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Musical Chairs in the Bronx

by Gotham Gazette Staff, Jul 28, 2003
 

At times, Bronx politics can seem like a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel: the plot is passed on from generation to generation and it is nearly impossible to follow without a family tree.

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In the latest chapter in one of the city's most complex and bitter political rivalries, City Councilmember Pedro Espada, Jr. announced on July 15 that he would not be seeking reelection just five months after taking office. He named his son, Pedro G. Espada, as his successor.

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Councilmember Espada Jr. said he made the decision not to run again because his long-time political nemesis, the Bronx Democratic Party, was seeking to throw him out of the party. When Espada Jr. was in the State Senate he switched to the Republican party.

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"To the outside world it looks like a game of musical chairs," said Councilmember Espada Jr. "But this is a case of the Bronx Democratic machine disenfranchising me and trying to deny me a full opportunity to serve."

The younger Espada now seeking his father's seat has his own history in the New York City Council. He represented adjoining district 17 from 1997 to 2001, before he lost to Jose Serrano, son of Congressman Jose E. Serrano, who are also part of the Bronx Democratic Party.

Espada points to his record while in the council, which he said includes building three new youth centers and working to build over 2,000 new apartments, but he admitted there are distinct differences between the 17th City Council district - which encompasses the neighborhoods of the South Bronx - and the 18th district, which includes neighborhoods like Parkchester, Castle Hill, and parts of Soundview.

"The 18th district has a lot more working class people struggling to make ends meet as well as quality of life issues," said Espada.

Espada, who said he grew up in the area, will face five other candidates, including his primary opponent Annabel Palma, who has never run for office but has the backing of the Democratic Party, the Working Families Party, and several unions.

Annabel Palma said her background - also growing up in the district, raising a child as a single mother, and working as a labor organizer - provides the experience she needs to serve in the council. "I believe voters want an honest person, a leader, and not a career politician," said Palma.

Palma said if elected she will focus on issues like improving test scores and ensuring housing programs continue to be funded. She declined to speculate on the Espada family's political tactics. "I don't know what is going through their minds," she said. "I'm just concerned that people know my name and what I stand for."

Another Democrat Hilda Hernandez, a community activist and perennial candidate who has had trouble staying on the ballot after her petitions are challenged, said she hopes to represent "the will of the community and the people."

Republican candidate Fabian Feliciano, who works for the New York State Crime Victims Board, said the district has a history of "electing representatives that don’t show up for work."

"We need a councilman who will worry about pot holes, negotiate developments, and monitor speed traps," said Feliciano. Although he has never run for office, Feliciano said he learned about how local politics works when he recently served as a liaison between a new Home Depot and the community board.

Conservative candidate William Newmark said if elected he would reduce taxes, cut government spending, and support a voucher system for public schools.

Newmark said the rivalry between the Espadas and the Bronx machine is a distraction from the real issues facing the neighborhood. "It is a power grab and both sides are in it for their own benefit," he said.

The feud between the Espadas and the Bronx Democratic Party goes back over a decade to when the elder Espada, who runs a series of health clinics in the Bronx, was investigated for diverting campaign funds to his business. He was cleared of any wrongdoing, but he believes the Bronx Democratic Party was behind the allegations.

Espada first beat the Bronx machine in 1992 when he ran successfully for State Senate. In 1996, the party challenged the senator's petitions and he was knocked off the ballot. Espada was reelected again in 2000 then two years later switched to the Republican Party; Bronx Democratic leaders tried to have him removed from their party rolls. In 2002, he lost his State Senate seat to Councilmember Ruben Diaz. In February, Espada won the open City Council seat in a special election.

District 18 is most widely known as the neighborhood where an unarmed West African immigrant, Amadou Diallo, was shot 41 times by police officers in 1999. But the neighborhood also has some of the most affordable rents in the city and a recently renovated shopping district in Parkchester.

The district has also had a revolving door of representatives; the winner of the November election will be the fourth council member in the last two years.

Posted July 28, 2003

Campaign Update:

The district 18 race between Pedro G. Espada and Annabel Palma is shaping up to be a battle between the well-known Espada family and local unions like 1199 and Local 32BJ that are backing Palma. Espada promises to get his health care workers out on election day and Palma is counting on union help in getting elected.

Palma has raised $83,000 and will receive an additional $77,500 from the city's campaign finance board. Espada is not participating in the program, but told the New York Times that he had raised "between $30,000 and $40,000."

Democrat Hilda Hernandez was knocked off of the ballot by the Board of Elections and is no longer in the running.

Updated August 29, 2003

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