Robin Williams used to have a mordant joke back in the early 80s that the violence in Northern Ireland proved that when there were no black, Hispanic or Arab people around, “white people can improvise.” An ironic witticism, if you know any European history, but it was always good for an uncomfortable laugh. Yesterday’s Democratic primary in New York’s 13th Congressional District put me in mind of that wisecrack.
NY-13 covers a part of Upper Manhattan that has been the fiefdom of Harlem-based Democrat Charlie Rangel for decades, and it’s the safest of safe Democratic districts: Barack Obama carried it 95-5 in 2008, 93-6 in 2012. A valuable bleeping thing, as Rod Blagojevich would say. But while the district includes some of the nation’s most historic African-American neighborhoods, it also includes places like Washington Heights (my parents’ old neighborhood) that have been predominantly Dominican for decades, and immigration is rapidly reshaping its demographics. The district is now 52% Hispanic and only 27% African-American. The Dominican community is ready for its own place in the sun, while the African-American population has the same sorts of resentments and anxieties we see in any group that feels it’s on the losing side of its neighborhood’s population trends.
In each of the past two elections, Rangel has fended off primary challenges from Dominican-born State Senator Adriano Espaillat. Rangel’s retirement left a divided field of African-American candidates – led by Rangel’s handpicked protégé, Assemblyman Keith Wright – facing Espaillat, who if elected would be the first Dominican-born Congressman. Espaillat declared victory last night, leading Wright 37-34, and Politico’s report on Wright’s reaction shows that with no white Republicans around, Democrats can improvise:
“No candidate can declare victory tonight,” he told supporters, saying a determination must wait “until every vote is counted.” Wright said there was a “real possibility of a lot of campaign irregularities and voter suppression” that may have impacted the results. He cited a memo written by a consultant to a pro-Espaillat super PAC that said Espaillat would win if he “[p]revents or suppresses the White Progressive and African American vote for Asm. Keith Wright.” Wright called it “an active and documented effort to suppress the vote” in remarks to reporters on Tuesday night. “Now, whether that suppression was illegal or not illegal, has to be looked at, has to be investigated,” he said….[Rev. Al] Sharpton…echoed Wright’s concerns on Tuesday night, saying he “was extremely concerned about voter suppression.”
Wright had been beating this drum before the vote as well, sending out an email claiming “Pro Espaillat Forces Raising Money to Suppress African American Vote on Tuesday.” Meanwhile, on Saturday, Sharpton vilified one of Wright’s African-American opponents (a former political director at the Democratic National Committee), telling a rally that “you’re supposed to be attracted to Negros you ain’t never seen before. I mean, they must have a laboratory to just create these Negros.” Sharpton continued:
“They are planning on suppressing our vote. And they’re planning on you not showing up. Because after 65 or 70 years of leadership of Powell and Rangel, they think you too dumb to stand up for yourself,” he said. “They betting on you being stupid. They want to suppress us, they want to distract us. …“They want to control who speaks for us. It’s all a matter of control.”
Neither side has been innocent of racially charged rhetoric, as illustrated by a 2012 Espaillat flyer accusing a fellow Latino lawmaker of “betray[ing] us” by endorsing Rangel over Espaillat when he “had the chance to help send the first Latino from Northern Manhattan to Congress,” and by comments from Espaillat and Wright about the court-appointed special master who redrew the district in 2012:
Wright, repeatedly referred to the judge who drew the congressional lines by her formal title, “special master” replacing the “er” sound with an “ah” and saying, “I don’t like being told what to do by a special master.”…”So these crackers, that are here today,” Espaillat said, to cheers from the crowd, “still around, crackers, that are here today, cracking districts all over the city of New York, cracking here and cracking there.”
In the end, though, demographics trump rhetoric. Rangel’s reaction to his seat going to a non-African American sounds like something right out of the shell-shocked Remain camp after the Brexit vote: “I never thought about that ever happening in all of my years, 72 years…It’s always been. How can that be?”