Rangel-Espaillat Race Won't Hurt Black-Latino Political Bond, Observers Say
HARLEM — The increasingly bitter primary race between Rep. Charles Rangel and state Sen. Adriano Espaillat might make one think Espaillat's 2012 prediction of "20 years of nuclear political war" between blacks and Latinos in Upper Manhattan and The Bronx might be coming true.
Espaillat made that comment as the traditionally black 13th District was being redrawn to include more Latinos, a group that's growing in political clout. Conflict, it was believed then, was inevitable.
But while race has certainly been a factor in Espaillat and Rangel's 2014 rematch — during a June 6 debate, for example, Rangel asked, "Just what the heck has he done except say he's a Dominican?" — political observers say the long alliance between blacks and Latinos in the district is not in jeopardy.
"Blacks and Latinos have aligned goals on issues such as economics and healthcare because African-Americans and Hispanics have similar problems in those areas," said David Bositis, senior research associate at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that studies public policy issues affecting African-Americans.
For example, African-Americans and Hispanics have supported the Affordable Care Act, an extension of unemployment benefits during the recession and an increase in affordable child care. Also, affordable housing and access to good-paying jobs are issues black and Latino politicians in Upper Manhattan have teamed up on for years.
Assemblyman Robert Rodriguez joined fellow Puerto Rican politicians City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz to switch their support from Rangel to Espaillat.
The alliance represents a new frontier in relations between Puerto Rican and Dominican politicians and increases opportunities for Latinos to win more citywide and statewide offices.
But Rodriguez said his decision wasn't based on being Latino.
"What shifted for us is that we recognize at some point we have to make the transition to new representation," Rodriguez said.
"Ethnic politics is not what it used to be. People try to simplify it and they can't. Even in the Latino population there are differences in identity and ideology. To assume or presume people are only going to vote on ethnicity is narrow and wrong."
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.
"This is happening everywhere. Black districts are becoming more middle class and Hispanic districts are beginning to encompass a greater range of Latino ethnicities," Bositis said. "Demographics are not destiny."
According to the National Institute for Latino Policy, 46 percent of eligible voters in the 13th Congressional District are Latino, 34 percent are black, 17 percent are white and 3 percent are Asian.
"If Rangel loses there will be some personnel shifts and Dominicans will have more access to power, but they'll realize they still need to work with blacks and other Latinos," said Angelo Falcón, president of the National Institute for Latino Policy.
"It may look like there's all this division, but in reality the politics of all these groups are very much the same."
Falcón said there likely won't be a clear shift in the 13th District until Latino voters reach about 60 percent of the electorate. And then there's the influx of white people.
"Mark Levine ain't Puerto Rican or black," Vincent Morgan, a former Rangel aide and challenger, said of the recently elected white City Councilman whose Upper West Side district also includes West Harlem and a small section of Washington Heights.
Levine's challenger used racially-charged language and said Levine's election would cause "potential damage to the political empowerment of the black and Hispanic community." Still, Levine won with 42 percent of the vote.
That election "showed a new paradigm emerging of coalition building among a diverse electorate that is breaking the tradition of carving up votes by demographic group and instead building a pan-ethnic coalition," Levine said.
Even so, race plays a role in the Rangel-Espaillat campaign.
"I'm asked all the time by African-Americans why I would support a Latino for what is perceived to be an African-American seat," said Morgan, who is black and is now supporting Espaillat.
"I think that's silly because African-Americans represent less than 35 percent of the district. We have to build multi-ethnic coalitions going forward if we want people in office to represent our interests."
In the last two elections, Rangel has also faced challenges from African-American candidates looking to tap into discontent among his core group of black supporters in Central Harlem and white voters moving into the district.
In 2010, it was Morgan. In 2012, it was Clyde Williams, the former national political director for the Democratic National Committee and adviser to President Bill Clinton at the Clinton Foundation.
This time it's the Rev. Michael Walrond, an associate of the Rev. Al Sharpton who also serves as the pastor of First Corinthian Baptist Church. Walrond said both Espaillat and Rangel are participating in "entitlement politics" and "race-baiting" for their own gain.
"Nostalgia is the enemy of hope," Walrond said during a recent fundraiser. "You can't be so nostalgic about what was, that you kill the possibilities of what can be."