The lines have shifted and the race is fierce. As the date of the Democratic primary—June 26—approaches, four candidates for the 13th congressional district are competing for the party’s nomination against long-time incumbent Charles Rangel.
The newly drawn boundaries of the district have been a source of much debate, with Rangel insisting that he is still the best representative and others seizing on the demographic and district changes to call for a new representative. The former 15th District shifted from a majority African-American population to become the new 13th District, which is majority Hispanic. It now includes more of East Harlem, as well as parts of the South Bronx.
The four challengers to Rangel each bring different backgrounds and personalities to the table, but their stances on major issues—investing in economic development and housing, women’s rights, creating jobs—are quite similar. The race, then, comes down to voters’ evaluation of the candidates’ past records and their future potential. Since the district is so heavily Democratic, whoever wins this primary will likely sweep the general election as well, so residents are tasked with making the distinction between five people who all swear they can best represent their interests in Congress.
The 21-time incumbent cuts a commanding and complicated figure in national politics. Rangel, who just turned 82, has publicly declared that he doesn’t see much threat in this race and seems, outwardly at least, to be as self-assured as ever in his victory, despite the new district.
The longtime politician has recently been dogged by scandal as well as physical ailments. In 2010, the House Ethics Committee found him guilty of several violations relating to taxes, reporting his income and improper fundraising. His campaign agreed to pay a civil fine of $23,000 this year after he was found to be improperly using a rent-stabilized apartment for a campaign office.
But Rangel defends his record, equating his violations to minor mistakes and insisting they should not get in the way of his campaign.
“I spit on the sidewalk, and I get busted,” Rangel said in an editorial board interview. “You’re damned right I shouldn’t be spitting on the sidewalk. But I didn’t break any laws. I mean, people talk about taxes, and they should, because no one likes anyone to evade taxes.”
Rangel says his influence and popularity on Capitol Hill has not diminished, though he is no longer the Democratic leader of the Ways and Means Committee, which he helmed for years, helping him wield bargaining power in Congress.
He is also recovering from back surgery, which has slowed him down and ramped up speculation that he plans to win the race and retire halfway through the term in order to facilitate a special election for his hand-picked successor, Assembly Member Keith Wright—a charge Rangel vehemently denies.
While he doesn’t seem to feel much threat from his opponents this time around, Rangel puts his agenda in dramatic terms and has made it clear that he thinks he’s the only person qualified to go to Washington for the 13th District.
“It seems to me that everything that I’ve talked about and everything that I’ve said involves national security, in terms of jobs, education and the survival and broadening of the middle class,” Rangel said. “Even more than that—and I’m not a very religious person—but whether you’re Morman, Muslim, Catholic or Protestant, Jewish or gentile, the things I’m talking about and the president’s talking about seem spiritual and Biblical to me. The aged, the sick, the poor—why is there such a silence on these things?”
Rangel is also confident that the Democrats will regain the majority in the House of Representatives and be able to move their agenda forward, despite predictions otherwise.
“You cannot go into a fight when your country’s involved and say, ‘What happens if you lose?’” he said.
Often cited as the frontrunner (albeit in a race that’s certainly too close to call), State Sen. Adriano Espaillat, 57, vows to bring new blood and new energy to Washington, D.C. He would also bring the distinction of being the first Dominican-American to serve in Congress, a fact he has repeatedly touted around the newly created majority Hispanic district and one of the things that sets him apart from other candidates. He’s also the only one aside from Rangel who has ever held elected office, which his opponents use against him (painting him with the same brush as Rangel, as a “government-as-usual” candidate) and he uses to his advantage when talking about state legislation he’s passed that shows the kind of issues he promises to address in Congress.
“I have the track record of producing jobs,” Espaillat, 57, said in recent editorial board interview. “Seven hundred and fifty new jobs will come as a result of the George Washington Bridge [Terminal] redevelopment to a state-of-the-art shopping facility and business center,” he said of a project he’s worked on at the state level.
Creating jobs at the national level has to focus on small businesses, Espaillat said, pointing to creative solutions he’s employed in the state.
