HARLEM — Two challengers vying for the congressional seat held by Rep. Charles Rangel aggressively criticized the incumbent for caring more about himself than his district during a feisty first debate Thursday night at Abyssinian Baptist Church.
Rangel rebuffed jabs from state Sen. Adriano Espaillat and the Rev. Michael Walrond by repeatedly referencing his experience and relationship with President Barack Obama as reasons why voters in an ethnically, racially and economically evolving district should send him back to Washington for a 23rd term.
"Of the three of us, who has the best experience to work with the president?" Rangel, 83, asked early on, launching a theme he would turn to again and again during the hourlong debate.
Espaillat, 59, and Walrond, 42, pastor of the growing First Corinthian Baptist Church, came out swinging at Rangel in the opening statements of the debate at the church where Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the man Rangel beat for the seat in 1971, was once pastor.
Espaillat called Harlem the "epicenter of income inequality," saying that a district that was "created for the disenfranchised" had "taken a wrong turn."
Walrond said people were "weary of career politicians" who "put private interests over public interests."
Rangel didn't take the criticism lightly, questioning whether Walrond, who moved to Harlem from New Jersey in January, was actually a resident of the district after Walrond spoke about focusing more on the district.
"I wonder whether you are talking about New Jersey or New York?" Rangel said.
Answering a question from moderator Maurice DuBois of CBS News about immigration reform, Rangel said the issue was beyond the scope of Espaillat's experience as a state legislator.
"I'm the only one up here that can deal with the question of immigration. It's not because I'm so smart, it's because it's a national problem," said Rangel whose cockiness seemed to suggest that he has rebounded from the ethics trial and subsequent censure and health problems, which hovered over his last two election campaigns.
The three men will face off in the June 24 Democratic primary that will also likely determine the winner of the general election in November.
The Rev. Calvin Butts, pastor of Abyssinian and once a possible candidate in the race, said he saw in all three candidates different aspects of the district the men are battling to represent for the next two years.
"Tonight you saw the results of a changing demographic if you use Espaillat. You saw the exuberance and enthusiasm of youth and you saw the knowledgeable experience that comes with seniority in the Congress," said Butts, adding that he's not likely to make an official endorsement until June.
"One concern that I do have is that whoever is there — and maybe this betrays something — needs to be someone who can help the president," he said, apparently hinting at who he might endorse.
Walrond and Espaillat largely ignored one another, except when the pastor agreed twice with Espaillat on policy questions and when they shared a look of disbelief when Rangel said for the fourth time that he would be willing to step aside if there was someone better for the seat than him.
"If I thought for one minute that anybody was a candidate that could do a better job of working with the president, the vice president, the secretary of HUD, the secretary of the health on all the projects that we started, that we would want to see the person succeed," Rangel said.
"Believe me, I am not married to this job just to stay here until I drop dead," he added to a round of laughter from the crowd.
On issues such as charter schools, affordable housing, gentrification and rebuilding the city's aging infrastructure, the three men displayed largely similar viewpoints.
Rangel sharply pounced on a Walrond misstep when he said that infrastructure improvements was a city issue.
Walrond and Espaillat took questions on the issue as a chance to attack Rangel's record.
When Rangel spoke of a moratorium on building luxury housing in the city and a tax subsidy for renters, Espaillat said Rangel was proposing "too little, too late."
Walrond said Rangel was responsible for the gentrification of Harlem.
"You cannot critique a problem you were part of," Walrond said.
Espaillat also grew tired of Rangel's prolific Obama name-dropping. He referenced a comment Obama made in 2010 in the midst of Rangel's ethics trial that Rangel was at the "end of his career" and that he should "end his career with dignity."
"The congressman continues to go and tout his relationship with the president," said Espaillat, who lost to Rangel by approximately 1,000 votes in the primary two years ago.
"The president asked him to step down several years ago."
Later Espaillat added, "immigration reform will not be resolved at a dinner dance at the White House."
But Rangel was undeterred, using his closing statement to hammer home his plan to use his experience and seniority in Congress to help push Obama's agenda during the president's last two years in office.
"If I thought for one minute that either one of you two could go to Washington and do my job I'd be home with my wife and my grandkids and trying to make sure that I could help either one of you to do the best that you can," Rangel said.
"This is not the time to change congresspeople in this United States."
Ronald Woodward, 65, a retired city social worker who is from Harlem but currently lives in The Bronx, said he enjoyed the "strong points" from all the candidates in the debate and especially admired Walrond's "vigor" and noticed Espaillat's "dart-throwing" at Rangel.
But come primary day, Woodward said he would likely vote for Rangel.
"To say that he's been there too long is not a strong enough criticism because I like someone who has staying power — like me," said Woodward, who worked for the city for 40 years.