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Espaillat's Win Another Blow to Harlem's Black Political Power: Experts

By Jeff Mays | September 20, 2016 7:41am
 Assemblyman Keith Wright conceded the 13th district Congressional race to State Sen. Adriano Espiallat, left, with Charles Rangel, right.
Assemblyman Keith Wright conceded the 13th district Congressional race to State Sen. Adriano Espiallat, left, with Charles Rangel, right.
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DNAinfo/Dartunorro Clark

HARLEM — Fresh off of Assemblyman Keith Wright's loss in June's Democratic Congressional Primary, Harlem's black political machine suffered another blow last week when former Councilman Robert Jackson lost his second straight bid to win a seat in the state Senate.

Like Wright, Jackson had the endorsement of Rep. Charles Rangel and much of Harlem's political establishment. And also like Wright, Jackson was competing in a district that added more Latino voters after redistricting.

Marisol Alcantara, the handpicked successor of state Sen. Adriano Espaillat, who won the primary for Rangel's old seat, won a tight race where she got 693 more votes than Jackson, who was in third place, and 572 more votes than second-place Micah Lasher, chief of staff to Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.

 Adrinao Espaillat (center) marched in the African American Day Parade in Harlem. Here he is next to first lady Chirlane McCray.
Adrinao Espaillat (center) marched in the African American Day Parade in Harlem. Here he is next to first lady Chirlane McCray.
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Twitter/Adriano Espaillat

"The truth is this is the official end of the Charlie Rangel era and the beginning of the Dominican explosion," said one political operative with clients in Harlem who asked not be named to protect working relationships.

"Dominicans in that area just elected their first Congress person and they are excited. Espaillat tapped someone no one knew and they came out to vote for her just like that," the operative said.

Espaillat had challenged Rangel, who held the congressional seat for 45 years, in back-to-back elections, losing narrowly each time before Rangel decided to retire. Espaillat was then able to drive his base to beat Wright, Rangel's hand-picked successor.

In addition to pushing Alcantara to victory, Espaillat also tapped into his base to push ally Carmen De La Rosa to victory in the 72nd Assembly District, easily beating his longtime foe Guillermo Linares.

Both the 31st Senate district where Alcantara was elected and the 13th Congressional district that Espaillat won, show clear patterns of racial segmentation in their voting, said Steven Romalewski, mapping director at CUNY's Graduate Center.

If you lay the 13th Congressional district where Espaillat won the June primary over the 31st Senate district and the 72nd Assembly district, it shows the same Espaillat base of support voting for the winning candidates.

"You can see that the electoral patterns are very segmented," said Romalewski. "If Jackson or Lasher had expanded their base of support a little, the outcome would have been different. Alcantara was able to secure support in her base."

Or, as Clyde Williams, a former National Political Director for the Democratic National Committee under President Barack Obama who has twice run unsuccessfully for Rangel's seat put it: "Black people voted for Robert, white people vote for Micah and Dominicans voted for Marisol."

It's not like no one has seen this coming.

With Rangel creeping into his 80s and facing a censure during what should have been his most powerful term in office as chair of the Ways and Means Committee, the city's black power base began shifting to Brooklyn.

Black politicians such as Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, Public Advocate Letitia James and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams began stepping up.

All eight Brooklyn Senate and Assembly candidates Jeffries endorsed in Tuesday's state primaries won. Jeffries also reached across the East River and endorsed Lasher.

"It does show the political breakdown of these machines that Rangel has perpetuated. If people thought their political strength was what it once was they wouldn't be running against them," said Williams, who also served as a domestic policy adviser to former President Bill Clinton at the Clinton Foundation,

Meanwhile, the districts that encompass part of Harlem are seeing tremendous demographic change.

In the 13th Congressional district, the percentage of blacks who were eligible to vote dropped in Central Harlem while the percentage of Latinos eligible to vote increased in that neighborhood and throughout the rest of the district.

In the 31st Senate district, the eligible voter population jumped to 262,000 from 2010 to 2014 compared to 196,000 from 2006 to 2010. Eligible voters now constitute 83 percent of the district's population up from 60 percent.

But the increase is largely due to the growth of non-Hispanic whites ages 18 and older. That group increased 50 percent to 112,000 from 75,000 and make up 43 percent of eligible voters.

Hispanics 18 and older grew 20 percent to 104,000 people from 87,000 individuals although the share of Hispanics eligible to vote actually dropped to just under 40 percent in 2014 from 45 percent in 2010.

"We need someone who can build coalitions across racial lines," said Williams, who believes the city's ethnic politics have not provided the best candidates for neighborhoods such as Harlem, Inwood and Washington Heights.

"They keep thinking of Harlem as what it was 25 to 30 years ago. You have 30 percent of people living in poverty and they've been in office for decades," Williams said. "Espaillat is now part of the same system. It's a broken political machine."

Brian Benjamin, the chair of Central Harlem's Community Board 10, is often mentioned as a candidate for political office. He said black political power in Harlem is alive and well with a Senate seat held by Bill Perkins, a council seat held by Inez Dickens and Wright's Assembly seat.

Dickens ran unopposed in the primary for Wright's seat and Wright is expected by many to run for Dickens' council seat for which she is term-limited.

"I don't think anyone would deny what happened with Rangel's censure changed the power dynamics but Rangel wasn't beaten, he retired," Benjamin said.

Wright came close to winning in spite of the fact that there were multiple black candidates in the race who received votes he might have if he were the only black candidate running for Rangel's seat.

"The fact that Robert Jackson was so close signals the opposition and explains why Espaillat needs to be very mindful of the various demographics in his district," Benjamin added. "An African American can come within hundreds of votes of winning a seat in a majority Latino and white district."

Espaillat has said that he plans to reach out across the district's racial lines.

Christina Greer, a professor of political science at Fordham University, said Espaillat has no choice but to do so if he wants to establish himself in the seat.

"I don't see these two Espaillat wins as the end of Rangel or black power," Greer said.

It's not just Espaillat that helped Alcantara to her victory. The Independent Democratic Conference, which caucuses with Republicans, spent more than $100,000 to get Alcantara elected and she will become the first minority member of the group.

"They got you into office. What do you owe them? Are they going to pull you to the right?" Greer said.

And the three districts where Espaillat flexed his influence are going through a demographic shift where voters may be looking for candidates who haven't been in office for the last two decades.

"People are going to be looking for something different and Espaillat's going to have to do quite a bit to stave off challengers and stay in power," Greer said.