Gotham Gazette

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Citizens Union



Republicans Battle to Take on Heavily Favored Cuomo

Thomas Nast drew this cartoon to portray Republican woes in 1877, but it could apply to the New York GOP in 2010.

In 2006, Democratic Attorney General Eliot Spitzer rode his popularity as a crusading attorney general straight into the governor's mansion, with nearly 70 percent of the vote. It was more an anointment than an election On Nov. 2, most analysts think current Attorney General Andrew Cuomo could enjoy the same sort of ascent to the governorship.

Cuomo appears to have a commanding lead even though the Democrats have had a rocky four years in Albany. Democratic Gov David Paterson declined to run for election in a fugue of scandal. Dem Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, appointed to her seat by Paterson, was supposed to be weak, an easy target for both better known Democrats and Republicans. State Comptroller Alan Hevesi had to resign after being reelected. And fighting among State Senate Democrats shut down the body for several weeks in 2009.

Add to all that that this is supposed to be the year of the Republican comeback. It still is nationally, but in New York the Republican Party has faltered in its effort to find high-profile candidates.

Unlike Spitzer in 2006, Cuomo has no primary challenger. The biggest barrier between Cuomo and victory will likely come from the winner of the Republican primary between former U.S. Rep. Rick Lazio and wealthy Buffalo businessman Carl Paladino

The two big-name Republicans many in the party hoped would challenge Gillibrand -- former Gov. George Pataki and former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani -- never got into the race. Instead, there are three obscure Republican candidates: former Westchester Congressman Joe DioGuardi, onetime Treasury Department official David Malpass and Long Island attorney Bruce Blakeman. None of them are thought to have a great chance against the extremely well funded Gillibrand.

Two equally obscure Republicans are competing for the daunting challenge of taking on New York’s senior – and very well funded and powerful – Sen. Charles Schumer. The party does seem to face better odds in the two other statewide races where neither of its candidates -- Harry Wilson for comptroller and Daniel Donovan for attorney general -- faces a primary.

Gubernatorial Mess

Figuring out who would run on the Republican gubernatorial ticket has been a messy process. Republican Party chair Ed Cox, unimpressed with Lazio’s early campaigning, urged Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy to enter the race even though Levy was a Democrat at the time. After bitter internal fighting and a disjointed convention, Lazio won the Republican nod. Levy bowed out. Paladino, however, was just gaining steam.

Why are the state Republicans flapping their arms in the wind in what is expected to be a benchmark year for Republicans nationally?

"It’s because Pataki didn't build infrastructure. He didn’t build up the party itself. And the leadership is self centered," said Baruch College Professor Doug Muzzio. "{Former party chair Joseph] Mondello was a disaster and {the current one, Edward] Cox isn't much different. But it has to do with who is in the team and on the bench. The stars Pataki and Giuliani wisely bowed out."

Carl Paladino has taken on the role of the Tea Party candidate, the outsider who is "mad as hell" at Albany dysfunction. But Paladino is not exactly an outsider; he has used his wealth to fund a wide array of Albany politicians, Republicans and Democrats alike. His business relies on contracts from the state. And he has come under attack for a number of extreme positions.

rick lazio
Rick Lazio

Lazio, a former congressman from Long Island, served as an executive vice president at JP Morgan Chase after his 2000 failed Senate bid against Hillary Clinton. He has come under attack for his ties to Wall Street; his finance chair during his bid for the Senate was Lewis Ranieri, who was on Time magazine’s list of the top 25 people responsible for the financial crisis.

The two Republican candidates are low on cash and poll badly in theoretical match-ups against Cuomo. An August Siena Poll put Lazio and Paladino at about 27 percent to Cuomo’s 65. Lazio maintains a small lead in polls for the Republican primary but has seen his edge steadily shrink. The latest Quinnipiac Poll puts Lazio 12 points over Paladino.

Both candidates have about $500,000 on hand as of September although Paladino recently gave around $500,000 to his own campaign. Cuomo, on the other hand, had $23.6 million in July.

