There were not many oohs and aahs in the debate last Thursday evening at Abyssinian Baptist Church, and the loudest occurred when incumbent Rep. Charles Rangel snapped back at contender the Rev. Michael Walrond Jr. During his closing remarks, Walrond, 42, the senior pastor at First Corinthian Baptist Church in Harlem, delivered what amounted to a sermon on what he would do to change things in the 13th District.
As he had done throughout the debate, Walrond reiterated, “I may not have the experience, but I do have the leadership ... and you need a candidate with vision.”
After taking the measure of Walrond, Rangel confessed that he was inspired by his opponent’s words. “But are you talking about New Jersey or New York?” he said, referring to reports of Walrond not residing in New York and thereby being ineligible to run for office in the district.
From the church’s sanctuary to the vestry, the oohs and aahs echoed.
“That’s vintage Rangel,” one nearby spectator responded.
And given the presence of Walrond, who has established residency in the district, and State Sen. Adriano Espaillat, who was narrowly defeated by Rangel two years ago, the 22-term representative will need all the vintage experience he can muster to hold on to a seat that has been his since he edged out Adam Clayton Powell Jr. a generation ago.
Powell’s name was evoked repeatedly by Espaillat, as if conjuring the icon would remind the older members of the audience in the packed church of how Rangel unseated the great leader. “It’s too little, too late,” he said of Rangel’s proposals on affordable housing and his call for a “moratorium of luxury housing.” The district, he emphasized, “is the epicenter of inequality.”
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In the primaries in 2012, Rangel polled 43.9 percent of.the turnout, or 16,916 votes, while Espaillat tallied 41.3 percent, or 15,884 votes, a difference of almost 3 percent.
Rangel, 83, gave considerable time and attention to his connection to the Obama administration, and particularly the extent to which he has endured a withering attack from Republicans and Tea Party members. “This is not the time to change congress people in the United States of America,” he said, noting that his relationship with the president will be key to this fight.
“If I thought for one minute that either one of you two could go to Washington and do a better job, I would be home with my wife and my grandkids,” Rangel said in his closing statement.
Waldron hammered away on the affordable housing crisis in the community, and said that Rangel was too much in bed with developers. “You can’t critique a problem that you are part of,” he charged, which brought a loud amen from his supporters.
It was a lively debate, and afterward, there were still hundreds outside the church milling about, exchanging their views on who they thought was the winner.
“I think the congressman held his own,” said one Rangel loyalist. “We need his experience in Congress more now than ever before.”
“It’s time for Rangel to step aside and pass the baton,” a Walrond advocate argued. “My concern is that the fight between him and Michael will split the vote and give the seat to Espaillat.” Of course, there is the possibility of another Latino or Latina entering the race and reducing Espaillat’s command of the Hispanic vote.
“I can’t wait until the next debate,” said a more neutral observer. “This was just round one, and this will get real hot as we near the primary date.”
That date for the Democratic Primary vote is June 24, and we will have to wait to see if there will be a round two.