Only two blocks separate Rev. Michael Walrond’s storefront congressional campaign headquarters from First Corinthian Baptist Church, which he leads.
But the walk from 118th Street to 116th Street on Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard takes longer than one might think for the pastor-turned-politician. He stops to talk to volunteers cleaning up after his church’s weekend food pantry and then chats with a man who tells him he has found work since last they spoke.
Although his commute would lengthen considerably if he were elected to the House of Representatives to represent New York’s 13th Congressional District next fall, Walrond has no plans to stop pastoring—a line of work he says gives his candidacy a “different kind of legitimacy.”
“There’s no elected official right now, in this entire District ... who has to talk to over 5,000 people every week,” he said. “That congregation keeps me grounded.”
According to Walrond, his people-centric leadership style would be his greatest counterweight to the “obstructionism and the gridlock” he would likely face in Washington. It would allow him to focus on his political priorities, which include criminal justice, education, and affordable housing.
Criminal justice is one issue he hopes will garner bipartisan support.
“For me it’s more social. For people on the right, it might be more economic. ... Either way, there’s common ground,” he said.
He emphasized the importance of legislation like the Smarter Sentencing Act to districts like his own that have large populations of Latinos and African Americans.
On the issue of education, Walrond envisions establishing more “cross-sector collaborations” to improve public education in the district, including more partnerships with Columbia, which he said could do more to foster trust with the community.
“There are those who don’t like some of the expansion,” he said. “They fear losing some of their housing, they feel they’re not benefiting, and they see the landscape changing—and that’s terrifying.”
Although detractors have portrayed Walrond—who has never held public office—as inexperienced, he casts himself as a “fresh voice” that could make changes in a Congress increasingly dominated by “ideological purists.”
“You have to make substantive efforts to transcend the kind of ideological boundaries that are set to get things done for the country,” he said.
Walrond, who moved from North Carolina 10 years ago to take his current job at First Corinthian, said he will bring the same motivation to Congress that he has to his role as pastor.
“When I think of a politician I think of one who is called to be a public servant—I view what I do as a pastor as being a public servant,” he said.
He brushed off criticisms about the fact that he has lived in New Jersey for many years. Earlier this year, NY1 reported that Walrond listed Edgewater, NJ as his primary residence on his FEC Statement of Candidacy form. Walrond said that 43-year incumbent opponent Rep. Charles Rangel has been playing on voters’ lack of information about residency laws under which, he said, his candidacy is legitimate.
He pointed to his work on issues like paid sick leave, stop-and-frisk, and minimum wage, in addition to his job at First Corinthian, as evidence of his engagement with the district.
“I’m known in this community as a social activist, as a community activist, as a community organizer,” he added.
“He literally ministers seven days a week outside of his church walls. He’s not just a Sunday preacher,” said the Rev. Greg Groover, a pastor at the Charles Street African Methodist Episcopal Church in Boston and a lifelong mentor of Walrond’s.
Groover expressed optimism for his protégé’s political aspirations, given his current success at First Corinthian, which has grown from 300 congregants to 9,000 during Walrond’s tenure.
“He’s somehow been able to effectively mix and blend in the gospel with the social issues of the day, and that resonates with people,” Groover said.
But however much his community experience informs his political career, Walrond will have to find a Washington-appropriate way to adjust to his new job, should he be elected next fall. In his first month as pastor at First Corinthian, he sometimes spent nights at the church, sleeping on the sanctuary stage.
“I had to get the feel of the place—I had to feel the energy,” he said. “It’s just hard for me to do anything and not give everything that I have.”