It is expected that Paladino will unleash a massive television campaign in the final days before the primary.

But Muzzio doesn’t think any of it will truly make a difference.

"Forget it! Cuomo doesn't lose unless there is a disaster. This isn't an election -- this should be the lowest turnout ever. It is a snoozefest," he said.

Where's the Beef?

Democrats have been eating up the Republican primary as the two contestants take shots at each other and compete to have the most hard-line policy on the Park 51 Islamic center.

Cuomo has almost become an afterthought in their campaigns.

While Paladino began escalating the mosque debate, even saying he would use eminent domain to seize the property, a look at both candidates' websites make it clear that Lazio has signed on to the cause. Paladino's site features a video titled "Carl Paladino Will Put New Yorkers Back to Work" and a five-point plan to reduce the size of state government. Lazio’s site features a petition demanding Cuomo investigate the mosque, along with the letter Lazio wrote to Cuomo demanding Cuomo debate him about the mosque. It also features an attack on Cuomo’s link to "special interests."

A recent e-mail from the Lazio campaign viciously attacked Cuomo for not "investigating” the mosque." "Cuomo's refusal to do his job is as offensive as imam's suggestion of terrorist activity," read the headline in a quote attributed to Lazio.

"Lazio's campaign is so intellectually bankrupt that he jumps on the mosque issue," said Muzzio. "Excuse me, can you tell me what this has to do with governing?"

carl paladino
Photo by Azi Paybarah
Carl Paladino

Paladino has, both intentionally and unintentionally, cultivated an image as a rural outsider. His first big public splash this year surrounded racist e-mails he had forwarded to colleagues. Since then, he has come under fire for comparing Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to Hitler and the Anti-Christ and proposing unemployed black youth undergo training programs in closed prisons.

Recently, Paladino said that “there aren’t many Republicans” in New York City outside of Staten Island and Queens. He said both boroughs could relate to his stances.

Lazio's approach has been far less abrasive, but a number of Republicans say it has been underwhelming and has failed to spark interest. His slogan, "The Status Cuomo," has focused on attaching Cuomo to "special interests" he says have leached money from the state while the current AG has been raising taxes and driving businesses out of state.

While Paladino has appealed to the Tea Party movement.pushing hard right, Lazio has tried to find a place in the middle. He has taken a hard stance against the mosque to appeal to Tea Party voters but he has challenged Paladino on his remarks about putting inner city youth in reeducation camps.

The Economy

In addition to pledging to stop the Islamic center, both candidates plan to chop Medicaid benefits for the needy, drastically trim state agencies and cut property taxes.

Lazio says he would do away with the pork barrel spending by legislators. He supports a constitutional convention to change the way Albany functions and has promised to veto district lines drawn by legislators, saying he supports an independent redistricting commission. He also advocates a property tax cap of 2.5 percent of the value of every home. And he has committed to giving the city the education funds it won in the the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit.

Paladino's plan includes cutting property taxes 10 percent by June,2011. He has attacked Lazio's cap as "weak." He pledges to cut the size of state government as a whole -- agencies, departments and staff -- by 20 percent by December 2011.

Paladino has further promised to cut $20 billion from Medicaid in his first budget. "New York offers more gold-plated Medicaid optional benefits than any other state and this is killing our taxpayers," says Paladino’s website. "Carl will cut these optional benefits back to California levels -- still the second most expensive Medicaid state in America -- saving New Yorkers $10 billion in taxes." He also wants to cut business taxes and pass an ethics law with "real teeth."

Lazio has won endorsements from newspapers like the New York Times, the Times Union, the New York Observer and others. But the endorsements were more anti-Paladino than pro-Lazio. The Daily News declined to endorse in the Republican primary -– instead backing Cuomo.

Paladino has tried to turn those endorsements against Lazio, claiming Lazio is the favorite of the liberal media, which have an "agenda."

