Adriano Espaillat, Charlie Rangel, and the coalition- fracturing primary neither of them wanted

Espaillat. (Adriano Espaillat, via Facebook)
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In 1996, when Adriano Espaillat was vying to unseat longtime Assemblyman John Brian Murtaugh and become the first Dominican-American in the state legislature, he had the overwhelming advantage of running in an Upper Manhattan district that was 80 percent Hispanic.

Espaillat won, by 196 votes.

The narrow victory was considered an upset at the time, and is still worth considering as Espaillat tries for a much bigger prize in a congressional primary against longtime, larger-than-life congressman Charlie Rangel.

Espaillat's decision to run against Rangel sets up a contest that many of New York's black and Latino leaders have said they hoped to avoid, and seems to represent at least a temporary step backward in the construction of a long-dreamed-of, elusive alliance between New York City's black and Latino political establishments.

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The decision by Espaillat, who would be the first Dominican-American elected to Congress, makes political sense on many levels, particularly given the fact that the district is now majority-Latino. But he is nevertheless staking claim to a seat in the historic heart of black politics in New York, against Charlie Rangel—dean of the New York delegation, charter member of Harlem's Gang of Four.

Espaillat himself warned recently that if a district weren't created that would allow a Latino politician (such as himself) to get to Congress without having to go through Rangel, it would "lay the groundwork for twenty years of nuclear political war."

That was before he declared.

At a glance, Espaillat would seem to have a solid demographic advantage.

Over the objections of Rangel and his supporters, the federal court overseeing the just-completed congressional redistricting process declined to stretch Rangel's district northward to take in more African-American voters, and instead increased the Hispanic population in the district, raising it to 55 percent of the overall population. That's up from 46 percent after the last census, and makes the Hispanic population more than double the district's black population, which has declined to just 27 percent.

Luis Miranda, a Democratic consultant who has advised Espaillat for each of his campaigns for office, said, "There was a time when Latinos and blacks, their numbers were so small that without a coalition, there was no way of winning. That is no longer the New York in which we are living."

In this case, that's bad news for Rangel. In 2010, the longtime congressman won just over half of the primary vote against a rather weak field. And this time, he'll be forced to contend with three other African-American candidates who have already declared for the primary, while Espaillat, presumably, will have a unique claim on the Hispanic vote.

Still, there are wrinkles. The Hispanic community in the new district contains a sizable immigrant population, which means that a number of the Hispanic residents—even those who are part of the voting-age population—aren't citizens, and therefore aren't eligible to vote.

The Citizen Voting Age Population (or CVAP) for the district is just under 45 percent, according to estimates from Andrew Beveridge, a redistricting expert (and self-proclaimed "Mr. CVAP"). The black CVAP, according to Beveridge, is just over 34 percent, and the white CVAP is about 17 percent.

Local Latino officials, too, say that the creation of a raw Hispanic majority doesn't necessarily guarantee anything, particularly since there is great diversity within the local Hispanic vote itself.

"East Harlem, known by Puerto Ricans as El Barrio—it's the genesis of the Puerto Rican population," said Miranda, describing changes within the district. "Now, that's being populated by Mexicans."

"Washington Heights is La Cuna, the birth of the Dominican community," he said. "Again, it's beginning to change. It was Cuban, initially, it was a bit Puerto Rican and then in the 60s and 70s, it became Dominican."

"The question is what percentage is Dominican and registered to vote," Assemblyman Guillermo Linares, who became the first Dominican elected official anywhere in the United States when he was elected to the Council in 1991, said in an interview last week. "I know that the tendency for naturalized citizens to participate and be registered and go out and vote is higher than those who have been here and have not gone through that process. But the question is ... what percentage within the district will come out and participate?"

Linares might have some impact on the answer. He and Espaillat have a long history of jockeying for support in the community, and there are lingering questions about whether Linares will fully support Espaillat's quest to be the first Dominican in Congress, if Espaillat declines to endorse Linares's bid to replace him in the State Senate.

And it's not certain that the district's non-Dominican Latino voters will be as motivated by the historic nature of Espaillat's historic run as his fellow Dominicans are likely to be. 

Further, Rangel's support isn't necessarily going to be limited to some imagined African-American bloc in the new district. He is an institution, and he has the strong support of his congressional colleagues and national Democratic leaders, and of local Democratic clubs on the Upper West Side and Morningside Heights

Rangel's other challengers would also seem to be capable of attracting diverse support. Clyde Williams, a former aide to presidents Clinton and Obama, officially declared his candidacy last month; Joyce Johnson, a business executive and former district leader, received the endorsement of the New York Times running against Rangel in 2010.

Of course, Espaillat is hoping to broaden his base, too. He has apparently forged something of an alliance with Mark Levine, the white candidate who ran against him for the Senate seat in 2010. Levine is listed on Espaillat's congressional petitions, it was at Levine's political club that Espaillat announced his intentions on Sunday night.

Nuclear or not, the coming war, like all wars, won't be resolved neatly, and is likely to involve collateral damage.

"I hope that that is not the case, in the same way that Puerto Ricans didn't war because Charlie Rangel represented them," said Miranda. "In fact, alliances were formed and Charlie Rangel has worked with the Dominicans and Puerto Ricans to represent them."

Rangel has given more than ten thousand dollars to Espaillat's campaigns over the years, and as recently as December gave $500 to Northern Manhattan Democrats for Change, the club started by Espaillat, and $1,000 to Puertoricoquennos Unidos.

This morning, he introduced a bill to reinstate more than $450 million in food stamp aid to Puerto Rico.

"What does it mean to be the soul of black America when the majority of the neighborhood and its member of Congress is not black?" asked Basil Smikle, a Harlem political consultant and admirer of Rangel's. "It's something they're going to wrestle with."

"Is it black people leading black people? Or is it more black individuals in positions of power leading everybody? Leading across race, leading across ethnicity, building multiracial, multiethnic coalitions, not just representing black people. And I think that's really where the conversation will go."