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Seabrook Aims For Another Term

Photo (cc) Payton Chung
Co-op City (left) and parts of Baychester (right), in the Bronx's 12th district

Councilmember Larry Seabrook isn’t afraid to list his accomplishments.

He says he’s upgraded district 12’s school libraries and brought computers and a new playground to P.S. 78 and an elevator to P.S. 113.

Larry Seabrook

“The biggest accomplishment is providing services to the district that are so desperately needed in terms of education,” said Seabrook, sitting behind the dias at last week’s zoning meeting. “We have put computers and lap tops and smart boards in all of the schools.”

But this list hasn’t prevented two challengers from mounting campaigns against him -– spurred, they say, by questionable appropriations by the incumbent and a lack of commitment to the community. Tomorrow Seabrook, who was elected to the City Council in 2001 and served in both the State Assembly and State Senate before that, will face off against Jerome Rice, a former corrections officer turned civil rights activist, and Andy King, the founder of the Bronx Youth Empowerment Program and an organizer for SEIU.

Despite Seabrook’s long record of public service, his challengers say the district, which includes Edenwald, Co-Op City, Wakefield, Williamsbridge and Baychester, is fragmented and neglected. King, who is mounting the most aggressive challenge, says he would work to unify the community, while Rice says he wouldn’t have to do much to be an improvement over the incumbent.

“All I have to do is my job, and that’s a whole lot more than what the councilman is doing now,” said Rice –- a large man with the build of a linebacker. “He’s currently doing nothing.”

On the other hand, Seabrook says he would use a third term to continue to provide the services he gives the community right now. With another four years, Seabrook says he wouldn’t change his approach at all.

A Mixed Record

Seabrook’s second term in the City Council hasn’t been an easy ride. Following the council’s slush fund scandal, Seabrook has been the subject of intense examination by the press.

The New York Times found that an organization Seabrook incorporated and is closely tied to, the African-American Bronx Unity Day Parade, received inflated payments from the city. Seabrook has been charged with nepotism, and his attendance record -– just over 73 percent -- is one of the lowest of the council’s 51 members.

Jerome Rice

When asked about these claims, Seabrook says, “I don’t have any response to it other than the service [I’ve provided] in the community. I haven’t heard anything from my community responding to it.”

To a certain extent, Seabrook is right. The councilmember has pretty much secured every important endorsement in the race. He has gleaned the support of the Bronx Democratic Party, District Council 37, the United Federation of Teachers and former Mayor David Dinkins. His most formidable opponent, King, was not able to get the endorsement of SEIU, which he organizes for. The service employees went for Seabrook.

He has raised $38,009 in private funds and received $88,550 in matching funds –- far more than Rice’s $18,084. King has received $34,566 in private funds and $79,730 in public funding.

With another term, Seabrook says he would focus on upgrading the districts school facilities and work to get job placement programs.

“They want to make sure we have educational programs that take our children in to the 21st century … job programs,” Seabrook said of his constituents. “That’s what the people in my community are talking about. My opponents, I don’t know what they’re talking about.”

Challenging A Mainstay

For the most part, Rice, who works with the civil rights group, Blacks in Law Enforcement Alliance, talks about Seabrook. During a recent debate at Bronxnet, the county’s public access channel, Rice dug into Seabrook’s record –- which he says doesn’t amount to much. He criticized the incumbent for not taking part in the debate as well.

Seabrook said he had a scheduling conflict and was not avoiding the debate.

Andy King

Beyond that, Rice said his first priority if elected to the City Council would be to close the communication gap between the community and the police.

“I want to close the communication gap between law enforcement and the community,” Rice said. “[You} get both the law enforcement and the community to work together. That’s the only way you’re going to reduce crime.”

Rice also said he would introduce legislation that would take the Civilian Complaint Review Board out from under the jurisdiction of the Police Department and put it under the borough district attorneys’ offices. Police should not be in charge of punishing their own misconduct, he said.

King, a soft-spoken former case worker for District Council 37, said his first priority would be to engage the community and keep them informed. He also said one of his top priorities would be to make the district once again affordable and conducive to working families.

“If you go down White Plains Road, I wouldn’t say it’s deplorable, but it’s conducive to crime,” King said. “We need to create an environment that shows that people are living here and that people want to be engaged.”

