The Unreported Reason Espaillat Lost

The Unreported Reason Espaillat Lost

The Unreported Reason Espaillat Lost
July 1, 2014

It seems like every pundit and partisan has theories and opinions about why the NY-13 Democratic Primary turned out as it did, so I thought I would throw my perspective into the mix, and bring to light an overlooked reason State Sen. Adriano Espaillat has twice failed to defeat el viejo Congressman Charles Rangel—a reason which leads me to believe that Espaillat likely will never become the first Dominican elected to the House of Representatives. 

This column isn't just a walk down memory lane. I'm working from my notes and recollections from four years ago while covering the New York State Democratic Convention. A spontaneous Q&A took place in the hall right outside the main room of the Hilton Westchester in Rye Brook. That's where the Democrats convened to anoint then Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo as their gubernatorial nominee.

I was less interested in that coronation than I was in what was developing at that moment in time among Dominican políticos, so I had pulled up to a group of about 15 Dominican political bigwigs and wannabes, including Guillermo Linares, who in 1991 had become one of the first two Dominicans elected to office in the United States when he won a seat in the New York City Council, and María Luna, a State Democratic Party official, who is a wise veteran leader in her own right.

The gist of my questions to this group of dominicanos was essentially ¿qué carajo está haciendo Adriano? For monolingual readers, this loosely translates as, “What the hell is Adriano doing?”

“Why would he give up his seniority in the Assembly? What was so important about running for the Senate seat vacated by Eric Schneiderman?” continued my barrage. I asked Linares specifically, “Why don’t you run?”

Instantly, the can of worms opened that plagues the ever-growing Dominican community in the Big Mangó. In Spanish, it's sometimes referred to as “quítate tu para ponerme yo” syndrome.

That day in Rye Brook, Linares smiled at me as the others formed a semicircle, looking at me like if I had stepped on a bleeding wound. Several of them spoke simultaneously, but I focused on the soft-spoken gentleman in front of me.

“I want to run for the Senate,” Linares shared, “but Adriano also wants to run.” The smile disappeared and he revealed through a shrug of his shoulders a reluctant acceptance of his current reality.

Term limits had forced Linares out of the Council on Dec. 31, 2001 and since then he hadn’t enjoyed being a regular citizen. He often reminisced about the good he did during his days in office and bemoaned all that remained to be done in and for his community.

Even though Linares remained in public service as chair of President Clinton's Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans—an appointment made by the POTUS in 1999—the Cabrera, D.R.-native yearned for a comeback as an elected. 

In 2004 Linares had briefly made a return to the spotlight when Mayor Bloomberg named him the New York City’s first Commissioner of Immigrant Affairs. However, by the ex-councilman’s own admission, no appointment could give him the freedom to do what he could as an elected official.

It seemed like all of the Dominicans gathered around me in that hallway that day had something to say. I wrote as fast as I could. They were agitated. It was raw, uninhibited emotion that I just had to capture.

Most of what was communicated was not complimentary of Espaillat. Luna had the most to say about what she perceived to be Espaillat's irrational, self-centered decision to run for the State Senate. My interlocutors all agreed that Espaillat was setting himself up to have a greater presence within Rangel's congressional district. To them, Espaillat’s intentions were clear: his plan was to challenge Rangel in 2012. I thought they were getting way ahead of themselves.

As far as pursuing the Senate seat, Espaillat was acting with the blessing and support of the incumbent Eric Schneiderman, who is considered a friend by many Dominicans and even an adopted dominicano by some. The group wasn’t going to publicly trash Schneiderman, but they did call him a blind ally of Espaillat’s.

Since his election to the State Assembly in 1995, Espaillat had outshined the less visible and mild-mannered Linares, and aggressively solidified his political base. While Espaillat didn’t unite all Dominicans, he effectively conveyed the appearance to those outside of the community—and many within it—that he was the main voice of his compatriotas.

When Linares had made it public that he wanted to run for the seat Schneiderman was giving up to run for attorney general, Espaillat had pushed back hard, making it clear that he, as the state’s ranking Dominican elected official, was calling the shots. 

During that engaging hallway conversation four years ago, Rubén Díaz, Jr. was one of the many politicians who walked by us. The Bronx Borough President was the only one to stop—only to tell the group that they shouldn't listen to me. I remember saying to the group that if Adriano acted selfishly, he risked leaving Dominicans without a senior representative in the Assembly. “That's all been worked out,” Díaz assured them as he walked away.

It sure had been worked out. Schneiderman, the incumbent, was all in for his amigo.

These Dominicans weren't pleased, and were not shy about sharing their frustrations with me. Espaillat’s power play had dented his armor in their eyes, but not enough to keep him from barreling forward. Linares clearly wasn’t happy, but he and his allies begrudgingly accepted the situation nonetheless. Not everyone thought Espaillat could win. But he did. As for Linares, Espaillat handed him his Assembly seat as a consolation prize and he won easily. The election that November made all of them winners.

The unity didn’t last long.

Espaillat kept building and expanding his political base. He made political inroads into Rangel's territory from his perch as the 31st district’s state senator. 

By 2012 it was clear what Espaillat had been up to all along. He was going to challenge the politically scarred and vulnerable ex-chairman of the Ways and Means Committee whose severe back problems and overall health limited his mobility. Luna tried to persuade Espaillat not to run against Rangel. She arraigned a meeting with Rangel at which Espaillat assured the congressman he wasn't going to challenge him. Needless to say, he didn't keep his word.

Linares wasn't about to continue to be an obedient Espaillat puppet. In 2012 he made that clear by endorsing Rangel and vigorously campaigning on his behalf. Luna did the same.

Linares also threw his hat into the ring to run for Espaillat’s Senate seat. That decision was in part the result of the fact that Espaillat had said publicly he wasn't running for reelection—he was running for Congress.

Until he wasn’t. 

After Espaillat lost, he did an about-face and broke his promise not to run for his Senate seat. At the same time, to punish Linares for his impudence in trying to lay claim to a seat that belonged to him, Espaillat got the then obscure Gabriela Rosa to run against Mayra Linares, Guillermo’s daughter, who was seeking to replace her father in the Assembly, since he had vacated his seat to vie for Espaillat’s. 

These maneuvers were now far more than political; they were very personal. The divide had become deep and permanent.

Espaillat cruised to reelection, crushing Guillermo Linares by almost 25 points, while Rosa defeated Mayra Linares.

But that is not the end of this story. That infighting is just one of the many reasons why Espaillat failed to force Rangel into retirement back in 2012 and now again in 2014. 

I didn't know it then, but that exchange in the hallway of a hotel in Rye Brook had given me a peek into the Dominican version of the Hatfields and McCoys feud.

To date, Linares has already collected enough qualifying signatures to challenge Espaillat in the Democratic primary this September. If he makes the ballot there will likely be a three-way primary worthy of an MMA bout between the incumbent Espaillat, his compatriota Linares, and the fiery former Councilman Robert Jackson, an African-American.

If there's a three-way primary, guess which way gamblers are almost certain to place their bets. 

That is, unless, of course, Linares bows out, and decides instead to pursue his old Assembly seat, which he is also collecting signatures for. That seat suddenly became vacant after Gabriela Rosa had to resign in disgrace on June 27—the same Gabriela Rosa who Espaillat used as a blunt tool in his long-term scheme to become the most powerful Dominican ever in New York. Which he clearly isn't.

¡Me encanta la política!

Gerson Borrero