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Harlem Reverend Focuses on Rallying New Voters as He Challenges Rangel

By Jeff Mays | January 30, 2014 12:17pm
 The Rev. Michael Walrond and his supporters told Harlem Rep. Charles Rangel that it was "time to pass the baton" after 22 terms as Walrond officially announced a run for the 13th district congressional seat Wednesday night.
Walrond Announces Run for Congress
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HARLEM — The Rev. Michael Walrond and his supporters told Harlem Rep. Charles Rangel that it was "time to pass the baton" after 22 terms as Walrond officially announced a run for the 13th district congressional seat Wednesday night.

"For those who are tired of politics as usual in this community, now is the time," said Walrond, pastor of First Corinthian Baptist Church in reciting his campaign theme before an audience of hundreds of supporters at MIST Harlem.

Walrond, 42, an associate of the Rev. Al Sharpton and his National Action Network, said that he respected Rangel and all the 83-year-old had done for the district after 42 years in office, but that it was simply "time for new energy, new passion and new vision."

"We bring that," Walrond said.

Most political observers believe that Walrond's candidacy could be detrimental to Rangel, who narrowly won the Democratic primary in 2012 over state Sen. Adriano Espaillat by 990 votes.

After the 2010 redistricting, the district now reaches further into The Bronx and is 55 percent Hispanic. Many believe Walrond could draw votes from people who had previously voted for Rangel but are looking for an alternative as Espaillat attracts Latinos.

But Walrond dismissed that line of reasoning, saying his strategy was to draw out thousands of new, young voters who feel so removed from the political process that they don't even bother to vote. Only 43,000 people voted in the last primary, said Walrond.

"As long as the voter pool stays small the same people get elected year after year after year. The key to bring about change in this district and in this country is by engaging and activating our capacity to vote," said Walrond.

Rangel campaign spokesman James Freedland had a different take.

"Congressman Rangel is running for reelection because he is the best person to keep fighting for the people of the 13th Congressional District. He's not done pushing for living wages and unemployment insurance, working to pass real immigration reform, fighting for more affordable housing, delivering health care reform and standing up for veterans," Freedland said in a statement.

Even though conventional wisdom says Espaillat stands to benefit from Walrond's candidacy, the reverend lumped him in with Rangel as "known entities" of the political establishment.

"I'm not running because I'm an insider. I'm running because I'm on the outside. In fact, we've had too much inside leadership and people are still suffering, people are still struggling," said Walrond.

A spokesperson for Espaillat, who has yet to officially declare his candidacy, declined comment.

Capital New York reported earlier this week that Rangel was gearing up for a tough campaign, hiring a team of experienced consultants.

Walrond, wearing dark blue jeans, a light gray blazer and blue striped shirt with no tie, said that he's a different type of candidate.

His rhetoric slipped back and forth from straight candidate to preacher, at times working the crowd into a frenzy as if it were Sunday morning and he was standing in the pulpit of his church.

The Rev. Peter Heltzel said Walrond best embodies the "pastor politician" spirit of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., the man Rangel defeated more than 40 years ago to begin his congressional career.

Walrond left the stage after his 15 minute speech to an instrumental of Jay Z's "Public Service Announcement" and told the crowd they were going to "party" afterward to celebrate.

"He has managed to energize a lot of folks who would not necessarily come out to vote in a primary," said political consultant Basil Smikle. "While other congregations in Harlem are shaky his is growing rapidly. It says a lot about him and people's desire to have a fresh face and a new voice."

In order to win, Walrond is going to have to make inroads with voters in the Bronx, said Smikle, and walk that fine line of being respectful of Rangel's long history in Harlem, but not too respectful.

"He needs to go out and talk about a new vision of Harlem that is his but is inclusive of everyone," said Smikle.

Priscilla Nibbs, 51, a teacher and member of First Corinthian who lives in the Bronx, said Walrond was "at the top of his game" and questioned whether Rangel's age would affect his service.

Walrond, the married father of two college-age children, turns 43 in May. He said he was the first person in his family born in the United States after his parents immigrated from Barbados.

"If you've ever heard my pastor speak you would know why I say he's at the top of his game," said Nibbs.

In announcing his bid for a 23rd term in December, Rangel said he was more than fit for office.

"I feel so good it scares the hell out of me to be honest," Rangel said.