Rep. Charles B. Rangel, facing formidable opposition in his Harlem stronghold, vowed Tuesday that this year's contest would be the last time he voted for himself "for any office" as residents in New York's hotly contested 13th Congressional District cast ballots in the Democratic primary.
As he walked into his polling station, Rangel, 84, delivered a withering criticism of the tea party and discussed national politics, but he avoided talking about state Sen. Adriano Espaillat, 59, who polls indicate is his toughest rival. Espaillat has trailed Rangel in voter surveys, but he came within about 1,000 votes of ousting Rangel when they faced off in 2012.
Rangel, first elected in 1970, is vying for his 23rd term, and he said Tuesday that with the gridlock in Washington, voters needed someone with his experience to help push through legislation and help break what he called the tea party's stranglehold on progress.
"The tea party won't release the regular Republicans who want to do the right thing," Rangel said. Referring to voters who might think he's been in office long enough, Rangel said: "I just hope ... that they can say, 'Hey, there's a politician that served this community, that served it well, and he's asking for two more years to wrap it up."
Speaking outside his polling place Tuesday, Espaillat repeated his argument that it was time for a change. He said the district's housing crunch and income gap have grown worse under Rangel, who in 2010 was found guilty of 11 ethics violations. The violations included failure to report income and pay taxes on a villa in the Dominican Republic and using a rent-stabilized apartment in Harlem as a campaign office.
"This is a district that needs real help from Washington," said Espaillat, citing high rents and the income gap as key problems in a district that spans heavily Latino and African American areas of upper Manhattan and the Bronx. "Income inequality -- this has become the epicenter of that," he said.
Two other candidates -- Michael Walrond Jr., a Harlem pastor, and Yolanda Garcia, a Bronx community activist -- are running, and each has the capacity to snag votes from either of the front-runners. Because of the district's racial makeup, Walrond, who is black, is seen as likely to take votes from Rangel. Garcia, like Espaillat, is Dominican-born and could shave off some of the senator's votes.
As in 2012, race and ethnicity became issues in the campaign, with Rangel in one debate taking a jab at Espaillat by questioning what he had done besides "saying he's a Dominican."
Espaillat is vying to become the first Dominican American elected to the House of Representatives. He portrayed Rangel as an entitled career politician who only looked out for himself, not his mainly working-class and poor constituents.
Despite this, Rangel on Tuesday insisted that the campaign had been civil and that race had not entered into it. He arrived at his polling place to find a handful of admirers, including Calvin Hunt, who wore a white T-shirt with a large photograph of Rangel on the front.
"I've lived in Harlem all my life, and Charlie is home," Hunt said, voicing the loyalty that helped Rangel weather the ethics scandal and other hiccups in his career.
Hunt, 53, said he was a parishioner at Walrond's church and admired the pastor. "He's a great speaker," Hunt said, "but when it comes to the political nitty-gritty, I think we need experience in Washington. I hope the preacher understands that."
A few blocks away, two Walrond volunteers, Joyce Wright and Pat Russell, passed out fliers at a busy corner, urging voters to support the pastor, who has never held political office.
"He's for the people. He's not a career politician," Wright said.
Both women said they recall Rangel's ethics issues, which led to a House censure -- the first since 1983. "I think he had his time," Russell said. "I think he should have bowed out gracefully."
Asked what chance Walrond had of defeating either Rangel or Espaillat, Wright said: "Absolutely awesome."
Espaillat was similarly upbeat about his chances, despite the polls.
"Nothing is impossible if you really fight for it," he said after casting his ballot and flashing a thumbs-up sign.
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