Adriano Espaillat rushed through crowded tables to his seat at the front of the room at the 3 West Club in Midtown on a recent Thursday morning.
Mr. Espaillat, a New York state senator, was 45 minutes late to a panel on affordable housing presented by City & State, a news organization focused on covering state politics, but he took advantage of the last few moments to advocate for improvements.
“If we want to save the city and we want to make it affordable for families – working families, the economic engine of our city – we must build affordable housing,” he said.
- Name: Adriano Espaillat
- Age: 61
- Home Neighborhood: Inwood
- Party Affiliation: Democrat
- Current Office/Job: New York State Senator
Mr. Espaillat’s fight for affordable housing stretches back to 1986, when he began serving on Community Planning Board 12 as a tenant organizer in Washington Heights and Inwood.
After serving those neighborhoods as a state senator since 2010, he has his sights set on the 13th Congressional District’s seat. He is one of eight Democrats fighting for Charles B. Rangel’s long-held seat and is one of the candidates favored to win. If elected, he would be the first Dominican-born United States congressman.
This is Mr. Espaillat’s third run for the seat after being defeated twice by Mr. Rangel. He lost races in 2012 and 2014, each by fewer than five percentage points. Without Mr. Rangel as a competitor, Mr. Espaillat said he feels optimistic about his chances.
“I think none of the candidates in this race are Charlie Rangel,” he said. “I’m a hands-down winner.”
Mr. Espaillat said his enthusiasm for politics began after his journey to the United States from the Dominican Republic.
“It was the ’60s, right in the middle of the civil rights movement,” he said, describing the experience in a phone interview. “All of these events must have had an impact on my involvement in activism as a young boy.”
Mr. Espaillat was undocumented when he came to the United States at age 9, and he said issues close to the Latinos, like farm workers’ rights and dual-language education, are important to him as well. He also briefly participated in the March for Farmworker Justice on May 21.
“There are certain things that are special,” he said. “Immigration reform is an important issue for me,” he said. “Personal, very personal.”
But he does not see the campaign in terms of divisions between Latino and black voters, he said.
“This is a very diverse district, and whoever represents it better have their hand on the pulse in every part of the district,” he said. “And I don’t think anybody should try to claim the district on racial, ethnic or religious lines.”
Mr. Espaillat has received a number of endorsements from New York politicians, including Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito of the City Council, State Senator Gustavo Rivera and Assemblyman Victor M. Pichardo.
Jim Gannon, the director of communications for the Transport Workers Union Local 100, said that while the T.W.U. has good relationships with each candidate, its executive board unanimously endorsed Mr. Espaillat because its members have the strongest relationship with him.
“He visits our bus depots,” Mr. Gannon said. “He knows our members on a first-name basis.”
But even with endorsements, Mr. Espaillat faces challenges. Mr. Rangel has endorsed Assemblyman Keith L.T. Wright to succeed him.
Mr. Rangel criticized Mr. Espaillat in past campaigns for not giving up his State Senate seat while focusing on congressional races, and this race is no exception.
“Based on what he’s done in the last two or three times, I have to ask, ‘What is he really running for? Was he just collecting money and trying to be popular?’ ” Mr. Rangel asked.
Mr. Rangel also questioned Mr. Espaillat’s commitment to the State Senate.
“He has the worst record in terms of attending the Senate session out there,” Mr. Rangel said.
Mr. Espaillat racked up the most absences in the 2014 session for a total of 891, according to the New York Public Interest Research Group’s analysis of the session.
Still, for some voters, like Maria Mares, 20, a East Harlem resident, Mr. Espaillat’s support of Latino issues is worthy of admiration. She said she intends to vote for him because he better represents her Latino roots.
“Espaillat has experienced more of what immigrants and children of immigrants have experienced,” she said. “He knows how that feels. He knows the constraints that that status brings on you.”
Ms. Mares said that she never felt that connection to Mr. Rangel and that she was ready to vote for Mr. Espaillat, who she feels has her neighborhood’s interests in mind.
“Voting is not just an individual thing,” Ms. Mares said. “When you vote, you should be looking for what benefits your community the most.”