NEW YORK (AP) — Rep. Charles Rangel charged in a debate Friday that his chief opponent in the Democratic primary for New York's 13th Congressional District is running because he wants to be "the Jackie Robinson of the Dominicans in the Congress."
Rangel said state Sen. Adriano Espaillat should tell voters "just what the heck has he done besides saying he's a Dominican?"
Espaillat responded, "It saddens me that the congressman has to stoop and lower himself to these kind of unfounded attacks."
Rangel, Espaillat and a third candidate for the June 24 primary, Harlem pastor Michael Walrond, debated in the Manhattan studio of WABC-TV. The debate will air Sunday.
They sparred on issues including housing and economic development, but Rangel circled back repeatedly to his claim that Espaillat was running because the district, which spans parts of upper Manhattan and the Bronx, has become increasingly Latino.
Espaillat, who narrowly lost to Rangel in the 2012 Democratic primary for the seat, would be the first Dominican-born member of Congress if he won.
Rangel said that Espaillat put out campaign literature in 2012 referring to a Dominican who did not support him as a traitor.
The 2012 flyer, which Rangel's campaign supplied to reporters, says that then-Assemblyman Guillermo Linares "had the chance to help send the first Latino from Northern Manhattan to Congress" but that "he chose instead to betray us."
"Do you believe that someone that has a Dominican background, if they don't support you, would be a traitor?" Rangel asked Espaillat.
"You're the one framing this debate along racial and ethnic lines." Espaillat answered. "You are creating division and you are bringing race and ethnicity to a debate that should be about issues."
Pressed about the flyer after the debate, Espaillat said, "Things were said in the heat of the moment from both camps that were not exactly the right thing to say about anybody."
Rangel was first elected to Congress in 1970 and has long reigned as one of New York City's most powerful elected officials.
Rangel was the first black chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee but was stripped of his chairmanship in 2010 during an investigation into financial impropriety.
The House Ethics Committee found Rangel guilty of 11 counts of violating House ethics rules and the full House approved a sanction of censure against Rangel in December 2010.
Rangel said he remains the most effective candidate to represent the district, but Espaillat countered that Rangel has only passed one piece of legislation in the four years "ever since he's had his ethical problems."
Walrond criticized both opponents for fighting over ethnic issues.
The clergyman, who at 43 is 40 years younger than Rangel and 16 years younger than Espaillat, said after the debate, "I'm used to being the adult in the room. Today was no different."