said during an early morning appearance on Good Day New York Monday ahead of another day of 15-hour day of campaigning at senior centers and subway stations in and around Washington Heights before polls open at 6 a.m. Tuesday.
But as race reaches its final stretch, it is also exacerbating long-standing tensions between blacks and Hispanics and Puerto Ricans and Dominicans, as well as neighborhood turf wars between Harlem and Washington Heights.
“Todo mundo coincide en la necesidad de un cambio en el Distrito 13. Vota hispano este 26 de junio. Vota por Adriano Espaillat,” read one robo-text received by residents in Washington Heights.
Translation: “The whole world agrees on the necessity of change in District 13. Vote Hispanic on June 26. Vote for Adriano Espaillat.”
Espaillat’s campaign, which has been bolstered by thousands of dollars from anti-Rangel super-PACs, denied knowledge of the text, whose origins remain a mystery.
Espaillat insists that he has been working to find support across racial and ethnic lines.
“We have a big tent approach to politics,” he said during a recent candidates’ forum held on 155th Street, the border between Harlem and Washington Heights. “We want to include everyone in our approach, rather than pitting one people or one neighborhood against the other.”
But some supporters said it’s only natural for race to be at the forefront.
“You’re talking about electing a Dominican and maybe kicking out the most powerful African American politician in America in the last 40 years,” said Larry English, 56, the former chair of Community Board 9 and long-time resident of West Harlem who is black and supports Espaillat.
He said that in any race where supporters have tried to elect an African American for the first time, they have turned to appeals of, "It’s our time.”
“Those last three days, you play every card that you can to get your vote out,” English said. “So if you can create an ethnic pride in the community, you oughta play that pride.”
Elections experts agreed the phenomenon is nothing new.
“Primaries can encourage candidates to make explicit racial appeals,” said Hunter College professor Kenneth Sherrill, who explained that voters typically use party labels to decide which candidates share their values and their stances on issues that matter most.
When party isn't a factor, as in a primary, he said voters are forced to search for other markers, “so the power of race, ethnicity, religion, gender is multiplied.”
But while many had assumed Espaillat would sweep the Latino vote, divisions between Dominicans and Puerto Ricans remain.
Rangel, whose father is Puerto Rican, received a wave of endorsements 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.
Some Puerto Rican leaders have also endorsed Espaillat, but his support remains firmly grounded in the Dominican community.
“We have never played a battle like this where the national feeling for two groups are being pitted against each other,” said Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf, who predicted a renewed focus on Espaillat’s background during his final push.
“It’s the one card that the Espaillat camp has and they will play it,” he said.
Meanwhile challenger Clyde Williams, a former aide to presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, who received the endorsements of both the Daily News and New York Times, and has also received thousands in anti-Rangel super-PAC money, has been trying to paint himself as a unifying alternative.
At a recent fundraiser called Latinos for Clyde, participants danced to Salsa music. On the turntables was one of the best known Latino hip-hop DJs, Tony Touch.
"When I look around the room, I know I have support from Dominicans, Puerto Ricans and Mexicans," said Williams, who moved to Harlem in 2001.
"People say there is a divide but that's not true. We have much more in common than not,” he said, citing as an example the high unemployment rate that black and Latino men share.
The candidates have also been playing on long-standing divides across the district, which now runs from Harlem, through Washington Heights and Inwood into sections of The Bronx.
Speaking at a rally with supporters across from the Columbia University West Harlem campus expansion site in Manhattanville last week, Espaillat accused Rangel of funneling money into West Harlem, while overlooking other parts of the neighborhoods, including the more Hispanic Washington Heights and Inwood and East Harlem.
“The so-called renaissance of 125th Street must be spread to 135th Street. It must go to 160th Street. It must go up to Washington Heights and now the Bronx,” he said, echoing earlier comments at the 155th Street forum that Rangel had treated East Harlem like Harlem’s “stepchild.”
But David Rodriguez, a consultant who supports Williams, said that Espaillat has also ignored the residents of East Harlem, the heart of Puerto Rican Manhattan, also known as El Barrio.
"You never hear from him in East Harlem,” Rodriguez said.
Another candidate, Upper West Side businesswoman Joyce Johnson, has also tried to stress the gender division between her and the opponents she has dubbed “the boys.”
“Everyone has been focused on one of the candidates being the Latino candidate,” she said, “but nobody has spoken about the obvious: I am the only female candidate.”
Still, race appears to remain on the forefront of voters’ minds.
As Johnson was campaigning recently, a black man approached and asked her, "What are you?" she recalled.
Johnson gave her name, but that’s not what he wanted.
"What race are you?" the man demanded, seeming relieved when she replied that she was African American with a family that has deep Southern roots.
"I'm going to vote for you then," he said.
Full disclosure: The owner of DNAinfo.com, Joe Ricketts, made a contribution to the Campaign for Primary Accountability in 2011.