“[I’ve helped] small businesses with smart energy equipment that will lower their electric bill by 50 percent, giving them disposable income to create summer jobs for chronically unemployed youth,” Espaillat said.
He has also worked on immigrants’ rights and passed a law allowing undocumented immigrants in New York State to receive in-state tuition rates. He praised President Barack Obama’s recent decision to grant work visas to undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children, but said the president hasn’t gone far enough.
“Why not open up the doors to these young people who want to get a good job, pay their taxes and help the economy? Why not make them eligible for some of the help that other students get now?” Espaillat asked. He said that passing the DREAM Act would be a top priority in his first term if elected.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg has praised Espaillat in the past for not being afraid to stand up to special interests on environmental issues; he considers himself a green candidate and has supported a marine transfer station in the West Village in the name of environmental justice. The 13th congressional district includes East Harlem down to East 96th Street, just five blocks north of the planned MTS for East 91st Street that has local residents up in arms.
Espaillat said he’s not casting his support for the plan yet, but said he would consider it carefully before throwing his weight into stopping it, as Upper East Side Rep. Carolyn Maloney has done.
“I think there needs to be a full discussion about it,” Espaillat said. “I would like to sit down and speak to the local residents. I know that neighborhood is traumatized right now with all the construction and development” from the Second Avenue Subway project.
When it comes to getting things done in a partisan, divisive House of Representatives, Espaillat said that the Democratic party needs to pit strong, progressive voices against Tea Party Republicans and stand with Obama’s agenda when they need to push forward.
“I will bring a fresh, new voice to Congress that will get things done and bring back some results,” he said.
Clyde Williams, 50, has been methodically building his campaign, and his résumé, for a long time. Of all the challengers to Charles Rangel, he has the most national government experience, having worked for the Clinton administration as deputy chief of staff at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, later working for Clinton in Harlem as a domestic policy advisor. In fact, Clinton’s withholding of his traditional endorsement of Rangel this year is seen by some political insiders as a subtle endorsement of his former staffer.
But Williams seems uninterested in playing political games; when asked how he would be effective in Congress, he has no trouble laying out priorities and ways to tackle them.
“There’s been a conversation for years about bringing hotels uptown,” Williams said. “It’s not a new idea; the problem is it has never happened, and I believe the reason why it hasn’t happened is that the politics haven’t come together.”
He agrees that jobs are the No. 1 priority, and said that he sees real potential for specific industries in the district.
“When I talk about workforce development, I’m talking about training people for jobs that exist today,” Williams said. “We have a shortage of nurses in America. We’re importing nurses from Bangkok, Thailand and The Phillipines. There’s no reason we can’t train people in our congressional district to fill those jobs today. Same thing with electricians, plumbers, and auto mechanics.”
He also hopes to bring call centers and garment manufacturing back to the area.
Williams said one of the things that sets him apart is his understanding of government. “Too many people talk all the time about all these things they’re going to do as a congressman…and they never tell you how they’re going to pay for it,” he said. “I can tell you for a fact—the things I talk about, I can tell you how they’re going to be paid for.”
He asserts, for example, that the government needs to invest more money into the country’s infrastructure. “A Department of Transportation study shows that for every billion dollars you spend, you create 47,000 jobs,” he said. That billion could be taken from the subsidies currently given to oil and gas companies, he suggested.
When it comes to challenging Rangel, Williams dismisses the idea that he’s not up for the task simply because he’s never held elected office.
“Of course Charlie Rangel knows how Congress works better than anybody else—he’s been up there for 40 years. But I’m talking about government. There’s a big difference between government and Congress, and there’s billions of dollars sitting there in government agencies that nobody’s applying for,” Williams said. “I’m the only person who’s running for this race who’s actually worked within the community and worked in Washington, D.C.”
“I am a woman—that distinguishes me. I may just be lucky around this—the sad luck of the Republican right-wing assault on women,” Johnson said in a recent interview. “I do believe that I am the best candidate in this field for the district, [where] so many women are single heads of households.”
