Saturday, 21 June 2014

Democratic primary an ethnic showdown, not a political one

My congressional district is, like most, not in play in terms of Dems v/s Repubs, but there is a lively primary battle afoot between an ancient artifact, Charles Rangel, 83, [above left] and his returning challenger, Adriano Espaillat, 59, [above right] who aims at being the first Dominican-born member of Congress.

Rangel has had a safe seat in Harlem for 50 years, but two things happened to put it in jeopardy: he got slammed a few years ago for repeated ethical violations, all of a monetary nature. Those stories were damaging and almost career-ending, but memories are short. I doubt if most local voters today have more than a vague notion of what those accusations were about.

Espaillat has chosen not to remind people about the corruption charges and Rangel’s censure, probably assuming that people will prefer him to take the high road. I think it’s a mistake if he wants to win because people say they hate negative campaigns but then vote according to who has thrown the most mud and made it stick. And it’s not as if Espaillat would have to make anything up.

The consensus last time was that Rangel wanted one last term so that he could depart with his head held high, and then he would leave graciously. But obviously that was a ploy to get past the bad press. Now he’s back and ready for term #26.

Rangel, on the other hand, hasn’t been shy at all. A mailing that appeared in my box last week showed Espaillat being manipulated like a marionette by upstate Republicans, based on some campaign donations he allegedly had received. I don’t know the validity of the charge and couldn’t care less given Rangel’s decades-long coziness with the rich and powerful, but I suspect the tactic might have shaken some potential Espaillat voters loose.

The second factor is demographic: the district is shifting to much less uniformly black, and the Hispanic population is growing very quickly. There’s also a substantial percentage of whites in Harlem itself as well as in some of the sectors added to Rangel’s district after the last census led to a new round of gerrymandering by Albany. Espaillat is probably counting on his ethnicity to garner him enough votes to oust Rangel and so is presenting himself in very traditional terms, kissing the requisite number of babies and displaying all his worthy civic activities.

As far as I can tell, Espaillat is a routine, journeyman politician who doesn’t offer anything special except that he’s not Rangel and hasn’t been caught in appalling ethical lapses like Rangel has. That’s enough for me, but I suspect it won’t be enough to beat the old coot next Tuesday.

However, a wild card is the presence in the race of a third, spoiler candidate, local preacher Michael A. Walrond, 42, [above center] who might drain off some of Rangel’s African-American support.

It would be nice to think that this primary reflects in some way an ideological battle parallel to the Tea Party-GOP wars attracting so much attention after the Eric Cantor defeat. But I fear that there is less politics in this race and a lot more old-fashioned ethnic identification. If anyone has raised a policy issue on which they can point to a major disagreement among the candidates, I haven't heard about it.

Incidentally, I joined a group of campaigners for the Robin Hood Tax a few weeks ago to pay a call on Rangel and had the distinction of being the only member of the delegation who was actually a constituent of his. I found the old guy an obnoxious blowhard, which reaffirmed my decision to vote for his retirement.

No comments: