UPPER MANHATTAN — On their last full day of campaigning, the leading candidates for the 13th Congressional District seat tried to convince voters in Upper Manhattan and the Bronx that experience was the factor they should use to decide who they want to be their representative.
Rep. Charles Rangel, who has held the seat for 42 years and has said this will be his final re-election campaign, said he deserved a 23rd term because of the experience his longevity provided.
"If you had a good horse and it was old and it kept running and kept winning and kept bringing back what the owners wanted, why would you trade him in for a colt that has no idea where the track is or who's in charge of anything?" Rangel asked at a meeting with residents of Lenox Terrace, the middle class apartment complex where he lives.
State Sen. Adriano Espaillat, who is challenging Rangel for a second time after losing to him by just more than 1,000 votes in the 2012 primary, said Rangel had been in office too long. After Rangel was censured for ethics violations in 2010, Espaillat said the congressman had become ineffective.
"Experience is good, but if you're not bringing results, it's time for change," said an upbeat Espaillat while shaking hands with voters outside the subway station at 116th Street and Lexington Avenue Monday evening.
The bitter campaign, which included accusations of race-baiting, modulated between a frenzied pitch and bouts of nostalgia from Rangel as he talked about the end of his political career two years from now if he pulls out another victory.
In the afternoon, Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez was shouted down by members of the New York Association of Independent Taxi Drivers during a Washington Heights press conference where they endorsed Rangel.
Rodriguez crashed the press conference to criticize Rangel for receiving an endorsement from a group he said opposes efforts to reduce traffic deaths on the same day Mayor Bill de Blasio signed 11 bills into law as part of his Vision Zero plan to reduce traffic fatalities.
Fernando Garcia, president of the group that represents 2,000 livery and green cabs, said the organization was opposed to some rule changes that he felt hit the drivers with unfair fines and points on their licenses.
Surrounded by his neighbors from Lenox Terrace a few hours later, Rangel was reflective.
"When I was ill a couple of years ago, for the first time I realized there were exciting things that could be done with my wife, kids and grandkids beside my passion for politics," Rangel said.
The end of the campaign saw Rangel pick up steam in the form of a NY1/Siena College poll that shows him leading Espaillat by 13 points. Also running for the seat are the Rev. Michael Walrond, pastor of First Corinthian Baptist Church in Harlem, and Bronx activist Yolanda Garcia. Both are far behind in the polls.
Endorsements for Rangel also came in from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Public Advocate Leticia James, who is the first African-American woman elected to citywide office, along with civil rights leader Jesse Jackson.
Voters of the district could hear President Bill Clinton, who endorsed Rangel last month, sing his praises in a 53-second automated message that spoke of how Rangel has served the district for "40 years now" and reinforced Rangel's campaign theme that his longevity is not a hindrance.
"We need to keep him fighting for us," Clinton said in the message.
Siena College pollster Steven Greenberg said 57 percent of voters feel that Rangel's age gives him the "wisdom and experience" to do well in Congress compared to 32 percent who found that his age might make it difficult for him to do a good job.
"Voters see Rangel's experience in a positive light," said Greenberg. "The voters don't see Rangel's age as a problem. They think it gives him the experience and the leadership they want."
Rangel touched on his age yesterday when he told a story about how during the last primary he showed up to an event at a friendly Democratic club using a walker and a supporter told him it would have been better if he hadn't come. Rangel has said an infection of the cartilage in his spinal disks hobbled him two years ago.
Not this time.
"I feel so great that no, it's not hard," Rangel said when asked if he was working harder than expected this election. "It was much more difficult when I was discharged from the hospital and had a walker."
Espaillat, 59, said he, too, was feeling "energized" and was not deterred by Rangel's talk of experience.
"He's been here for far too long," Espaillat said about Rangel to a voter at the subway.
Espaillat was joined at the Lexington Avenue subway stop by supporters City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr.
"I flipped it this time. It's going the other way," Espaillat predicted to another voter.
Kenneth Sherrill, professor emeritus of political science at Hunter College, said Espaillat has reason to be optimistic despite the polls.
"One of the things that makes this race unpredictable is that polls indicate it is not close. People are most likely to come out and vote when the race is close and they think their vote will make a difference," Sherrill said.
About 15 percent of eligible voters participated in the 2012 primary and Greenberg said he expects a similar turnout Tuesday. "With a 15-percent turnout, it doesn't take much to move the numbers," Greenberg said.
Rangel has the Harlem political machine he has built over the last four decades and union support from 1199/SEIU Healthcare Workers East and DC 37, the city's largest municipal workers union, to help him drive voters to the polls. Espaillat has the support of the Working Families Party and the United Federation of Teachers.
"The campaigns have to operate as if they don't know what turnout will be and do intense 'get out the vote' efforts," Sherrill added.