The 83-year-old congressman used his opening statement at St. Luke’s A.M.E. Church on Amsterdam Avenue, which is close to the Washington Heights and Harlem border, to pretend he was being interrupted by an inopportune phone call.
For the next few minutes, he verbally abused state Sen. Adriano Espaillat, 59, and the Rev. Michael Walrond, 42, questioning everything from Walrond's residency in Harlem and Espaillat's legislative record during his time in Albany.
"He's been there 18 years but he didn't pass any bills at all," Rangel said during his mock conversation that included the use of his cellphone as a prop.
"The reverend says he doesn't know anything about legislating," Rangel said in turning the focus of his make-believe conversation to Walrond.
Rangel then questioned where the pastor lives. "How can he register and vote in New York when he lives in New Jersey?" asked Rangel.
Both criticisms are dubious. Walrond has worked as a pastor at First Corinthian Baptist Church in Harlem for 10 years and says he moved here from New Jersey in January.
Rangel drew laughs throughout the skit until moderator Christina Greer, a professor of political science at Fordham University, said she had to "cut off" the phone call.
Both Walrond and Espaillat quickly criticized him for being insensitive, given the topic of the debate — poverty.
"Poverty and hunger are not a joking matter. This is a serious matter," Espaillat said.
Walrond said he understood poverty because he and his wife received government benefits as young college graduates with a family. He called the display a "performance devoid of substance" and the "politics of misdirection."
The skit, and Rangel's demeanor, including raising his voice during several monologues and the occasionally boisterous audience members, demonstrated the tenacious nature of the race the longtime congressman is facing for his 23rd term in the June 24 Democratic Primary.
Espaillat lost to Rangel by approximately 1,000 votes in the last primary and has garnered the support of many local politicians who endorsed Rangel in 2012. Walrond — with his youthful, enthusiastic and expanding congregation — is expected to siphon votes in Rangel's political home base of Central Harlem.
When it came to issues of poverty, both Walrond and Espaillat resumed their attacks from the first debate, saying that Rangel's policies over the last four decades have worsened the problems of poor and working class people in the 13th congressional district, which includes parts of the Bronx, Inwood, Washington Heights and the Upper West Side, on everything from jobs to housing.
Espaillat said Rangel-sponsored funding for development projects in places like 125th Street have left residents with "$8 per hour jobs" that help perpetuate poverty while ignoring large swaths of the district.
One of Rangel's signature accomplishments, the Empowerment Zone, was nothing but a bunch of "back-room deals" that misspent money on "subsidizing the rich," in Espaillat's estimation.
Walrond grew tired of Rangel talking about his legislative prowess and answered a question from John Medina, a board member of debate sponsor Community Voices Heard, about food stamp cuts by talking about how his church's food program fed thousands of people per year.
"You do not feed people with bills, you feed them with food," Walrond said.
The Safety Net Project at the Urban Justice Center was the other debate sponsor.
Espaillat proposed increasing federal funding for public housing and building large scale affordable housing developments and a technology center on the 207th Street rail yards that would be the polar opposite of the upscale housing and office space being constructed at the Hudson Rail Yards on Manhattan's far west side.
Rangel continued to focus on his seniority in Congress and experience as his main advantage and the central reason why he should be given another term, even as he was heckled when he said he was just "asking for my two year contract to be extended."
"When this debate is over we have to put up and I got the record and they don't," Rangel said.