Adriano Espaillat, who was bored at second base, has been running forever

Espaillat makes a point. (adriano4congress, via flickr)
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State Senator Adriano Espaillat says he's never been around a race quite like the one he's running against 42-year incumbent Charlie Rangel.

"Oh it's exciting," Espaillat said with a big smile. "The level of enthusiasm out there, I've never seen it in all my years of politics. People are just all over this. This is a nice one. I feel good about it."

It wasn't long ago that Espaillat was warning of "nuclear political war" between the black and Latino populations in Northern Manhattan if the redistricting process didn't accommodate both of them, but he has since come to embrace the tension in his bid to become the first Dominican-born member of Congress.

"Come on, this is the Battle Royale!" Espaillat said. "This is what people want."

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Rangel didn't, probably.

The 81-year-old dean of the New York delegation was enduring a painful spring even before the primary challenge, having spent the last three months in and out of the hospital with back problems, and is still using a motorized scooter and a walker to make his way around.

In Espaillat, he faces a challenger who happens to be one of those politicians who very much enjoys retail campaigning, and, at the relatively tender age of 57, has the energy to physically cover the newly configured district in a way that Rangel simply can't. 

But for all his current enthusiasm, Espaillat didn't exactly want this either. 

Testifying before the three-judge panel that was tasked with creating the new congressional districts, Espaillat praised Rangel and argued that the longtime congressman shouldn't be displaced, and that the best solution would be the creation of a new majority-Latino district near Rangel's historically African-American district, to facilitate the election of someone like him.

"I don't think that this map that you're proposing will yield a representative from the Spanish-speaking community," Espaillat told the judges.

When he failed to convince the court, Espaillat, after just two years in the State Senate, decided to run anyway, upsetting the area's political order.

It wouldn't be the first time.

AS HE STROLLED INTO COOGAN'S IRISH PUB IN WASHINGTON HEIGHTS on a recent Saturday afternoon, in khakis and a pale yellow shirt with no tie, Espaillat stopped off at the table of Assemblyman Denny Farrell, a longtime Rangel ally who had lobbied for the incumbent's district to be altered to include the black populations in the Bronx and Westchester.

"Your timing is impeccable," Coogans' proprietor Peter Walsh told an Espaillat aide, just before the candidate arrived. "You just missed Scott and Guillermo."

Espaillat ran against Guillermo Linares in 1991, when both were vying to become the first Dominican-born candidate ever elected to any office in the U.S., and he ran against Scott Stringer for Manhattan borough president in 2005—two losses on a crowded resume that began with a hopeless Council race in 1989.

"I ran against Stanley Michels, who's right there with a beer," he said, pointing to a framed picture of the deceased Washington Heights councilman on the wall behind the booth. "I actually did well in that race, because I had no money. I spent maybe like $10,000 dollars, he spent over a $100,000 dollars. He was an incumbent and he had everybody's support and I got like close to like 30 percent of the vote. I got good write-ups in the papers about an up-and-coming future leader."

After his two Council losses, Espaillat turned his attention to Albany and a newly drawn Assembly district with a growing Dominican population.

The demographics weren't quite there yet, so, despite his eagerness, Espaillat plotted and waited. He won a district-leader race in 1993, won re-election in 1995, and then, with a big demographic boost in what had become a heavily Dominican district, he beat the longtime assemblyman John Brian Murtaugh by about 50 votes in 1996. The New York Times, in its endorsement of Espaillat, who had been working for the city's Criminal Justice Agency, called him "an energetic and ambitious district leader who has a background in victim services and drug prevention, as well as an impressive grasp of neighborhood and state issues … who holds more promise for the future."

The election made Espaillat the first Dominican-American in Albany, but it hardly united the city's Latino voters behind him. The jockeying between Espaillat and Linares for political preeminence, for example, is now in its second decade, and several other prominent Latino leaders, like Dominican district leader Maria Luna and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., have already lined up in support of Rangel. 

But Espaillat's ethnic appeal is an explicit part of his campaign. His joke about the "crackers" who were cracking communities of interest during the redistricting process earned him an admonishing editorial in the Daily News that accused him of playing "the race card," and he and his surrogates have at times placed a heavy emphasis on the historic opportunity his candidacy represents for Dominican and Latino voters to elect one of their own to Congress.

