WASHINGTON HEIGHTS — Four-decade incumbent Charles Rangel was noticeably absent from a Wednesday night forum that featured his four would-be replacements for the 13th Congressional District seat — claiming he never got the invite.
Rangel, who spent Wednesday afternoon accepting an endorsement from former rival Adam Clayton Powell IV, told reporters he was not aware of the 7 p.m. candidates' forum at the community room of Castle Village, a condo complex at 110 Cabrini Blvd. near 181st Street.
"Nobody from this group has talked to me about the debate," Rangel said Wednesday afternoon.
But organizers of the event debated Rangel's assertion — saying the group even changed the date of the event to a day the House was not in session so he could attend.
"We were trying to work around his schedule," said Julia Attaway, vice-president of the Hudson Heights Owners Coalition, an association of owner-occupied residential properties, which sponsored the event.
All four of Rangel's primary opponents were present, including state Sen. Adriano Espaillat, Clyde Williams, the former political aide to President Barack Obama and former President Bill Clinton, former Seagram's executive and political adviser Joyce Johnson and former model Craig Schley.
Rangel's absence irked some audience members, who said they expected him to be present.
Glenda Swason-Massa, who was in the audience, said Rangel should have been there to speak for himself.
"I'm very disappointed he's not here," said Swason-Massa, a former Colorado state legislator.
"I walked all the way up the hill and I just had a knee replaced," she added, hinting at Rangel's recent back problems. "If I'm here, he can be here."
Rangel's opponents also took shots at his choice to take a pass on the forum.
"The neighborhood deserves to hear from all of us," said Espaillat after the forum, in which he told the crowd that Congress was not "working for them" and that it was time to "turn the page."
Others said it didn't matter if Rangel was present — because the candidates failed to distinguish how they would be different than the man who has held the seat for 41 years.
"I think this solidified my support for Charles Rangel," said Mark Otto, an assistant principal who is considering a run for City Council next year.
"His record is proven. I know what he stands for. When you are running against Rangel you have to be pinpoint accurate and tell me why you are better."
Councilman Robert Jackson, who has launched a campaign for Manhattan borough president, said after the forum that Rangel, whom he is supporting, was clearly the better candidate.
"His experience, seniority and support in the district speaks for itself," said Jackson.
Both Williams and Johnson said they felt they distinguished themselves from the other candidates despite similarities among them on issues ranging from education to small businesses and immigration.
"The truth of the matter is I actually answered the questions," said Williams, a former adviser to Obama and Clinton.
Swason-Massa praised Williams for "talk[ing] about his ideas in detail."
"He did not give the political responses," she said.
Johnson said she distinguished herself based on her leadership style forged while rising up the ranks as a woman at Seagram.
"The Washington part is only one-third of the job. Community building here is the other two-thirds," Johnson said.
Schley said it's time for a change in leadership.
"We have new needs and a new district," he said.