Photo of voters in Washington Heights/Andy Humm
NEW YORK — The second-longest running show now on Broadway is not in the Theatre District, but uptown in Washington Heights.
In this sliver of a neighborhood on Manhattan’s upper Upper West Side, Broadway is the high street in the Dominican American community — and there hasn’t been a curtain call in over two decades on the rivalry between Guillermo Linares and Adriano Espaillat since both ran for City Council in 1991.
Linares won to become among the first Dominicans elected to public office in the U.S.
El Diario/La Prensa columnist Roberto Perez calls this rivalry “the Washington Heights version of the Hatfields and the McCoys.” He also wrote that their late August debate at the Hamilton Heights Social Club Los Bravos “felt more like a cockfight arena than a forum.”
On Thursday, Sept. 13, the two men square off against each other in yet another Democratic primary — this time for the state Senate seat that Espaillat holds.
Linares gave up a run for his Assembly seat to seek the Senate seat that Espaillat was giving up to challenge incumbent Charles B. Rangel in the newly-drawn and newly Latino-majority 15th U.S. Congressional District.
Rangel, with Linares’ support, won that race by a hair — just 990 votes — in a rare June primary that was rattled by questions over the balloting. Following his loss, Espaillat decided to try to keep his Senate seat in the separate September primary. (Full disclosure: I did some work last spring writing campaign literature for the Rangel campaign.)
The new 31st State Senate District hugs the east bank of the Hudson like Chile does the Pacific, covering Inwood to Hell’s Kitchen (with a few blocks of Chelsea thrown in) — but its heart is still Dominican Washington Heights.
It had been Eric Schneiderman’s district until he ran successfully for state Attorney General in 2010 when Espaillat won a three-way primary for it.
Espaillat has the distinction of being the first Dominican American elected to the State Assembly in 1996, knocking off longtime incumbent Brain Murtaugh in a primary.
He also fended off a strong challenge from Miguel Martinez, a former ally, in 2008. (Martinez served in the City Council from 2002-09, when he resigned amidst a conspiracy scandal in which he was ultimately convicted.)
Linares served in the Council from his historic election in 1991 until he was term-limited out in the 2001 election. He was appointed by Mayor Bloomberg as Commissioner of Immigrant Affairs in 2004, where he served until taking the Assembly seat that Espaillat gave up to run for the state Senate.
Bloomberg pledged to back Linares’ current campaign by raising $100,000 for him.
Espaillat and Linares debated on Manhattan Neighborhood Network on September 4. In the debate sponsored by the League of Women Voters, they tended to agree on most issues, while attacking each other over their commitment to stronger rent laws and the failure of the state to adopt nonpartisan redistricting this year.
Espaillat said, “I believe very strongly this primary [by Linares] is being bankrolled by the landlord interests. My opponent has received $40,000 from the landlord lobby to push me out.” Linares did not dispute the donation.
On tenant issues, Linares said that as a City Council Member in 1997 he “was one of the few who stood up to the Speaker to prevent vacancy decontrol,” which was approved in the Assembly with Espaillat’s vote and virtually every other pro-tenant member as part of the renewal of the rent laws that the Republican Senate would allow only in that weakened form.
Espaillat takes credit for getting the rent laws renewed in 2012. “For the first time, we were able to pass slight improvements,” he said.
Linares told Gotham Gazette that, as landlords try to renew their J-51 tax break this year, he will insist on “strengthening of the rent laws and eliminating vacancy decontrol” as part of the bargain.
Nevertheless, Tenants PAC, which endorses candidates based on their commitment to tenants’ rights, is going with Espaillat in this race, calling him “a major player in the fight for stronger rent laws and the preservation of affordable rental housing.”
At the cable TV debate, Linares cited his endorsements from Councilman Robert Jackson, State Senator Tom Duane, former Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger, former Councilwoman Ronnie Eldridge and former Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum.
Espaillat cited support from Congressman Jerry Nadler, Assemblyman Dick Gottfried, Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, Citizens Union (the sister organization of Gotham Gazette) and Tenants PAC.
Linares has District Council 37 of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; Espaillat has the United Federation of Teachers, 32BJ SEIU, the Working Families Party, and the Hotel Trades Council.
The split between the opposing political camps is long and deep.
Moises Perez, a longtime community leader and the former director of the now shuttered Allianza Dominicana social services center in the district who managed Rangel’s re-election bid, said it doesn’t stem from a dispute over the issues. “It’s about political ego,” he said.
The men have competing political clubs — Linares’ Concerned Democratic Coalition of Northern Manhattan and Espaillat’s Northern Manhattan Democrats for Change.