King is proposing to introduce what he calls the “New York City Worker Housing Act,” which would allow any city employee to live in any borough with a stabilized rent. He also wants to create an independent finance office for the City Council, which would track funding and ensure services are actually delivered.

Drawing his inspiration from President Barack Obama, King says he will bring “change” to district 12.

“The name and the choice for change is Andy King,” he says.

Whoever wins tomorrow’s primary will face off against Joseph Sauerzopf, a Conservative, and Martin Badonsky, a Republican, this fall. Because the district is heavily Democratic, the primary is a good indication of who will win in the general election. Sebastian Ulanga will appear on tomorrow’s ballot, but he has dropped out of the race.

It's Down to One Opponent for Comrie

Photo (cc) Joe Shlabotnik
A tree-lined street in St. Albans, Queens

On primary day, City Councilmember Leroy Comrie will face a single opponent in his bid for a third term. Two other candidates -- Adrienne Hayes and Shaun McLaughlin -- were knocked off the ballot. Brian Simon, an aide to U.S. Representative Gregory Meeks, had been mulling a run but decided against it and has endorsed Comrie.

Incumbent Leroy Comrie (left), and challenger Clyde Vanel (right)

That leaves only Clyde Vanel, a lawyer and entrepreneur, making his first run for public office.

With housing foreclosures an issue in the district, which includes Cambria Heights, Hollis and St. Albans, Comrie has offered assistance to constituents facing loss of their homes. If elected, Vanel hopes to focus on lowering high foreclosure rates and increasing the number of high school graduates.

Comrie, the council's majority whip and the head of the Queens delegation, holds edge in fundraising and endorsements. Comrie has raised over $176,000 to Vanel's $41,000. The incumbent also picked up backing from the Central Labor Council and 1199 SEIU, one of the city's largest unions, as well as the Working Families Party.

The Maria Baez Revolt

Photo by Courtney Gross
Dancers perform at a Labor Day weekend block party in the Bronx's District 14

A massive blue truck rolled down West 197th Street in the Bronx, honking as it passed a Labor Day weekend block party brought to them courtesy of Councilmember Maria Baez.

Election 2009

The councilmember's image was splashed along the truck's side above her slogan, "Strong Values, Proven Leadership."

Moments later, Baez made what her opponents would call an unusual appearance in the neighborhood. She shook hands, sampled the street fair's products and presented a City Council proclamation to the sponsoring organization.

"This is the first time I've seen her in the community for a long time," said Yudelka Tapia, a City Council candidate for the 14th district who also attended the event.

It is this presence, or lack thereof by some accounts, that could cost Baez her council seat next week. A Bronx mainstay, Baez has represented the 14th district, which includes Fordham, Kingsbridge, Morris Heights, and the West Bronx, since 2001. Even though Baez says she has lived in the district for 40 years, residents and community activists complain that they never see her. She has the worst attendance record of any City Councilmember, prompting her opponents to argue she doesn't show up at City Hall either.

These complaints have spurred the toughest challenge for the councilmember yet. She faces two primary opponents: Tapia, a city auditor, and the Rev. Fernando Cabrera, who has snagged the support of the Bronx Democratic Party.

Despite this tough fight, Baez brushes critics off. She says she is confident she'll be re-elected.

"I am the one that has been here for 40 years," Baez said as a ballad from a local teenager blasted down the street. "No one knows who the other two candidates are."

An Incumbent Who Lost the Party

Photo by Courtney Gross
Maria Baez

As an ally of the former head of the Bronx Democratic Party, who was pushed out in late 2008, Baez has become the bull's eye for the Bronx's new political machinery.

One Bronx leader told Gotham Gazette earlier this year the new leadership's goal this election season would be to see Baez kicked off of the council.

Baez ignores the competition. She has refused to show up to the two scheduled debates so far, arguing, dismissively, "There was no one to debate." She has said that the withdrawal of support from the Bronx Democratic Party gives her an opportunity to run a "grassroots" campaign.

"Everywhere I go I am well-received," said Baez, dressed in jeans and a blue top. "Everything I've done, I've done with the partnership of my community."

