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Some Black Harlem Leaders Worried About Election of Dominican Congressman

By Jeff Mays | July 5, 2016 8:39am
 Assemblyman Keith Wright conceded the race to State Sen. Adriano Espiallat, left, Thursday with Charles Rangel, right.
Assemblyman Keith Wright conceded the race to State Sen. Adriano Espiallat, left, Thursday with Charles Rangel, right.
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DNAinfo/Dartunorro Clark

HARLEM — State Sen. Adriano Espaillat and Assemblyman Keith Wright met at Sylvia's days after their contentious primary filled with racial tensions to declare Espaillat the winner and call for unity among blacks and Latinos.

“I want him to be successful," Wright said. "Politics is over now. It’s time to serve."

But on the heels of a campaign that relied heavily on identity politics — Espaillat touted his Dominican-born heritage and his experience as the first undocumented immigrant to be elected to Congress — some in Harlem still worry about being neglected.

Harlem voters haven't supported Espaillat in his three consecutive attempts to win a seat that was created to ensure a black representative to Congress and which has been represented for the past 71 years by black men — Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and the departing Charles Rangel.

Espaillat made it to victory with the help of voters in Washington Heights and The Bronx while Wright won the Harlem parts of the district in a tight race. And while many believe Espaillat will have to work to unify the district if he wants to stave off a strong challenger in two short years, some fear the rift may not be that easy to heal.

"Right now it's all 'Kumbaya' because everyone feels that if Espaillat doesn't build true coalitions he isn't going to survive," said one long-time Harlem political operative who, like many interviewed for this article, asked for anonymity to protect relationships. "But what if that doesn't happen? What if Adriano says 'I'm going to build a coalition but it's going to be my own coalition'?"

Brian Benjamin, the newly-elected chair of Central Harlem's Community Board 10 and an oft-mentioned candidate for elected office in Harlem, said he's heard the same concerns.

"Everyone is nervous because they don't know what he's going to do. Some people were concerned that if Espaillat won he would only focus on the Dominican parts of the district," said Benjamin, who supported Wright. "But now he has to show that's not the case. He's got to figure out a way to change that dynamic for himself."

Back in 2012 when the lines for the congressional district were being drawn by a federal judge, Espaillat and other Latino leaders were seeking a separate district that extended further into Queens that would favor the election of a Dominican representative.

Instead, the lines of the district were extended up to The Bronx to include more Latinos, prompting Espaillat to predict that there would be "20 years of nuclear political war" as blacks and Latinos fought to gain control of the seat.

In their 2014 race, Rangel accused Espaillat of relying too heavily on his ethnicity and during this primary there were accusations from Wright's camp that Espaillat might try to suppress the black vote, but the "nuclear war" Espaillat predicted has not materialized.

But that doesn't mean some are treating Espaillat's victory as a truce.

"This could be bad," the head of a Harlem nonprofit that receives federal funding said the day after the primary. "The future of black Harlem and the legacy of black Harlem needs attention or it could just slip away."

Gricel Thompson, president of the West Harlem Progressive Democratic Club, said she and her members were "devastated" at first when Wright conceded, but their concern quickly turned to the health of Harlem.

"Now that Adriano and Washington Heights have claimed the cup it's going to be very essential to see how he bridges all the communities," Thompson said. "It's a big and diverse district. It's more than the Latino vote. We'll be watching and making sure that all of our communities are included."

Christina Greer, a professor of political science at Fordham University, said the shift in leadership is not unexpected.

In spite of Rangel's standing as the dean of the city's Congressional delegation, the center of African-American power has in recent years shifted to Central Brooklyn and politicians such as Rep. Hakeem Jeffries and Public Advocate Letitia James, the first black woman elected to citywide office. Both are mentioned as potential 2017 mayoral candidates.

The district has also become more Latino as its African-American population has declined.

"Charlie Rangel survived four redistrictings; It has not been a Harlem district for a long time," Greer said. "Espaillat understands the district and he will build a coalition because he wants to get elected in 2018."

Benjamin agreed.

"It's like if someone passes away at 92 you say, 'Oh my God, they passed away,' but it's not like you didn't see it coming," Benjamin said. "Even if Keith [Wright] had won you have the same dynamic. Harlem is ripe for this struggle. Maybe it's not Espaillat but it's someone else."

Even under black leadership, the district has struggled, said Greer.

"Black leadership is symbolically important but the hyper corporatization of Harlem and the obscene unaffordability of Harlem happened under black leadership," Greer said. "It's not the end of the world. The sky is not falling."

The Harlem portion of the district may even stand a chance of getting even more resources, said Greer.

"It may be the case that Espaillat ends up paying more attention to black voters if he wants to stave off challengers every two years," Greer said. "If he wants to have a two decade long congressional career it could help Harlem in the long-run."

Harlem Councilman Mark Levine, an Espaillat supporter, said the senator already represents a diverse district.

"He understands he has a lot of relationships to build and he will celebrate the incredible legacy of African-American leadership in this district," said Levine who is white and whose election to the largely black and Latino district also stirred racial tensions.

He called the meeting at Sylvia's a symbolic and an  "important step toward healing" black and Latino relationships.

"Campaigns break down along ethnic lines but there's no community in this district— African-American, Dominican, White— that's not facing the challenge of affordable housing or high rents," he added.

That hasn't stopped Espaillat from working to tamp down tensions. He has cited the similarities between Harlem and Washington Heights. While leaving Sylvia's, Espaillat was asked about representing historically black Harlem.

"There's no difference," he said. "Maybe their ancestors picked cotton. Mine cut sugar cane."

Dartunorro Clark contributed reporting.