Congressman Charlie Rangel, visibly irritated by the man trying for the second time in two years to drive him out of office, had a simple question.
“What the heck has he done besides saying that he’s a Dominican?” Mr. Rangel, a Harlem lawmaker for more than four decades, growled at the first televised debate of the race. His attack was aimed squarely at State Senator Adriano Espaillat, the Latino insurgent now swiping away much of the local political establishment backing Mr. Rangel had relied upon to sail to re-election year after year.
It was clear that the ABC-sponsored debate for the 13th Congressional District, which spans upper Manhattan and the Bronx, would be acrimonious. The Democratic primary is less than three weeks away. Generational and racial divisions still define the race, where a rising Latino electorate is hoping to buoy Mr. Espaillat and Mr. Rangel, long a kingmaker in the district’s African-American community, aims to survive another term at the age of 83.
Mr. Rangel, rhetorically adopting boxer’s crouch, fired off jab after jab at Mr. Espaillat and to a lesser extent at his long-shot rival, Pastor Mike Walrond.
“He’s been one of my main supporters in the Congress. He’s the one who put out that exciting label for me, the lion of Lenox Avenue,” Mr. Rangel said to Mr. Espaillat. “What changed his mind are two things: the district lines which changed the populations of both sides and the fact that he wants to be the Jackie Robinson of the Dominicans in the Congress which is ambitious.”
“But the fact is that Jackie Robinson was a star before he reached the Major Leagues and he’s not a Jackie Robinson,” he added, repeating an oft-used line to imply that Mr. Espaillat doesn’t have the experience or wherewithal to serve in Congress.
The three contenders debated the most vexing issues in the district, including crime, gentrification and unemployment, but the back-and-fourth seemed to center on the animus Mr. Rangel and Mr. Espaillat had for each other.
Mr. Rangel pointed to a mailer Mr. Espaillat’s campaign blasted out in 2012 that called a Dominican-American politician who supported Mr. Rangel “a traitor.”
“I’m really saddened that the congressman tries to frame this race among racial and ethnic silos,” Mr. Espaillat replied. “I think that’s a disservice to your constituents, congressman. This is about all communities … you trying to frame a debate in this fashion is a disservice to your constituency and this debate.”
“You should really apologize,” Mr. Espaillat grumbled. “You are creating divisions.”
Mr. Espaillat tried to frame himself as a populist, knocking Mr. Rangel again for allegedly prioritizing big box stores over small businesses and voting in the late 1990s to repeal the Glass-Steagall Act, Depression-era legislation that once enforced divisions between commercial and investment banking.
Mr. Rangel, however, mounted a strenuous defense of his long record, at one point pulling out an iPad to try to rebut one of Mr. Espaillat’s attacks. Diana Williams, the host, appeared perplexed. It was not the first time the showman congressman had produced a campaign prop.
“Congressman, are you googling during this debate?” Ms. Williams asked, later telling him it wasn’t fair because his rivals didn’t have their devices.
Mr. Walrond, a popular local pastor and Rev. Al Sharpton ally who until recently lived in New Jersey, tried to remain above the fray.
“I think both of my opponents in the past have used divisiveness as a strategy as a technique as they run for elected office in the past,” Mr. Walrond said. “At some point we have to transcend the pettiness and the divisiveness and begin to really put the people first.”