Whichever one of them loses on Tuesday could still fight on into the general election, thanks to third parties; Lazio has the Conservative line and Paladino has his Tax Payers line

Lazio, though, recently said he thinks there will party unity. Speaking to a rally, in Erie County, he said, "I have no doubt in my mind that once the primary is over, that people who support both candidacies will come together, because I think there is common opposition here."

Muzzio laughs at the idea that the loser in the primary might continue on. "Lazio on the Conservative line? Cuomo is further to the right of him. And what line would Paladino run on? The Tax Payer's? Its a joke. This isn't even an election."

Filling Albany's Big Three

Like so many establishment Republican candidates this year, Rick Lazio was supposed to have a clear path to the general election.

But things have not worked out that way for the former U.S. representative from Long Island, who lost to Hillary Clinton for Senate in 2000. As some in the party began to grumble about his alleged lack of effectiveness as a candidate, Suffolk County executive Steve Levy decided he wanted the nomination.

There was one problem: Levy was, until March, a Democrat. That did not bother state GOP chair Edward Cox but it did dismay some Republicans at the state party convention. They blocked Levy's bid.

But Lazio's troubles are far from over. Now he faces another Republican challenger: Buffalo multimillionaire Carl Paladino who has assumed the Tea Party mantle.

Both Lazio and Paladino have spent a sizable chunk of their campaign assailing the proposed Islamic center near Ground Zero. Lazio's web site does not have the customary rundown of his stands on various issues but on its home page features both a petition calling on Attorney General Andrew Cuomo (the Democratic gubernatorial candidate) to investigate the mosque and a letter to Cuomo challenging him to a debate about the Islamic center.

For his part, Paladino has called for the state to seize the land intended for the Islamic center under eminent domain, a stand that according to the Wall Street Journal, dismays some Tea Party adherents who oppose eminent domain even more than they dislike the mosque.

The primary race for governor is reflected in a contest for lieutenant governor. Lazio's pick, Chautauqua County Executive Greg Edwards, will face off against Paladino's choice, former New York City Councilmember and frequent Republican candidate Thomas Ognibene.

Lazio also faces a challenge to his bid for the Conservative Party nomination, this one from West Seneca attorney Ralph Lorigo. Lorigo accuses Lazio of being "a moderate Republican," while he claims to hold "pro-life, pro-Second Amendment and traditional marriage views."

Whoever emerges after all this, will face daunting odds in the race against Andrew Cuomo and running mate Robert Duffy in November.

The Attorney General Race

For Democrats this year, the marquee race involves state attorney general. Five Democrats have debated their way across the state, leafleting, robocalling and buying ad time, all in an effort to win Cuomo's job. With none of the candidates having much of a statewide profile before the campaign began -- and with little indication the voters have focused on them -- the race, most observers believe, remains up for grabs.

(For more on the race for attorney general, see Attorney General Candidates Struggle to Break Away from the Pack and Can the Next Attorney General Fix Albany?.)

Whoever emerges triumphant will go on to face Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan in November. Donovan has two things going for him: He does not have a primary, and he has support from Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who's already given him $37,800 and can, of course, afford to give a lot more.

Neither Cuomo nor his lieutenant governor pick, Duffy, face a primary challenger.

And no Democrat signed on to challenge State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, a former state legislator from Long Island who was appointed to the job after Alan Hevesi resigned. DiNapoli's general election opponent, Harry Wilson, who worked in finance, also has no primary.

Anger and Issues in the Bronx's 76th Assembly District

Photo (cc) Sam Galison. A street in Parkchester in the 76th district.

"Gary, I guess this is a shouting match! I am not going to engage in a shouting match! I'm not going to engage in a shouting match," shouted Assemblyman Peter Rivera during a debate last week on Bronx Talk, hosted by Gary Axelbank.

Rivera’s Democratic opponent, Luis Sepulveda, an attorney who has worked for Sens. Ruben Diaz and Pedro Espadaand has experience in constituent services, continued to speak over Rivera, asking him about using campaign money for vehicles and about contributions he has received from insurance and pharmaceutical companies, all while smiling broadly.

