Gentrification at crux of debate among candidates vying for Rangel’s seat

Candidates looking to succeed U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel disputed the value of legislative experience during a debate Monday night, with some pointing to their work in Albany as evidence of political acumen and others suggesting the Capitol’s lack of transparency and recent corruption scandals raised concerns.

Despite some contenders presenting themselves as seasoned legislators and others as untainted novices, all seven standing on the Hostos Community College stage Monday night focused on protecting the district’s history as an affordable home for black and Latino New Yorkers by insulating it from gentrification.

Assemblyman Keith Wright, who is chairman of the chamber’s Housing Committee, went so far as to boast that he killed efforts to revive the controversial 421-a property tax abatement. He described the benefit, which was often used to encourage landlords to set aside 20 percent of a building for affordable apartments, as real estate developer’s priority this legislative session.

“I have been a warrior against gentrification,” Wright said. “I have tried to make sure as a much as possible that indigenous folks in this great, great community will be able to benefit from the good times as they’ve gone through the bad times.”

Nine candidates are seeking the Democratic Party’s line in the June 28 primary for Rangel’s seat, which stretches from Harlem up through Washington Heights and Inwood and into parts of the west Bronx. As Rangel prepares to retire, four former and current state legislators have sought to replace him - Wright, state Sen. Adriano Espaillat, Assemblyman Guillermo Linares, former Assemblyman Adam Clayton Powell IV - along with Clyde Williams, who previously worked as a political director for the Democratic National Committee, former Ambassador Suzan Johnson Cook and Michael Gallagher, a father from Washington Heights. The district has expanded and undergone dramatic demographic shifts since Rangel began representing it in 1971.

Williams, who worked in the White House under President Barack Obama and former President Bill Clinton, ticked off statistics about how much rents had gone up in various parts of the district since Wright assumed his chairmanship position. “If that’s success, I would hate to see what failure looks like,” he said.

Meanwhile, several candidates said they’d model initiatives after the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone, an economic development program Rangel started. Espaillat proposed “gentrification mitigation zones,” where the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development would work with tenants and attempt to help them form cooperatives by purchasing their apartment buildings. And Cook, who also served in the Obama and Clinton administrations, said she’d urge the department to start a program - like the empowerment zone - that targeted its funding toward the congressional district.

But Powell called the zone a “mixed bag,” saying he believed some of its beneficiaries were selected based on politics, rather than merits. “That fueled the gentrification that we’re suffering for today,” he said. “It’s a gentrification that’s spreading like cancer.”

Powell, the son of New York’s first African-American congressman, closed by saying his father created the “blueprint” for social justice and he’d like to build on it. Cook said communities had the opportunity to make history again by electing the district’s first female Congress member. And Espaillat, who lost two previous congressional bids, but would be the first Dominican-American Congress member, said his election to the House would send a message to Donald Trump.

Wright, who has received Rangel’s endorsement, described himself as battle-tested and someone who consistently shows up. Similarly, Linares listed his decades of local experience on the school board, City Council and as a city commissioner.

Meanwhile, Gallagher, a stay-at-home dad, said voters may want to think twice about supporting politicians because, “Our situation is the way it is because of elected politicians.”

And Williams took it a step further, referencing his endorsement from the New York Times and saying, “My opponents are a bunch of underachieving old-timers.”