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The Bronx Family Feud

by Courtney Gross, Apr 13, 2009
 
Diaz photo by Jordan Moss at Bronx News Network
Ruben Diaz Jr., center, Joel Rivera, left, and Carl Heastie, right.

The call of "Don't forget to vote on April 21st" practically overpowers the latest Hot 97 hits pulsing from an audio store on the corner of Fordham Road and Jerome Avenue in the west Bronx.

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Evening rush-hour riders depart from the screeching number 4 train, slide down two flights of stairs to the street to get a flyer, a handshake and a wide, mustached smile.

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"I am running for Bronx borough president in two weeks," Assemblymember Ruben Diaz Jr. says, stretching out his hand.

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Running might be an overstatement. For Diaz, who practically has a set of keys to borough hall already, walking would be a better characterization.

The seven-term assemblymember has only token, Republican opposition in next week's nonpartisan special election to replace former borough president turned-Obama administration official Adolfo CarriĂłn. For such a high profile position, the lack of opposition is relatively unheard of.

Just weeks ago, Bronx Democrats were preparing for a brawl between two political dynasties who have been wrestling over control of the county's Democratic party for months. Since that race has failed to materialize, Bronxites -- left with little choice -- can now ponder what this means for the county's new and old political guard.

A Look Back at the Bronx

The real battle occurred months ago.

Last fall, a rebel faction of the county's Democratic party snatched away power from the then-Democratic party chair, Assemblymember Jose Rivera, installing Assemblymember Carl Heastie as his replacement.

Rivera had held the reins of the Democratic Party in the Bronx since 2002, but it was not until early 2008 that rumblings of change started to emerge. Largely a patronage role, the party chair controls political appointments, many in the courthouse, and is supposed to unify the county's other political leaders.

According to those involved in the political battle, the rebel faction -- the Rainbow Rebellion -- formed as more state and city officials became unsatisfied with Jose Rivera's leadership. Those on the rebel side allege Jose was distributing political appointments and funding unfairly. They charged that he allocated patronage positions to those close to him and his family.

"It always appeared to people like it was Jose and (Councilmember) Maria Baez and a small clique, and that didn't sit well with a lot of people," said Assemblymember Jeffrey Dinowitz of Riverdale, who helped orchestrate the Rainbow Rebellion. "I think that's how he managed to alienate a lot of my colleagues."

Things finally came to a head at the county organization's annual meeting last fall when the Rainbow Rebellion managed to oust Rivera and elect Heastie as the new Democratic chair. The legitimacy of those proceedings went to court, where Justice Robert Seewald found in favor of the rebels. The Riveras appealed the decision in January, but according to Assemblymember Peter Rivera, who is not related to Jose but is a close ally, they are considering dropping it. (Most familiar with Bronx politics believe the Riveras would have little chance of getting the courts to overturn the rebels' takeover.)

Explanations abound as to why there was a dramatic shift of leadership last fall: race, power, development projects, nepotism, patronage (it sounds like a political science course on New York City government, doesn't it?).

"It was a perfect storm," said Peter Rivera. "The stars were misaligned for [Jose Rivera], if you want to quote 'Romeo and Juliet.'"

Those close to Rivera say his leadership was hands off and power and ego -- conveniently close to a citywide election -- drove the rebellion.

"County organizations are very difficult, because every elected (official) has his own ego, his own motives, his own list of people he wants to hurt," said Mike Nieves, a Bronx political insider. "You have all these guys starting to grab for their piece. The Diazes wanted something. You get Carl Heastie wanting something... Enemies coalesce."

In addition to political patronage, others close to Bronx politics see race and ethnicity factoring into the party's divide. Anecdotally, Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic political consultant, said the decline in the Puerto Rican population and the increase in the black population in the borough was the reason for the coup d'Ă©tat.

"The organization may not be about power anymore," said Sheinkopf. "It may be about demographics."

Jose Rivera, left, and son Joel.

The Riveras are Puerto Rican. Heastie is black. Heastie did not return repeated phone calls requesting an interview. According to the 2000 census, the borough is about 49 percent Hispanic and 36 percent black.

Moving Forward

Enter Assemblymember Ruben Diaz Jr., who is aligned with the rebels, and City Council Majority Leader Joel Rivera, who is Jose's son and had planned on running for borough president since at least 2007.

Many expected they would compete for borough president and present a classic political power struggle -- the quintessential family feud (minus the buzzers and nametags) of Rivera versus Diaz. That race, insiders say, would have solidified the newly minted leadership or given the Riveras an edge to grab back their position as the Bronx Democratic leaders.

But just six weeks ago, Joel dropped out of the race, leaving Diaz as the only Democratic candidate in a county where Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 10 to one.

To Diaz and those close to him, the rebellion is over. The rainbow title -- which stood for racial and ethnic unity and diversity -- needs to be tossed aside. Now, the faction is simply the Bronx Democratic County leadership.

Despite a lack of competition in his current bid for borough president, Diaz says he is still wearing out shoe leather.

"Regardless of who is on the ballot I'm still out here at train stations," said the assemblymember outside of the Fordham Road stop. Dressed in a charcoal tweed coat on an exceptionally cold spring evening, Diaz addressed most passersby with his call (alternating English and Spanish) to the voting booth on April 21. A handful of residents approached him, recognizing his face from the streets. "We still have a phone banking operation," Diaz tells me. "I'm doing mailings. We are getting our message out there. We are running the campaign the same way we designed it six months ago."