Even though the Bronx Democratic Party abandoned her, Baez is not running completely solo. She has gleaned the support of Council Speaker Christine Quinn, former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer and the former head of the party, Assemblymember Jose Rivera.

As her accomplishments she points to getting six bills approved since 2001 (which pales in comparison to many other council members). She says she has secured funding to refurbish all of the playgrounds in her district, and was able to get funding for the district's first family justice center, which she said would open during the next term. So far she has raised $67,425 for her bid and has received $70,170 in matching funds.

Baez wants another four years, she says, because she needs to see the projects she started through.

"There are a lot of issues I want to be able to address," she says, pointing to senior and youth services as her top priorities.

Her Challengers

On stage at the Bronxnet studio, the county's public access channel, one chair was empty. It was saved for the absent Baez.

Fernando Cabrera

The other two candidates, Tapia and Cabrera, were ready to go over the district's issues, each claiming they have been the ones to travel the community. Not Baez.

But Cabrera's connection to the district, and party affiliation, has also been questioned. Up until July 2008, Cabrera lived in Westchester County for nine years. He was born in the Bronx, and has lived there for a total of 14 years, he says. But also while in Westchester, Cabrera was a registered Republican. He changed his party affiliation last year.

"I have been living in the Bronx more than any other place," said Cabrera, a professor at Mercy College. "My fruits are Democratic fruits."

As for the issues, Cabrera said his first priority as a City Council member will be to propose legislation to require living wages. Pointing to the area's unemployment rate -- the Bronx has the highest in the city at 12.5 percent -- Cabrera also wants to help residents access city services by consolidating the application for government assistance, like food stamps and Medicaid, into one application. Cabrera is not far behind Baez in the money race with $52,082 in private funds and $81,670 in matching.

Tapia argues her ties to the community run deep, having had four sons at local public schools. She points to her record of community service in the district, first as an advocate for the area's livery drivers, then as a president of a local parent teacher association.

Yudelka Tapia

"I've been in the Bronx for 20 years. I've lived in the district for 20 years. I've been a Democrat all of my life," said Tapia.

The crux of her campaign, she says, is to improve the area's schools and lobby for more seats and space. She leads in the money race with $66,492 in private contributions and $72,721 in matching funds. Her public funding was initially delayed because she failed to submit the required documentation.

But Tapia, too, hasn't been immune from controversy. Tapia fired her chief of staff, Onix Sosa, after she found out he had managed buildings in the Bronx that had a multitude of outstanding housing code violations. He had also worked for Sen. Pedro Espada Jr. and had headed up the Upper Manhattan Council Assisting Neighbors, which was the subject of an investigation during the council slush fund scandal.

Kingsbridge Armory

In the midst of this politicking, the city is yet again planning to redevelop a long vacant historic building in the district: the Kingsbridge Armory.

The Giuliani administration attempted to unsuccessfully turn the armory into a sports and retail complex more than a decade ago. Now the city's Economic Development Corp. and developer Related Companies are proposing to turn it into a large shopping complex, movie theater and community space.

But the plan is controversial. Earlier this month, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. voted to reject the project. Because a borough president's vote is nonbinding, the plan is still projected to go before the City Council before the end of the year.

At issue is a community benefits agreement, which would guarantee those living in the community jobs at a living wage and school space outside of the complex.

Baez has campaigned against the proposal's anchor store, saying she wants to make sure small businesses remain viable. She is also pushing for a youth recreational facility as part of the plan, she said.

Tapia has said she would not support the project unless the city and Related Companies signed the community benefits agreement. She would like to see at least 3,700 square feet of community space in the facility.

Cabrera has signed onto the borough president's plan. He said he wants to see living wages implemented at the site and the construction of four schools as part of the agreement.

Moving Forward

As Tapia circulated the crowd at the Labor Day street fair, Baez looked on from a bench at the top of a hill. Minutes later, she climbed the stage to offer recognition for the fair's host, the Kingsbridge Heights Neighborhood Improvement Association.

Following Baez's accolades, the event's organizer took to the microphone: "Let's hear it for Maria Baez," she yelled.

A subdued applause followed. After another call, the crowd's volume grew. When asked moments later, how she was different from the other candidates, Baez said: "The difference is for the last 30 years, I've been working with this community."

She continued: "They know who Maria Baez is."

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