Rangel dances to finish line ahead of vote

HARLEM, N.Y. -- Just three days before voters head to the polls, Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) and his primary challenger, state Sen. Adriano Espaillat, were both working feverishly to ignore the obvious.

For Espaillat on Saturday, a campaign caravan of 60 cars or more and an estimated 400 supporters and volunteers that wound nearly four miles through upper Manhattan belied his double-digit deficit in a Siena College/NY1 survey out last Thursday.

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For Rangel, a dance party in Harlem that featured a female rapper and a visit from Fugees founding member Pras Michel put a fresh and youthful face on a congressman whose age of 84 and more than four decades in office have been seen as his biggest liabilities in a year voters nationwide are yearning for change.

Still, cracks showed below the surface of both campaigns’ narratives on Saturday.

Espaillat dismissed the polling and refused to speculate on whether he’d run yet again if unsuccessful this time. In 2012, he fell just short of toppling Rangel. 

“I feel very good where I am. I was in East Harlem yesterday and I feel tremendous about the [support there] — we’re gonna push right through to Tuesday,” he said.

“I’m gonna win. I’m not going to contemplate a scenario where that’s not the result," Espaillat insisted.

But many of his aides and supporters, speaking privately, brought up the poll unprompted and enthusiastically sought to debunk it, showing that the numbers weighed on their minds.

Meanwhile, Rangel’s own youth ambassador at his campaign rally dated him. 

Telling the story of how he met the congressman, Michel admitted when he reached out, “he didn’t even know who I was.”

“He didn’t know who the Fugees were, he didn’t know who Pras was, he had no idea — you know, he’s from the big band era,” he added.

Nonetheless, the Siena College poll revealed that nearly 60 percent of voters see Rangel’s age as more of an asset than a liability.

Espaillat leads with voters under 50 — and indeed, there were far more younger supporters marching with the state senator than there were dancing with Rangel — but not all young people in the district are turned off by Rangel’s age.

Brenne Robinson, a 28-year-old accountant from Harlem who stopped by Rangel’s rally to snap a few pictures, said she was worried about losing his know-how in Congress.

“When somebody new comes in, they’re gonna have to learn the system. So I think the older the better, sometimes,” she said.

And Espaillat seems to know that Rangel’s age and long tenure isn’t enough to bring down the congressman. He’s not just out of touch, Espaillat said -- he’s off the mark with respect to financial policy.

“I think that after 44 years the congressman has been very detached and somewhat doesn’t understand his district, and that’s why…he sided with Wall Street, as opposed to the streets in this neighborhood,” he said.

Rangel’s main concern in the final days, it appears, is voter apathy. He won by just over 1,000 votes in 2012 and each one seems still fresh in his mind.

“Always remember that. As much as we appreciate the polls, polls dont vote,” he told the crowd on Saturday.

But the rally itself was a reminder of the potential apathy problem.

Half of the patrons at the half-empty diner where he held his event had their eyes glued to the tied Germany-Ghana World Cup Game screening on a projector, even as a small crowd gathered around a dancing Rangel as the “Wobble” blasted out on the patio.

To combat that, Rangel’s been hitting the pavement hard, and has found a boogeyman to give Democratic primary voters an added reason to head to the pollls: The Tea Party.

He mentions the movement on the campaign trail far more than one might expect from a black Democrat in Harlem, far from the Tea Party’s traditional strongholds.

“Tell people that Dr. Martin Luther King and so many others died for our Democratic right to vote, and even as we talk today there’s some people in the Tea Party that refuse to believe the Civil War is over and they lost,” he said on Saturday.

Still, Espaillat’s doing what he can to get his own voters to the polls.

Espaillat needs to turn out his base of Dominican supporters and eat into Rangel’s advantage in Harlem if he hopes to be successful; his caravan was aimed at doing just that.

Campaign caravans are a staple of politics in the Dominican Republic, and they’re a tradition for Espaillat. This one began in the southern tip of the district, Rangel’s territory, and wove up through Washington Heights, where Espaillat sees strong support. He stopped to shake hands every few blocks and even at one point taking a swig of a supporter’s beer.

Rangel needs black voters to head to the ballot box on Tuesday, and much of his Saturday event was aimed at reminding those voters of the Civil Rights movement and Rangel’s role in it.

Both insist, however, they’re not pitching voters solely based on race. Polling has shown the vote splitting along clear racial lines, though Rangel — who is also part Puerto Rican — takes a larger portion of the Hispanic vote than Espaillat takes of the black vote.

But black voters will turn out for Espaillat as well. Adama Mansary, a 59-year-old Ghanaian-American, ran up to give Espaillat a hug as the caravan rolled past.

She preferred him, she said after, not because of any particular policies or a need for fresh blood, but because she felt Espaillat really listens.

“If you meet [Rangel] in a restaurant, you try to greet Rangel, he don’t even look to be enthusiastic — its only now that they’re campaigning he wants to be nice like that. Espaillat’s not like that, whether he’s going to be [a congressman] or not, he waits by the subway, he sees the people, he greets them, he listens to your problems,” she said.

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