NEW YORK (AP) — U.S. Rep Charles Rangel, the face of Harlem politics for generations, declared victory in a fierce primary fight to return to the House of Representatives, one of several high-profile congressional races being decided Tuesday across the state.
But The Associated Press did not declare a winner as there were fewer than 2,000 votes separating Rangel and state Sen. Adriano Espaillat and several thousand votes still to be counted early Wednesday.
With 99 percent of the vote counted in unofficial results, Rangel was leading Espaillat 47.4 percent to 43.7 percent. About 47,000 votes were cast.
Rangel, 84, was asking voters for a 23rd and final term in Congress. Espaillat was seeking to become the first member of Congress born in the Dominican Republic. They squared off two years ago in a race Rangel narrowly won, and their supporters expected a similarly close rematch.
Both candidates' election night parties filled up with supporters, who danced to music while nervously keeping an eye on the TVs broadcasting results.
Balloons dropped at Rangel's election night party as he said he had won.
Espaillat took the stage at his rally to say the race was too close to call. But his staff then dismantled his stage and the election night party abruptly ended.
The race, on a night when candidates also are running to succeed retiring Democratic Reps. Carolyn McCarthy on Long Island and Bill Owens upstate, has sharply divided New York City's political heavyweights and shed light on the changing face of a district once one of the nation's black political power bases.
Rangel, known as the Lion of Harlem, was once arguably the most influential black elected official in the U.S., known for his gravelly voice, impeccable suits and staunch liberal views, including his outspoken opposition to apartheid and the Iraq War.
But he was weakened after 2010 ethics violations that forced him to give up the chairmanship of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, and his district was then redrawn to include parts of the Bronx, which along with accelerating gentrification of Harlem transformed a heavily black district into one that was majority Hispanic.
The shifting racial terrain has been a backdrop for the race, which grew nastier as primary day approached. At a debate, Rangel said Espaillat "wants to be the Jackie Robinson of the Dominicans in the Congress," adding that Espaillat should tell voters "just what the heck has he done besides saying he's a Dominican?" He also pointed out a flier that Espaillat was responsible for in 2012, which accused another Dominican official of "betraying his community" for his support of Rangel.
The comments drew a sharp rebuke from Mayor Bill de Blasio, a former Rangel campaign manager, who made no endorsements in what was expected to be a low-turnout race.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo offered a late endorsement for Rangel, as did Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand. But City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Comptroller Scott Stringer went for Espaillat.
Some voters leaving their polling places Tuesday said they had chosen Rangel, while others said they agreed with Espaillat, who suggested the veteran lawmaker had lost touch with his district and was overdue to exit the stage.
"I thank Congressman Rangel for his service, but I feel like at some point you've got to hang up the crown and move on," said Kwame Jackson, a former contestant on "The Apprentice," who voted for the Rev. Michael Walrond.
In the heavily Latino Washington Heights neighborhood, Estela Uceta said she voted for Espaillat, whom she knows from his work on issues including housing and services for the elderly. She said this was her first time not voting for Rangel.
"Sometimes, you know, people need a change," she said. "I think he has been doing a good job but maybe not for this area."
But Lily Cabrera voted for Rangel.
"I feel that he has the ability to do a better job," she said.
In other races across the Empire State:
— Lee Zeldin defeated George Demos for the Republican nomination in the 1st District, which covers Long Island's Suffolk County. Zeldin will take on Democratic incumbent Tim Bishop in the November general election.
— There are two primaries in the 4th District, covering parts of Nassau County, where McCarthy is retiring. In the Democratic primary District Attorney Kathleen Rice defeated county legislator Kevan Abrahams, while in the Republican primary, former county legislator Bruce Blakeman defeated attorney Frank Scaturro.
— In upstate New York, a key race involves two Republicans facing off in the 21st District, which sprawls from Lake Ontario near Watertown across to the Vermont border and south through the Adirondacks to the outskirts of Saratoga Springs. Matt Doheny and Elise Stefanik are seeking the ballot spot in what was traditionally a Republican district where Owens chose not to run. The winner will face Democrat Aaron Wolf.
— Republican U.S. Rep. Richard Hanna is facing a challenge from tea party-backed Claudia Tenney, a member of the state Assembly, in western New York's 22nd District, which runs from Binghamton to beyond Oneida. The winner won't have a Democratic challenger.