The emphasis varies according to audience.

In the interview at Coogan's, Espaillat said, "This campaign is not just about housing, economic development, this is not just about immigration, this is about the American Dream. And making sure that the dream is preserved for every child, whether they're Dominican, black, white, or Asian."

ESPAILLAT'S OWN POLITICAL CAREER STARTED WITH a black preacher, the Rev. Henry Dudley Rucker of the White Rock Baptist Church.

"We used to play stickball, and the church was right downstairs there in the basement," Espaillat said, pointing toward 127th Street. "He sort of like embraced a group of us, and he got us summer jobs, he got us involved in some community stuff, political action."

Espaillat's family had arrived in New York from the Dominican Republican on December 23, 1964, when he was nine years old, after leaving the city of Santiago because, as he put it, "my father ran out of money." The first thing he and his brother did was scramble down the stairs of the Pan-Am plane to touch the snow on the tarmac.

His father, who had been a businessman in Santiago, worked at a gas station, which he eventually came to own, and where Espaillat later helped out changing tires. His uncle had opened one of the first Dominican businesses on Broadway—a record store and TV repair shop—and on weekends, Espaillat would help install antennas.

"Every time there was a storm or big wind or snow, we had to go repair and install antennas," he said. "I know all the rooftops in Northern Manhattan; seriously, I know most of the roofs from 145th Street to maybe 181st Street."

At the now-closed Bishop DuBois High School, Espaillat ran the 220-yard dash (currently known as the 200 meter), which, he says, is how he thinks of the three-month sprint to the June 26 primary. In a normal year, with a September primary, Espaillat estimates he'd need to raise a million dollars to compete with Rangel, but on this year's abbreviated schedule he wasn't sure how much it would take.

"It's a short race so it's very hard to gauge how much is needed, because it's a sprint, right? It's a 220, right?" he said. "I used to run the 220 in 24 seconds. I got to break 24 to do it now."

Espaillat got off to a quick start in late March, raising just over $62,000 in his first 10 days as a declared candidate, which, as his campaign likes to point out, was only $5,000 less than Rangel raised in the first quarter. He lamented that he had a fund-raiser planned after our interview, which conflicted with a Knicks playoff game.

"You know I'm going to suspend my campaign for the rest of the day," he joked, looking up at a TV where an earlier game was playing. "I got a fund-raiser at 4 o'clock. I'm going to take the money and run and go to the nearest bar."

("They just gotta give the ball to Carmelo and let him score," Espaillat advised. "Keep it out of what's his name's hands, Baron Davis, he's a hogger." Anthony had 11 points on 3-of-11 shooting that day; Davis was 4-of-6, with two three-pointers, for 10 points, and the Knicks lost 100 to 67.)

Some deep-pocketed Dominican-Americans are reportedly bundling for his campaign, and the designer Oscar de la Renta, compared it to the election of the first black president in his endorsement last month.

Espaillat likes to talk about his election as "a Jackie Robinson moment" for the Dominican community, but he grew up admiring a different second baseman: Julian Javier, the Dominican-born, slap-hitting second baseman for the St. Louis Cardinals. (Tim McCarver nicknamed Javier "the Phantom;" Espaillat remembered him as "the Ghost"). He pushed back from the table at Coogan's to demonstrate how Javier would trap the ball with his throwing hand outside the glove rather than catching it in the web when he turned a double play.

"But I didn't like second base, because it's boring," said Espaillat. He switched to third base.

In the hands of Reverend Rucker, who once secured some summer jobs for the neighborhood kids by tying himself to a desk at Chemical Bank, politics wasn't boring.

"I'd say about 15 years old, we were picketing supermarkets, doing the school decentralization stuff," Espaillat said. "It was good. His mind was broad enough to embrace a bunch of immigrants' kids who couldn't speak the language."

Espaillat didn't mention it, but Rucker, as it happens, was also an outspoken supporter of Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the barrier-breaking congressman and Harlem institution who Rangel later toppled in an Espaillat-like act of presumption.

When Powell was stripped of his chairmanship in 1967, Rucker helped bus 5,000 Harlem supporters (by his count) to Washington to protest Powell's treatment as racist and unfair.

"The seeds for violence and racial hatred have been sown," Rucker told a reporter. "We may see rioting such as never has been seen in this country before."

