Sharpton warns Rangel, rivals to stop arguing about race

Al Sharpton. (AP Photo/Jim Fitzgerald)
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One day after Rep. Charlie Rangel accused his leading rival of running a race-based campaign, Rev. Al Sharpton welcomed all three candidates to his National Action Network headquarters on Saturday morning, with a warning about the tone of the race.

“The ones that divide us … ought not to be in the race," Sharpton warned during his nationally broadcast radio show from the Harlem headquarters.

The congressional primary has become increasingly bitter in recent weeks, culminating in a sharp televised debate yesterday, in which Rangel and State Senator Adriano Espaillat accused each other of running divisive campaigns. Rangel cited a flyer Espaillat sent in 2012 accusing a fellow Dominican legislator of being a “traitor” for endorsing Rangel, who is black, over Espaillat in that year’s congressional race.

Sharpton said in an interview on Sunday he was unhappy with how Rangel attacked Espaillat in the debate, and dismissed the congressman's concerns about the flyer.

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“To bring it back now is like I am trying to revive a race-based contest,” Sharpton said, seated at his desk, in the back of the National Action Network’s headquarters on 145th Street.

Sharpton said the issue of the flyer had “been resolved two years ago, so why are we bringing it up? And I think that you run the danger of looking like you bringing it up for divisive reasons.”

Sharpton's comments echoed Espaillat's. Though he did not acknowledge during the debate whether he or his associates sent the mailer, he said raising the issue was a distraction and divisive.

Sharpton, at his office this afternoon, said he was worried the debate about which candidate was playing the race card would divide black and Hispanic residents, which he said has been a problem in Democratic politics in that part of the city.

He said the 1970 race where Rangel ousted Rep. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. created friction that is still felt to this day. The same is true, he said, Herman Badillo's plan to run for mayor in 1985, which Sharpton said was scuttled when “the Harlem leadership surfaced Denny Farrell and that dealt a divide, which is why a lot of us tried to take pains like Vieques, like immigration marches and all, to heal a lot of what the generation ahead of me divided.”

On Saturday, the candidates stressed unity.

“We should not allow the sons and daughters of those that cut sugar cane to be divided by the sons and daughters of those that picked cotton,” Espaillat told the crowd.

Rev. Michael Walrond, a Harlem pastor and associate of Sharpton’s who is making his first run for office, said during the rally, “This is not about whether or not because of the shifting demographics it ought to be a Latino seat. This is not, because of history, it ought to be an African-American seat. The real issue is that this seat belongs to a visionary.”

Rangel arrived late, accompanied by three of his colleagues from the Congressional Black Caucus: Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Kansas City, Rep. Terri Sewell of Selma, Alabama, and Rep. Gregory Meeks of Queens. Rangel did not address the controversy, and instead delivered a public service announcement.

“All I have to do is say please don’t wake up on June the 25th asking why you missed the election," he told the crowd. "Unfortunately, there is only going to be one race on the ballot. No president, no governor, no state legislators, no City Council. It is just your member of Congress,” and “it would appear to me that you have the judgment, the knowledge in this village to know what’s best for us, and I’ll just leave it there.”

Afterward, I asked Rangel about Sharpton’s warning and whether he had any regrets about what he said in Friday’s debate, or how he’s framed the contest so far.

“I agree with the reverend that there should be the qualifications of the candidate and only that that should be considered in this June 24 election,” Rangel said. “I could not agree with anyone more than that. I have to add that it’s the newspapers that have brought this thing up—to talk about race, not me.”

Asked about the 2012 flyer, Rangel didn't want to discuss it. “That will be taken care of by the press and it speaks for itself. Thank you so much,” he said, and walked away.

But the congressman’s top strategist, Charlie King, who was also on hand, reiterated its relevance.

“Azi, I got to tell you, not to compare Senator Espaillat to [Clippers owner Donald] Sterling in Los Angeles, but the fact that there are things in people’s past that people did — if you said something two years ago, and Rev. Sharpton’s been held accountable for decades of things [he said] that people found incendiary — do I think it’s a legitimate issue for people to ask Senator Espaillat to say that a flyer that his campaign put forward? … do I think that that’s fair for people to discuss, and then move on? I think it’s absolutely fair,” he said.

He added, “Do I think we should be spending forever on it? Absolutely not. But the senator can own it, apologize for it and then lets’s move on to talking about the issues, the other issues, in the campaign.”

The next televised debate is on Wednesday and will air on NY1.