- Associated Press - Friday, June 13, 2014

NEW YORK (AP) - The tightly contested Democratic primary race between longtime U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel and state Sen. Adriano Espaillat has taken on an uncomfortable edge, with accusations of racial politics in a historically black district that’s now majority Hispanic.

The back-and-forth in the first of a pair of debates this month prompted calls by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and the Rev. Al Sharpton for the candidates to stay focused on issues before the June 24 primary in the 13th Congressional District.

Rangel, who turned 84 this week and is seeking a 23rd term, has accused Espaillat, who would be the first Dominican-born member of Congress if elected, of trading more on ethnic ties and pride than on his record.

“He wants to be the Jackie Robinson of the Dominicans in the Congress,” Rangel said at a debate earlier in June, adding that Espaillat should tell voters “just what the heck has he done besides saying he’s a Dominican?”

Espaillat, 59, expressed disappointment in Rangel’s jabs, saying, “It saddens me that the congressman has to stoop and lower himself to these kind of unfounded attacks.”

But Espaillat has brought ethnicity into his quest to represent the area in the past. In 2012, the first time he ran, his campaign was responsible for a flier that accused another Dominican official of “betraying his community” for his support of Rangel.

Espaillat has said in connection to the flier that “things were said … that were not exactly the right thing to say about anybody,” but Rangel hasn’t let go, revisiting the issue at their most recent debate Wednesday.

“It’s just a wrong thing to do when you say that someone who talks like you, looks like you has an obligation to vote with you under the threat of being a traitor,” Rangel said.

Issues of ethnicity have come up because the boundaries of the district were redrawn after the last decennial census, taking out some of the lower part around Columbia University and adding area by pushing into a small part of the Bronx. Hispanics, including a growing Dominican community, now make up the majority of residents, while the black population is roughly stable and the white population has decreased.

It’s not unusual for racial or ethnic groups in an area who make up a large part of its residents to push for greater representation. Rangel himself won his first congressional term in 1970 by defeating legendary Harlem politician Adam Clayton Powell, who became the first black congressman from New York in 1944 as African-Americans were pushing for more political power.

“What we see here is two groups basically fighting it out through the congressional race between Rangel and Espaillat,” said Fredrick Harris, a political science professor at Columbia University.

But onlookers have been quick to urge this line of talk be tamped down. De Blasio, who managed Rangel’s campaign in 1994 but has refused to make an endorsement in the race, chided the candidates. “There’s no place in this discussion for questions of race or nationality,” he said.

And Sharpton, who has a long history of not shying away from issues of race, cautioned the candidates to keep the campaign from ending up “in a tribal war where people choose sides based on race rather than who can do the best job.”

In the debate Wednesday, Rangel and Espaillat did indeed focus more on issues such as education, housing and even horse-drawn carriages.

It also gave the third candidate, the Rev. Michael Waldron, a chance to set himself above the fray.

“We need a visionary in this position,” he said, “not persons who are participating in divisiveness unnecessarily or pettiness in debates.”

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