6:19 pm Jul. 4, 2012
After his leading opponent alleged "voter suppression" in last week's Democratic primary, Charlie Rangel convened a press conference on Wednesday to commemorate the July 4th holiday and defend the vote-counting process that currently has him holding on to a narrow lead.
"This election in my mind is more than just between me and my three opponents," Rangel, 82, said today while standing in front of a statue of his predecessor, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.
"We are going through a time that the marches that I participated in, the ones that 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery, the voting rights that people [fought] for and died for, people are trying to take those rights away from them as we talk. They're trying to do it."
Rangel was speaking publicly for the first time since his convincing victory on primary night was called into question by his leading opponent, State Senator Adriano Espaillat.
Espaillat has claimed in court papers that "voter suppression" against Hispanic voters and faulty vote-counting by election workers may account for Rangel's margin of victory, which currently stands at 802 votes, with more than 2,000 affidavit ballots to be counted starting tomorrow.
Espaillat, who is vying to be the first Dominican-American elected to Congress, has waged a sustained public relations campaign to have the current vote total discredited. "We cannot have a Florida-type situation in New York State," Espaillat told reporters at a press conference on Monday, comparing the race to the disputed results in the 2000 presidential race between George W. Bush and Al Gore. Espaillat's aides have tried casting their candidate as the victim of a conspiracy by powerful political forces looking to steal an election, a theme reminiscent of the Gore camp's complaints in 2000.
Rangel sent a fund-raising email to supporters early in the week, saying he was "baffled" by his Espaillat's reaction, but Wednesday marked the first public comments from the congressman about the situation, and his pushback come on an otherwise slow news day. (The only other major events happening in New York were a hot dog eating contest earlier in the day and a firework display later tonight.)
Rangel defended the poll workers and, by extension, the vote-counting operation that, so far, has him leading.
"I thought it would be an appropriate time to say, thank god for this system and those people who work hard to make this system work," Rangel told reporters. He went on to say, "don't knock the system, it's all that we have."
By invoking the civil rights marches of the 1960s, Rangel seemed to suggest that he and his supporters, many of whom are African-American, are an extension of the marchers, and the opponents are the vote-suppressors, attempting to use the courts to take away voters' voices.
When I asked Rangel about Espaillat's claims of voter suppression, Rangel said the allegations were made publicly but not in court.
The congressman seemed to be unaware that Espaillat had filed new court papers late Tuesday, which asserted that his campaign "received hundreds of reports from irate Latino enrolled Democrats" who said "they were wrongly turned away from their polling places without being permitted to vote. They were not offered the opportunity to cast affidavit ballots and in some cases were unlawfully denied affidavit ballots when they requested them from the Board of Elections inspectors of elections."
In the court papers, Espaillat's campaign also claimed "new inspectors yelled at Hispanics who came to vote, told some there was no election, denied others affidavit ballots and otherwise intimated Hispanic voters."
After reporters informed Rangel of Espaillat's complaint, the congressman said, "I'm not making a big a deal out of papers that were served on the Fourth of July or the eve of it."