Promoting equal pay for women is a priority for Johnson, and she said that voters in her district are especially affected by pay disparity, as so many women are supporting their families on one paycheck. She also said she’s well accustomed to fighting for women’s rights—she had to fight to assert her own authority in the workplace years ago, when she became the first woman in a management position at a Seagram’s distillery in 1970. She faced a lot of opposition at first, managing a union crew that was barely accustomed to working with African Americans, let alone taking orders from a woman, but eventually rose through the ranks at Seagram’s and worked for their corporate office.
Johnson credits her success with being able to rise above the sexist comments and connect with her employees on a human level—a tactic she said she would employ in Congress to broker bipartisan debate and move her agenda.
Johnson left Seagram’s after 17 years and began a career working in communications and community relations for the city in various departments, including for Manhattan Borough President Virginia Fields and in the comptroller’s office, the mayor’s Office of Children and Families and the office of the schools chancellor, where she worked with then-Chancellor Rudy Crew. She served as a Democratic district leader for five years and was on the Upper West Side’s Community Board 7, along with other nonprofit and advocacy work.
If elected, Johnson hopes to bring jobs and economic vitality to northern Manhattan neighborhoods by luring the hospitality industry, hotels, restaurants, shops and attractions that can capitalize on the tour buses that parade through Harlem every week to visit historic churches and hopefully draw more visitors.
“The big thing all over the country is jobs at every level. We are a country that no longer manufactures anything; we don’t produce anything, it’s all overseas,” Johnson said. “We can incentivize industry, the retail industry, the call center, light manufacturing. That will be supported by Americans crying out for American made.” She hopes to bring many of those industries home to her district.
While she’s never held elected office—she ran against Congressman Charles Rangel in 2010 and has run for state Assembly and City Council—Johnson insists that her work in the community has amply prepared her for the job. She gets particularly fiery when asked how she stacks up to Rangel in experience.
“He has the same 40 years that I do, and my record is stellar; it’s commanding. He did his [time] in Congress and I did mine breaking glass ceilings,” she said. “He had an easier time in 1972 going to Congress than I had going to Seagram’s in a redneck production plant.”
Craig Schley, 48, wants to make one thing clear: He may have done some modeling in his life, to put himself through school at NYU, but he’s spent a lot more time molding himself into a model citizen and community advocate. He’s also been an electrician’s apprentice, a firefighter and a scuba rescuer and worked with the New York City Commission on Human Rights.
“What distinguishes me in particular is that I have a clear and discernable record of defending the interests of the community,” Schley said. “I have a history of being able to negotiate and get what seems to be a hostile opponent to be on board with a plan.”
Schley isn’t afraid of conflict, either. In 2008, he worked with a group of activists to adamantly oppose the city’s rezoning of 125th Street in Harlem that he said would displace small businesses and change the neighborhood for the worse for current residents. Recently, a group he founded, Voices of the Everyday People, sued the city over the rezoning. He sees keeping the neighborhoods affordable as one of the most important tasks the 13th District’s next congressional representative will have on his or her plate.
“HUD [the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development] in particular has been building homes out of the economic reach of the people living here,” said Schley of his district. “The small mom-and-pop businesses stores up here were unable to afford their leases. Everything is wrapped around property value here.”
If he were elected, he said, he would dive immediately into reforming federal housing regulations.
“I would try my best to make sure that I get on the housing committee and introduce legislation for HUD to adopt a standard of building income-targeted housing,” he said. Currently, the department looks at median income for a particular geographic area, which he said can include wealthier counties like Westchester that skew the averages much higher than what is affordable for many residents of Northern Manhattan and the Bronx.
He also said he’d work to get the Department of Justice involved in reforming stop-and-frisk procedures that unfairly target minorities.
Schley, who once interned for Charles Rangel, said it’s high time someone new stepped into place, and that his inexperience in elected office should not be a hindrance for his campaign.
“Our current president was a genius senator and ran for president as soon as he got into office,” Schley said. “I’ve been a public servant all my life.”
“At the end of the day, representation comes from the ability to garner support from the people in your community. I, unlike my other candidates, enjoy broad support, being cross-endorsed by other parties,” Schley said, referring to his support from the political action committee he formed and under which he ran for Congress in 2008 and 2010, and his endorsement by the Republican Party.
“There’s going to be a learning curve no matter what you do,” he said.
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