Rivera responded by referring to his various Assembly appointments and to his position as fourth in line for the governorship as speaker pro tem of the Assembly. Sepulveda attacked Rivera for at one time owning a business that brought "seedy clubs" into the district. "That's the kind of campaign he is gonna run," retorted Rivera. "Dirt, dirt, dirt!" Later he called Sepulveda a jerk.

So far, the campaign for the Assembly District, which includes West Farms, Parkchester, Van Nest and Castle Hill in the Bronx, has not been particularly substantive. Axelbank, who is host of Bronx Talk, said the August 9 debate left him wanting real substance. "I think Louis is a fierce challenger and legitimate opponent. But I think he had a real chance to address Peter Rivera's record, and I think there are some real holes there. But he didn't take advantage. People didn't like how they both came off."

Let the Accusations Fly


If you listen to Sepulveda, Rivera is a typical corrupt career politician who has "advanced his own standing while being neglectful of his district." Notoriously, Rivera has been cited in a number of reports for having spent $54,000 worth of campaign funds on a Mercedes. That is not illegal, but Sepulveda wonders why Rivera couldn't have spent the money on something more practical, "like a Toyota or a Hyundai." Sepulveda has sent out mailers attacking Rivera on the issue. Rivera says that he travels all over the state and country in his work as a member of many national organizations and state committees. He says he has spent a lot of money on transportation over his 18 years as an elected official.

Sepulveda also says that Rivera has taken a large amount of campaign contributions from the insurance and pharmaceutical industries, and he stood in the way of the creation of a preferred prescription drug list for Medicaid. That list is used in other states to drive down costs and pressure pharmaceutical companies to lower their prices if they want Medicaid to pay for their drugs. Rivera told the New York Times in 2006 that his opposition was not based on donations he had received. "I am not doing this because I am in the pocket of the pharmaceutical companies,'' he told the Times, explaining that he didn't want to limit the kinds of drugs the poor have access to. ''I am doing this because it's the right thing. The governor is trying to balance the budget on the backs of poor people."

According to Rivera, Sepulveda "is the alter ego of Senator Ruben Diaz." He says Sepulveda was the only man Diaz could find to run against him and is doing it to send a message. "What's the message?" asks Rivera. "Either play ball or get out of this district!"

"He isn't saying, “Vote for me because I am the most qualified candidate.’ He is saying, ‘Don't vote for Peter Rivera.'"

Rivera insists that despite his relationship with Diaz he started the campaign on his own and won Diaz's support through his hard work.

"There are some cynics who say I was put up by the senator," said Sepulveda, "but neither the senator nor chairman Carl Heastie knew I was going to run. I worked hard, and now I have the senator's support."

Photo (cc) Luis Sepulveda

Sepulveda says he knocked on his first door on February 28, and has since knocked on 18,239 doors. He says his support in the community is growing in part because he has targeted traditionally ignored voting blocks like the district's Bangladeshi community.

"When I first started, Rivera called me a lightweight, a trial balloon, but I think things have changed," he said.

During a recent campaign outing with Diaz and Sepulveda, Diaz said that even if Sepulveda did not win he would be happy to "send a message."

"Friends ask, 'Why is he being so negative,'" said Rivera. "If you say 20 years of service is a waste of time you better be able to explain why."

Diaz himself is challenging Ken Padilla for his position as the leader of the 76th Assembly District. Padilla said Diaz's challenge to him and Sepulveda's run against Rivera are similar. "The senator put someone up against Peter Rivera--his counsel [Sepulveda]--to say this is what happens if you don't play ball: we will replace you."

Hot Button

One major source of contention in the race is Sepulveda's stance on gay marriage. During the debate on the 9th he said he would want to see the legislation before he voted on it. Rivera countered that the legislation has been the same year after year.

Photo (cc) Assemblymember Peter Rivera

Sepulveda did not exactly make his stance any clearer during an interview with Gotham Gazette.

