Despite Long Odds, Walrond Believes His Message is Resonating

Despite Long Odds, Walrond Believes His Message is Resonating

Despite Long Odds, Walrond Believes His Message is Resonating
June 24, 2014

Don't call Michael Walrond a spoiler. 

For the past several months of his campaign for Congress, the prevailing narrative has been that Walrond is in the NY-13 Democratic Primary to siphon votes away from Rep. Charlie Rangel's African-American base in Harlem and has no real shot at winning the race. Walrond may be facing long odds in his attempt to pull off an upset against two political heavyweights in Rangel and state Sen. Adriano Espaillat, but he believes his message has taken hold with voters in the district, whom he believes have lacked an honest representative voice in the House.

Speaking with City & State on a street corner in east Harlem, where his campaign volunteers were energetically flagging down cars and pedestrians encouraging them to vote, Walrond reflected on the commitment of his congregation and his mission of engaging voters who otherwise would not have been interested in local politics. 

"Our people, the majority of them have never been engaged on a campaign before, never volunteered on a campaign before," Walrond said. "And so they’ve been working hard for seven months, I couldn’t be more humbled by the level of commitment and the level of belief in my candidacy."

"The whole notion of being a spoiler, I’ve never been invested in that because the idea is if there are 200,000-some-odd registered Democrats in the district, I don’t want to take away from someone’s 18,000 votes, I want to go after the people who are not voting," he continued. "That’s what we’ve been doing, we’ve been trying to touch those general voters who don’t come out in primaries and give them a reason to come out. I want to create a whole new base of voters."

Win or lose, Walrond hopes to leave the message with his supporters to believe in the political process. Espaillat and Rangel are career politicians, he said, who have fallen out of touch with people on the ground. Walrond spoke in the kind of rapid fire monologues befitting a man of the cloth, who regularly speaks in front of hundreds of congregants. He described himself as a "bundle of nerves," having never experienced anything close to the suspense of election night.

When asked if he leaned on one of his mentors, Rev. Al Sharpton—a veteran of several longshot political campaigns—for advice, Walrond said that the influential pastor told him "don't be overwhelmed" by the campaign itself and to tune out the media and polls that might not be in touch with the campaign's messaging. 

"[Sharpton] said he knows what it is to be viewed as an outsider when he ran for Senate," Walrond said. "Primarily because people don’t poll the people who come out and support these kinds of candidacies, like mine. Many of the people who come out are not triple prime voters, but this is their first time voting or they’ve voted in one primary before. His advice was to stay focused, stay on message. ... That’s what we’ve done from the beginning …[I] believe that at the end of the day something’s gonna shift and the tide’s gonna turn." 

Walrond's supporters echo his unwavering faith. Joyce, an older woman who is a member of Walrond's First Corinthian Baptist Church (FCBC), said that Walrond has an understanding of the issues on the ground that Espaillat and Rangel never would possess.

"Hearing Espaillat and Rangel speak is no concern," Joyce said. "I know that over the combination of over 60 years they haven’t done much for the people. I feel very strongly that [Walrond] will make a difference in this community, in this district."

Ken Holley, who helps out at FCBC's food pantry, believes that Walrond's campaign message has resonated, and that he is laying the grassroots groundwork for the future. 

"He’s not only representative of the 13th congressional district, but those in the neighboring communities that come [to his church] because they know what FCBC provides," Holley said. "That’s something that we can take to a whole 'nother level. This is not about 2 years, this is about our future and our future’s not going to be played with."

Still, some are unconvinced that Walrond might be a viable successor should Rangel hold his seat this time around. Up the street from Walrond's volunteers on 1st Avenue, three Rangel campaign workers passed out literature supporting the congressman. When the topic of Walrond's campaign came up, the group bristled, dismissing the pastor with the very label he shunned: spoiler. 

"He doesn't have a snowball's chance in hell," said Betty, a retired health care worker. "It's clear who he is: he's a spoiler. The intent was for him to be a spoiler, and thank God he's not even going to be successful at that." 

But Walrond has heard it all, and is unfazed by such talk. He refuses to concede tonight's race, and truly believes that some may be surprised at the final outcome. 

"It's funny. I was reading the New York Times piece that was done. They were talking about [the late political consultant] Bill Lynch's desire that I would be the future. He was a mentor of mine. One thing he always said to me was, he said, 'Rev, they’re not going to see you coming.' He said that when they see you it’s going to be too late. So I’m believing in that and hoping on that, so we’re ready."

Nick Powell