Mostly a background issue before, the heated topic of race dominated the first televised debate with Rep. Charles Rangel and his top two challengers, which left Rangel defending his charged remarks and his main opponent responding that the longtime elected official was trying to save his job by dividing New Yorkers. NY1's Josh Robin filed the following report.
Charles Rangel says his main opponent is running solely on his ethnicity.
"Just what the heck has he done besides saying he's a Dominican?" Rangel said.
State Senator Adriano Espaillat would be the first from the Caribbean island in Congress.
Rangel's remark surprised observers. Race is a fixture of New York City politics, especially in the diverse 13th Congressional District, but the congressman hasn't wielded it quite so bluntly and repeatedly, especially in a televised debate.
"He wants to be the Jackie Robinson of the Dominicans in the Congress," Rangel said. "Which is ambitious, but the fact is that Jackie Robinson was a star before he reached the major leagues. And he's not a Jackie Robinson."
"I'm really saddened that the congressman tries to frame this race in racial and ethnic silos," Espaillat said. "I think that's a disservice to your constituents, congressman."
Espaillat wasn't done. Soon after the debate ended, his campaign emailed a statement from Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr.
"Congressman Rangel's race-baiting is unacceptable," it began.
Rangel's camp, though, says Espaillat wants it both ways. It pointed to a flier from their first match two years ago. Espaillat said a Rangel backer, who is Dominican-American, "betrayed us."
Espaillat suggests it was the work of a heated campaign. He isn't apologizing.
Rangel now relies on more advanced technology. After wielding a cellphone as a prop last month, this time, he really looked up responses on his iPad. The moderator told him to put it away.
Looking on was a third candidate in the race: the Rev. Michael Walrond, who leads a large Harlem church. A reporter asked him after if he ever wanted to smack his rivals, no matter what the Bible says.
"I didn't want to smack either one of them, but there were times when I felt compelled to pray for both of them," Walrond said.
The fireworks could very well continue at a debate next Wednesday. NY1 will host it live from Lehman College in the Bronx at 7 p.m. All three men are scheduled to attend.