By Michael Burger
Video camera in hand, Jose Rivera zoomed in on his 22-year-old
son, Joel, an undergraduate at Fordham University. Like
any proud father, he wanted to record his child's moment
of glory. Only, this was not the end of May on a college
campus, but last Tuesday at City Hall, and the elder Rivera
was not videotaping Joel's graduation but his swearing-in.
Joel Rivera was taking over the City Council seat that
his father Jose Rivera had possessed until November, when
he left to become a member of the New York State Assembly.
Joel Rivera defeated his opponent Edwin Ortiz in a special
election held last Month (He must run for re-election
this fall). Ortiz, 13 years his senior, has worked for
more than a decade as a youth and tenant organizer, a
campaigner for the Democratic party, and a previous candidate
for public office. Rivera, who has a resume without explicit
work experience, campaigned by mentioning events he attended
when he was five years old. "This campaign was 22 years
in the making," he said to his supporters after his victory.
After the City Hall ceremony last week, Councilmember
Victor Robles rose to commemorate Joel's election: "Let
me remind you that besides being the youngest member ever
on the council, he made history because both the father
and the son are sitting elected officials. So we have
one up on the Bushes. We have the history books."
Councilmember Phil Reed then rose to speak. "With all
due respect to Councilmember Robles, we actually have
two such father-son teams simultaneously in office."
Reed was referring to State Senator Pedro Espada Jr.
and his son, City Councilman Pedro Gautier Espada. As
it happens, the Riveras and the Espadas are political
rivals. The senior Espada and the senior Rivera may run
against one another for borough president of the Bronx.
"Nepotism is nothing new in American politics," political
consultant Hank Sheinkopf told the Daily
News. But what is happening this campaign season in
New York is making some kind of history -- and that makes
some people very unhappy.
The reign of George W. Bush follows only eight years
after the presidency of his father, George Bush. (For
history buffs: the presidency of John Quincy Adams followed
some 20 years after that of his father John Adams, and
Benjamin Harrison, the 23rd U.S. President, was the grandson
of the ninth, William Henry Harrison.) The younger Bush's
opponent, former Vice President Al Gore Jr., was the son
of a U.S. Senator Al Gore Sr.
"There are a lot of family traditions specifically in
New York," says political consultant Joseph Mercurio.
There were of course the Roosevelts. On Staten Island,
the father-daughter team of Guy and Susan Molinari have
operated their own political shop. In 1985, while Mr.
Molinari sat in the U.S. Congress, Susan, 27 years old
at the time, became the sole Republican on the City Council.
Five years later, he became borough president and she
took over his seat in the House.
But thanks to term limits, the city is seeing more relatives
running at one time than ever before. There are at least
a half dozen races in which one of the candidates is the
son or daughter of the incumbent council member:
- District 16 in the Bronx: Helen Diane Foster,
daughter of Wendell Foster
- District 22 in Queens: Peter Vallone Jr., son
of Peter Vallone Sr
- District 37 in Brooklyn: Erik Malave-Dilan,
son of Martin Malave-Dilan,
- District 40 in Brooklyn: Yvette Clarke, daughter
of Una Clarke
- District 42 in Brooklyn: Donald Wooten, son
of Priscilla Wooten, Donald Wooten
Rickly Dear, the wife of Councilmember Noach Dear, is
also reportedly considering a run to succeed him in district
44 in Brooklyn.
This phenomenon has not left everybody with a warm and
fuzzy feeling. "We've spent years getting away from colonial
rules of government," says Wellington Sharpe. "I don't
want to see us setting up a royalty here." Sharpe, a Jamaican
immigrant who operates a day care center, is running for
council from district 40 in Brooklyn. One of his opponents
is Yvette Clarke, 35, daughter of Una Clarke, the current
council member in the district.
Critics have charged that some of these running relatives
are little more than surrogates for their parents. Due
to citywide redistricting, elections will be held again
in two years. So, critics believe, some incumbents are
running their children as a way to keep the seats warm
until they themselves can run again in 2003. Others suspect
that the older generation will stay on behind the scenes,
regardless of whether they run again, working their parental
THE REALITY OF POWER
Candidates opposing the offspring of council members
are confronted with a unique, if not entirely uncommon,
problem. "As a matter of fact, I am running against Una
Clarke," says Sharpe. "It's not against her daughter per
se. I'm running against the establishment, whatever friends
and people she has. There are people who owe her favors.
So all she has to do is call them in. It's not a level
Yvette Clarke, director of business services at the Bronx
Overall Economic Development Corp who says she was encouraged
by friends of her mother to run, acknowledges the benefits
of her bloodline. "When one has the support of an incumbent,
there is an advantage," she says. "They've established
relationships, and their reputation and rapport precedes
them. When you start from scratch, you have to gain entree,
you have to gain access to and support from entities within
the community. It's a challenge to differentiate yourself
Michael Benjamin is running against Helen Diane Foster,
daughter of Councilmember Rev. Wendell Foster, for the
seat in the Highbridge section of the Bronx. Benjamin
sees this election as a transitional moment. "It is an
opportunity to remake the city council, to make it more
diverse, more reflective of city at large," he says. But
Benjamin is facing the same problems as Sharpe, Ortiz,
and the rest. "Wendell Foster has the name recognition
of ten years of taxpayer funded mailings," he says. "He's
introducing his daughter as his successor, creating fear
that capital projects in the hopper won't get funded if
she's not elected. He's putting his machinery behind his
daughter and he's not making any bones about it."
Benjamin says Rev. Foster is trying to set up a dynasty.
"He's stated that people who don't vote for his daughter
are racist, because there are the Bushes and the Kennedy'sā¤|.It's
distasteful that he wants to keep it in the family, rather
than let people who have been out there doing it for years
serve in a greater capacity. She's never been to meetings
outside his presence. She's just parachuting in."
Helen Foster, of course, does not see it this way. "The
more I was out with my father, which I've been doing since
I was ten, more and more people expressed an interest
in my running," says Foster, who is 34. "I've been meeting
with a core group of ministers and political advisers.
They're asking me to consider it, pray on it, and be guided
THE PARENT-CHILD BOND
Joel Rivera and Yvette Clarke learned politics from their
parents. They worked on campaigns, attended political
events, and met the right people. Clarke, who ran her
mother's congressional bid and both of her reelection
campaigns, says she learned "sort of by osmosis." Rivera
speaks of standing beside his father in Vieques, Puerto
Rico during protests of U.S. naval operations there, and
in the Bronx during protests of the Amadou Diallo killing.
"It cannot be ignored, the experience that the children
of council members have gained," he says. "It's a real
life experience. No one can match that."
The influence of parents on their children in any circumstance
is undeniable; in these instances, the boundary between
the personal and the political disappears, giving some
credence to fears of a democracy undermined by filial
Rivera says that his father has always been his mentor.
"This is a man who has been involved in politics for 30
years," he says. "He knows the issues, and that is how
I came to know the issues that face the community. I will
always look up to him."
"Her expertise is invaluable," says Clarke of her mother.
"She can start a sentence and I can almost finish it."
"My father and I have always had a relationship where
I'm his sounding board," says Helen Diane Foster. "And
not just in politics but in life. We don't make a move
without one bouncing ideas off the other."
And Peter Vallone Jr., 39, who is running to fill mayoral
candidate Peter Vallone Sr.'s seat in Astoria, adds: "I
look to my father for advice on all matters political.
He's probably the best source available, and I'm lucky
to have him. Nobody knows more about how city government
works than my father."
Dutiful sons and daughters all.