Rep. Charlie Rangel's relationship with Wall Street is one of the three most resonant issues in his heated Harlem Democratic primary campaign for reelection, his opponent told The Huffington Post.
State Sen. Adriano Espaillat said that voters who have family members without papers put immigration reform at the top, while people in substandard or overpriced housing prioritize that issue. But Espaillat said his recent focus on Wall Street has resonated on the ground like no other abstract issue.
"For something that's somewhat detached from the everyday type of experience -- you can classify it as that -- it's resonating. It's right at the core of what the problems are, the economic problems that are impacting our local neighborhoods," Espaillat said. "Once you explain it to people like that, they understand it and it resonates."
Espaillat directly confronted Rangel over his pro-Wall Street votes during a debate text earlier this month. (Watch the video above.)
Rangel defended himself by claiming that former Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), the namesake of Dodd-Frank, and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), had also supported the bill. While Frank had supported a previous version, he publicly and strongly opposed the more recent bill, which Rangel supported. Pelosi didn't vote on it.
Espaillat said Rangel's inaccurate defense has helped the story gain traction in the media and online. He continues to hit the issue.
"When you say that Rangel has been a friend of Wall Street and not a friend of 116th Street or 181st street, people understand what that means. And our community was disproportionately hurt by the Wall Street debacle and the recession," Espaillat said. "To have the congressman vote for the repeal of Glass-Steagall and then to dilute Dodd Frank and then to sign on to a letter that compelled retirement account advisers to have a fiduciary responsibility to their clients and to look out for them a little bit more, to sign a letter against that is just egregious."
The repeal of Glass-Steagall in the late-1990s, which allowed banks to grow in size and scope, is often cited as a step that led to the financial crisis. The swaps provision Espaillat referenced as diluting Dodd-Frank -- which the native Spanish speaker often calls "Dodd-Franks" -- and the fiduciary issue were both highlighted in a recent HuffPost investigation into the relationship between Wall Street and the Congressional Black Caucus.
If the issue is resonating in Rangel's race, however, it has yet to show up in polls. A survey released Thursday night from NY1/Sienna College found Rangel expanding his lead from 9 points to 13 points against Espaillat as the election on Tuesday looms. As soon-to-be former Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) learned recently, primaries are very difficult to poll because of turnout uncertainties. The heavy influence of Spanish in Rangel's district also complicates the situation.
For the Rangel campaign, Espaillat's last-minute populist push is too much at odds with this record to pay off for him. “When you are an elected official, actions should speak louder than words," said Rangel campaign adviser Charlie King. "First, Senator Espaillat says he’s very concerned about economic inequality, but then he votes with Republicans to give wealthy suburban residents a $10 billion tax cut."
Espaillat voted to repeal New York's commuter tax, which has blown a hole in the city's budget, and now says it was a "terrible vote."
"Espaillat says he’s concerned about poverty wages at big box stores, but doesn't do anything about it," King said. "Then he votes against the only minimum wage increase on the table in Albany? To the extent Senator Espaillat has had any impact at all on the hardworking people of the 13th Congressional District, it has been with actions that have hurt their bottom line. His leadership on pocketbook issues has sadly been nonexistent."
But if Espaillat's populism knocks off a veteran incumbent and lifts him into Congress, he'll have a long public record of opposition to Wall Street giveaways, which, regardless of his past record on other issues, could push him to vote with the reform crowd.
Other members of Congress, he said, ought to pay attention to what's happening in the primary as well. "It certainly highlights the fact that traditional issues that would be considered are no longer the only ones," he said. "You had Occupy Wall Street -– perhaps that’s when it was more more visible and people were highly aware of it, but they’re still aware of it. Things have not gotten better yet. ... I think it will play a role in other congressional races."
While it may be the poor hit hardest by Wall Street, it's the middle class that has responded the most to Espaillat's Wall Street line, perhaps because they have fewer immediate needs, yet still feel the pressure of falling wages, rising costs and a sputtering economy. Espaillat lost a close race to Rangel in 2012 and said he thinks Wall Street could be the difference in 2014.
"People that are still undecided -- it could be as high as 20 percent -- they're still looking to find a reason why to vote for somebody or against somebody," he said. "And this is one that I think resonates, particularly in middle-class neighborhoods in the district [where people] will probably prioritize that even a little higher and I think it could make a difference."
Sign up below to get an email when Ryan Grim publishes a new story