When Powell's was threatened with arrest upon his return to Harlem, for an unpaid slander settlement, Rucker said Harlem "was a fortress" for Powell, who he called "the most admired black man in the nation today" and "the personification of the new black man in the United States."

Three years later, Rangel beat Powell in the Democratic primary.

Rangel had capitalized on a redrawn district that diluted Powell's historic Harlem power base and included more white voters from the Upper West Side, and he pressed the point that Powell had become an absentee congressman who wasn't present in the district, and was chronically missing votes in Washington.

The echoes of that in this year's race are unmistakable, though the analogy isn't perfect.

A back injury forced Rangel to miss nearly 150 votes this spring, but prior to that he was one of Washington's most reliable voters. And while Powell, by the end, was spending most of his time on the island of Bimini, Rangel (who famously owns a villa in the Dominican Republic) prides himself on his heavy presence in the district.

Rangel's most glaring liability, the ethics charges that led to his censure and the loss of his chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee, has largely faded from the headlines, and his supporters say Rangel won a district-wide referendum on that issue in 2010, when he took 51 percent of the primary vote, even as the allegations were swirling around him.

And he and Espaillat have long enjoyed a mutually supportive relationship, with Rangel contributing to the senator's campaigns and political club, and Espaillat offering some timely words of support.

In 2010, Espaillat rallied to Rangel's defense when the New York Post reported, on the morning of the Dominican Day Parade, that the congressman was steering millions of dollars to Alianza Dominicana, a Dominican services nonprofit with questionable bookkeeping. (The group's executive director, Moises Perez, was recently hired to manage Rangel's campaign.)

Rangel, in turn, said Espaillat is "a good man and he’s done a lot of good work for the community.

A polling call received by a person who lives in the district asked about Rangel's perceived negatives, but also sounded as if Espaillat might be polling his own negatives, including the senator's ties to dysfunctional Albany, his contributions to a nonprofit that hired people close to him, and his soured relationship with convicted former councilman Miguel Martinez, who was once a protege of Espaillat's.

(A spokesman for Espaillat declined to confirm the poll was conducted by the campaign.)

But a source familiar with Rangel's campaign said they were unlikely to go negative against the senator.

So for now at least, both sides seem content to wage the campaign on whether Rangel has outserved his effectiveness, and to keep the criticisms indirect, if perfectly clear.

"I've heard the seniority [argument], but Democrats are not in power," Espaillat said. "My opponent doesn't chair a committee. The bottom line is that Congress is not functioning. There are significant number of members that are there who are there for the power and not for the people. I think that this is an opportunity for President Obama to surround himself with a new guard, a new young, sharp, smart, aggressive Democratic team of young Turks that will take on the Tea Party and the Republicans."

ESPAILLAT BILLS HIMSELF, IN THIS WAY, AS PART of "the new face of New York," along with Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, who is running for Ed Towns' newly open seat in Brooklyn, and Assemblywoman Grace Meng, who has the county establishment's blessing for an open seat in Queens.

Espaillat and Rangel don't differ much on policy—they're both proud liberals who are left of the national party on most issues—but Espaillat argues that a new voice could help push the Democratic agenda, particularly the Dream Act that has stalled in the Republican House.

But, like the national bill, New York's version of the Dream Act is currently stalled in the State Senate, though Espaillat argued that wasn't a sign of his effectiveness. He said the current bill was only just now coming up for debate, and that he helped pass a bill ten years ago to provide in-state tuition for undocumented students, which forms the core of the federal Dream Act. (The Dream bill stalled in New York's Republican Senate would help provide additional scholarships to those students.)

Espaillat said the real failure in Congress was not passing the bill when Democrats held the House, and that Democrats are letting the Tea Party "push around" the president.

"He was pushed around even when he couldn't get the DREAM Act even with a Democratic majority in Congress," he said. "He got pushed around in his health care reform. It got diluted and watered down to a degree that now Republicans and Democrats don't like it. He's being pushed around on a host of issues that are of critical importance to communities across the nation. And he needs a team of new young unafraid Democratic voices to defend his agenda."

The old ones, belonging to people like Charlie Rangel, weren't getting it done anymore.

"What can you do in two years that you haven't been able to do in 42 years?" he said. "What can you accomplish in two more years that you haven't been able to in 42, nearly half a century?"

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