New York, NY -- In the waning hours of daylight on Tuesday, New York's Primary Day, Sandra Fowler stood outside a subway entrance in New York City’s East Harlem, making a gentle appeal to commuters. “Rangel? Rangel?” she said softly, proffering campaign flyers for Charles Rangel, the Congressman seeking his 23rd term in the House of Representatives. A member of New York’s largest public employees union, Fowler said she supported Rangel because “He’s there for the people.”
Directly across Lexington Avenue, a local politician stumped for Rangel’s challenger. “Hello, I’m Assemblymember Robert Rodriguez, remember to vote for Adriano Espaillat in the Democratic primary today,” he repeated to passerby again and again. He spied a familiar face, an elderly Hispanic man walking with a cane. “Como estas? Ya votaste? Chévere!” (How are you? Have you voted? Yeah!)
By the wee hours of Wednesday morning, Rangel had claimed victory over Espaillat in the hotly contested race for the Democratic primary nomination in New York’s 13th Congressional District, and the Associated Press called the race Wednesday afternoon. As of that time, Rangel led Espaillat by less than 2,000 votes.
The race was closely watched because it represented a potential generational and demographic shift in the 13th District, which covers Harlem, upper Manhattan and part of the Bronx. Rangel, whom The Washington Post recently described as “a defining voice in the nation’s black politics,” has represented the traditionally African-American district since 1971.
The race showed there is not "one" Latino community, said an analyst, but "many."
But the district was reconfigured in 2012, and is now majority-Hispanic. Espaillat hoped to ride a wave of support from voters eager for change, as well as to make history as the first Dominican-American elected to Congress.
Because New York is predominantly Democratic, a Rangel eases him safely into victory in November's general election. Rangel, whose father is Puerto Rican, has announced that this campaign will be his last.
John A. Gutierrez, Assistant Professor of Latin American and Latina/o Studies at John Jay College of City University of New York, said the race could have well been decided in neighborhoods like East Harlem, where there is a mix of Puerto Ricans, whites and other voters. "Sure, ethnic loyalties may have played into things, but Puerto Ricans do not necessarily respond to appeals to help elect the first Dominican congressman."
In fact, Puerto Rican city and national leaders were divided in their allegiances. Rangel was endorsed by former President Bill Clinton, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), and Puerto Rican members of Congress like Rep. Jose Serrano and Rep. Luis Gutierrez. Espaillat was endorsed by New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer and the City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who is Puerto Rican.
Angelo Falcón, president of the National Institute for Latino Policy, noted that Mark-Viverito, who is "a major player in the city and campaigned with him, was not able to deliver." Mark-Viverito has the support of the liberal base in the city, and yet this type of endorsement did not move enough voters in the 13th District either.
Regardless of Espaillat's loss, his two political campaigns signal a shift for the city's growing Dominican American community, according to Ramona Hernandez, Director of the Dominican Studies Institute at the City College of New York.
“This was a race that drew national attention, people on both sides felt the excitement, they felt the passion," said Hernandez. "There is a clear history established now. People see that we can shake things up, and there is excitement for more. For this community, there is no going back,” Hernandez said.
Gutierrez observed that Rangel's campaign seemed to take a dismissive attitude towards Espaillat's ethnic appeal in the last few weeks of the campaign. "That will do nothing for the African-American power structure in the future, it does not endear them to the rising Dominican political class. But if Adriano (Espaillat) wants to run again, he will have to hold on to his coalition for the next two years – and that could be tough."
Falcon agrees. “This is the second time he lost, so this may create a vacuum for other candidates in the future. People may feel like he’s already had his chance.” In two years, without Rangel in the race, he added, "This race will be a different ballgame."
Gutierrez said the tight race was an indicator of the future of Black and Latino power in New York.
The "black versus Latino" narrative does not really explain the world of politics, especially in multi-ethnic cities, said a political observer.
"I think it is a question of when, not if, that we do see a Latino – and more than likely, a Dominican-American – representing the 13th District.” He views this evolution as part of a historic pattern. “It happens with every ethnic group; the demography changes. Now it will be interesting to see how the Black and Latino alliances and rivalries play out in the future.”
Yet as Rangel's victory shows, what is certain is that a "black versus Latino" narrative does not really explain the world of politics, especially in multi-ethnic cities.
“Latino politics in New York City are not simple,” Falcón said. ”There is not one Latino community, there are many Latino communities. So the original media narrative about this being a Black/Latino race was too simple. This race represented a much more complicated racial and ethnic mix than people originally described.”