There was a brief peace between the two in 2010 when Espaillat ran for Senate and Linares for Assembly without running opponents against each other.
“The community would rather see us working together,” Espaillat said. “[Linares] wants to run against me for Senate. Wants to impose his daughter for the seat he left behind. This is not a blueblood district — the royal kingdom where titles are passed by sons and daughters. There are plenty of people with leadership qualities in the community.”
Both men are tenacious, though Linares is more low-key and seemed to be waiting his turn to run in 1991 and saw Espaillat as jumping the gun by challenging the longtime incumbent Stanley Michels in 1989.
“When we faced off in 1991 [for City Council], I had been serving this neighborhood for 15 years,” Linares said. “I have been an activist since I landed here as a teacher.”
Espaillat countered: “He is a go-along kind of politician.” Linares said: “In order to represent all groups and constituents, I had to earn their respect.”
He also added that he stuck with Rangel over his fellow Dominican because the longtime congressman “is an ally of our community” who he has worked with for years.
Both men took Ed Koch’s pledge not to vote for a redistricting plan for state legislative districts unless it was independent and nonpartisan.
When Senate Republicans reneged on their promise to Koch to take politics out of the process and Gov. Andrew Cuomo decided not to put up a fight over it, Espaillat was among those who walked out of the chamber during the vote on the partisan lines that added a 63rd State Senate District designed to help the Republicans hold the slim majority they regained in 2010.
Espaillat attacked Linares for voting for the redistricting plan — as most Assembly Democrats did. Linares countered that he is “fully supportive of an independent commission” to draw the lines and attacked Espaillat for voting for the partisan lines 10 years ago as an Assembly member.
Linares said his priority as Senator will be passage of the New York DREAM Act to “allow undocumented students who meet in-state tuition requirements in New York to access state financial aid for higher education,” according to the bill’s website.
It passed in the Assembly but was “dead on arrival” in the Senate, Linares said, a status that is unlikely to change unless Democrats can re-take the chamber.
While the Senate race is the main event, the undercard Assembly contest is almost a proxy fight for the two men. One candidate is blessed by Espaillat — Gabriela Rosa, a member of Community Board 12 and a senior policy advisor to Assemblyman Denny Farrell; while another is backed by Linares — his daughter Mayra Linares, a community activist, district leader and recent aide to Cuomo.
The voters could instead opt to go an independent route by electing either Melanie Hidalgo, a member of Community Board 12, or perennial candidate and community activist and career Air Force veteran Ruben Dario Vargas.
A debate among the four Assembly candidates at the Centro Cultural Deportivo Dominicano on Amsterdam and 163rd Street, founded in 1966, drew more than 200 people for a high noon Spanish-language showdown on a beautiful Saturday in the middle of Labor Day weekend. It began with the playing of the national anthem.
Three of the candidates — Linares, Rosa and Vargas — squared off in an MNN cable debate as well. While most spoke in generalities about the issues, on mayoral control of the schools, Linares came out in favor of “more involvement of parents.” Vargas was in favor and Rosa was opposed to the system of governance that began under Mayor Bloomberg.
Rosa said she would be “independent and a team player.” Vargas said: “We have to stop people being selected by political machines because their hands are tied.” And Linares replied, “It is important to have relationships and know how to work with others.”
Trying to stick it to Linares, Rosa said: “Mine is a community candidacy, not inherited.” Linares said she has been involved in the community since she was “5 years old handing out fliers.”
Mayra Linares told the Gotham Gazette that she was “born and raised in this community” and has lived in three of its neighborhoods — Washington Heights, Marble Hill and now Inwood. She was attacked by her opponents for taking landlord money; but, like her father, she promises to support tenants “100 percent.” Tenants PAC is backing Rosa.
No poll has been released in the two races, but some prognosticators gave Espaillat the edge in the contest over the Senate seat because he has just come off a high-profile tussle over Rangel’s spot in Congress. Mayra Linares is seen as the favorite in the Assembly race simply because of her name.
Whatever the outcome, the battles of Washington Heights show no signs of letting up any time soon. In a city where incumbents are rarely subjected to serious challenges, the voters uptown almost always get lively, competitive races.
UPDATE: An earlier version of this story said that Espaillat vowed during his Congressional race that he would not try to keep his Senate seat if he lost. Ibrahim Khan, a spokesman for Espaillat, said the candidate never made that claim.
Andy Humm is the co-host of the weekly Gay USA cable TV show, a contributor to Gay City News, and a former city Human Rights commissioner.