Well, not entirely. Diaz has declined to take public matching funds, arguing the race is less than "competitive," which is true. He has raised $406,662 and spent $302,437, according to the latest campaign finance filings. Anthony Ribustello, Diaz's G.O.P. opponent, has only raised $5,170 for the race and has spent $4,428.

Diaz has spent most of last month in Albany, debating the state budget (his likely last duty as district 85's representative). If Joel Rivera had run, you can imagine some of that time would have been spent on Jerome Avenue.

"In a sense," said his ally, Dinowitz, "I think Ruben won this election months ago."

Diaz still has a platform. He calls it: "Jobs, jobs, jobs." As the poorest borough in New York City, the Bronx has often been slighted by a lack of resources and opportunity. Though Diaz admits that the post of borough president does not have a lot of influence, he still wants to encourage development and job opportunity by working with developers and through his own capital funding. He is as supportive of creating economic opportunity in the borough as he is of the Yankees -- he chants dismissively at those who pass by wearing Mets gear. Possibly to muster up support for the team, Diaz even suggested reduced ticket prices for those who live in the county.

He wants to create job training programs and affordable housing. Making the Bronx greener and reducing the borough's asthma rate, which is the highest in the city, has also made his to do list.

"I am going to be selfish," Diaz said. "It's going to be all about the Bronx, the Bronx, the Bronx."

The Rivera Crew

A tad farther east, Councilmember Joel Rivera strolls down Southern Boulevard touting his accomplishments as if he were a candidate.

The truth is, he is -- except he is running for re-election to the City Council's 15th district. Rivera says he changed his plans a day before he was expected to announce his candidacy for borough president, because he had already frozen his campaign finance account for his run -- at the time he didn't know whether Carrion would be sent to Washington -- and he wanted to "put politics aside."

Rivera argues that he would have had to start over fresh with a new campaign account if he had put in his hat. According to the Campaign Finance Board, that is not entirely true. While the board would have had to give the OK to Rivera to open his old account, there is no reason to think it would have said no. The city's new "doing business" rules, which cap contributions from city contractors, would not have applied retroactively, leaving much of his account intact. He would have had to comply with the special election caps, which are half of the normal contribution limits. Of the $207,451 Joel had raised for the race, he would have had to return $13,425 to run in next week's special election.

Joel says it's not like he thinks he couldn't have beaten Diaz. He argues it would have been a "coin toss" on who would have gotten the borough president title. "We could have won," Joel said. "We could have raised the money, but we would have inherited a splintered borough."

Now that he has abandoned that bid, he turns to a re-election run considerably more challenging than expected. The councilmember faces a well-financed challenger, Radame Perez, who actually used to fundraise for the Riveras. Perez has already raised nearly $156,000 for his campaign -- a sum that should easily cover the run. Despite that funding, Rivera contends he will win his seat for another four years.

Joel's new council campaign account has a little more than $500, according to the latest finance filings. Because his district overlaps with Peter Rivera's, his sister's (Assemblymember Naomi Rivera) and his father's assembly district, Joel says he already has an advantage come September's Democratic primary.

"You would really have to outmaneuver me in my neighborhood," Rivera said in his district office last week. "This district has voted for Riveras for 30 years."

Others aligned with the Riveras may be more vulnerable than Joel. Councilmember Maria Baez, a close ally to the family, has already conjured up six challengers, according to the Campaign Finance Board. Baez says she is running on her record and expects an endorsement from the county because of it.

Others beg to differ.

"I personally believe that the world would be a better place if there was a new councilmember in the 14th district," said Dinowitz, who shares part of his district with Baez. Adding that he was only speaking for himself, Dinowitz said the new county leadership would set up a formal process to hand out endorsements. All of the other council members have aligned with the new leadership.

Unity in the Bronx?

A comeback, those close to the Riveras say, can't be ruled out. They could be taking aim at district leader seats this fall in hopes of winning back a majority of the 24 in the county, which could allow them to reclaim the chairmanship.

False hope or clinging to nostalgia -- one can never tell.

At a recent gathering of his district's Democratic club, Peter Rivera refused to even refer to the newly minted leadership as the county leaders. To him, they are still the rebels.

"A lot of people will be watching," said Peter. "I think the future -- the political future of Bronx County -- will be determined in the next months."

The longer the dispute -- which some say is already over -- continues, the greater chance the Bronx will be balkanized, others argue. Fewer resources will gravitate to the city's poorest borough if officials only expect political infighting, say those aligned with the rebels.

"I look forward to a new day of unity in the Bronx," said Councilmember Helen Foster, who bowed out of the borough president's race at Heastie's urging. "The longer this drags, the longer Assemblyman (Jose) Rivera keeps this going on, it just does more damage to the borough and the people we are supposed to be representing."

Others hope that call for unity will hold.

As the wind picked up along Fordham Road last week, Diaz and his staff braced for another hour of handshakes and handing out palm cards.

A man who exited the train station approached Diaz. He asked, "You Puerto Rican?" Diaz replied in the affirmative. "I'm Puerto Rican too," the man answered. Striking the familiar campaign message, Diaz replied, "But I want to be everyone's borough president."

We will see if that resonates.


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