"What I've told people is I am not going to take a position on that until I see the legislation," said Sepulveda. I did not like the shape it took last time."

When asked what he didn't like about the legislation that came to a vote last year, he didn't elaborate. "I would prefer if they took it to a referendum," he said. "I am not going to say I am against gay marriage. I have a brother who is gay, so I understand the issue.

But I think it would be more productive if they brought it to a referendum."

He explained that he didn’t think the "the way activists have been going about this" has been helping. "You can't force the issue down the throats of the conservatives

and evangelicals," he concluded. Rivera supporters point to his Sepulveda's undefined stance on gay marriage as proof that he is beholden to Diaz who has lead a crusade against same-sex marriage.

Rivera voted in favor of same-sex marriage and says he would do it again.

Helping the District

When asked what he thought the main issues are for the district, Rivera wasn't very specific. "The people of the district will find out what the issues are in the coming days," he said. He put blame on legislative inaction on the senate, saying the senate should get the blame not the "legislature."

Rivera too didn't offer many particulars when asked what he would like to see approved in Albany to benefit his district. "There is a whole lot of stuff I would like to see passed. We didn't do power for jobs. It is simple things like that."

Sepulveda explained that the district is so diverse that each neighborhood has a number of issues that need to be addressed. One major goal would be to restore the number 14 bus, which runs from Country Club to Parkchester. He would like to see the area around the Bronx Zoo cleaned up. Multilingual education and public safety are also on his mind. He says that, with Diaz, he has drawn up legislation that would mirror the prescription drug plan currently used in Schenectady County. That plan allows residents to present a card to get discounts on pharmaceuticals. The plan has helped seniors bridge the gap between their Medicare coverage and the price of the pharmaceuticals.

And in another dig at Rivera, Sepulveda says he would immediately sponsor legislation that would require campaign finance funds to be "spent only on campaign related costs."

For his part, Rivera clearly thinks his real opponent is Diaz. He said Diaz is definitely trying to tell him to get in line and play ball with him. "Taking orders--that is not a distinguishing characteristic of a good leader. Playing ball is not good leadership," he said.

Diaz Faces Rare Challenge in the Bronx

Photo (cc) David King

On the bed of a white pickup truck stands a man in a pearl cowboy hat and white Western-style shirt. The stitched red lettering on its back reads, "Senador Ruben Diaz." Techno music blasts from loudspeakers mounted on top of the pickup, accompanied by a voice reminding people to "Votar, votar, votar!" on Sept. 14. It is July 31st --there are 45 days to the primary.

The message cycles from Spanish to English. Four vans trail behind the pickup, some emblazoned with: "Vote Ruben Diaz. A True Democrat. !Nuestro Lider!" Traffic snarls as the 67-year-old Diaz orders the caravan to a halt. "Lets go!" he says, launching himself out of the back of the bed.

And go he must.

This year, Sen. Ruben Diaz is facing a rare primary challenge from a young community organizer, Charlie Ramos. Despite the many issues that face the people of the Bronx, the race has been focused on same-sex marriage -- which Diaz staunchly opposes.

Now Fight Back NY, a political action committee targeting senators who voted against legalizing gay marriage in New York, announced it is interested in the race. The group is looking to dig up dirt on Diaz.

Diaz says he isn't concerned.

"The people of my district are very smart people," Diaz said, who has held his seat since 2002. "They aren't going to change senators from one who brings them housing and resources for a person who is just going to bring them gay marriage. It is stupid. What they are doing is making me stronger."

He has "strength," an "army."

"Come to my church on Saturday," he said. "You will see."

Two Kinds of Politics

The Democratic primary for the Bronx's 32nd senate district is a battle between old politics and new, the new techniques of targeting and outreach versus one on one old-fashioned street events and handshakes.

Diaz's challenger, Ramos, is no stranger to politics. He has organized grassroots campaigns in New York and across the country. Most recently he was the Bronx liaison to former City Comptroller William Thompson during his unsuccessful run for mayor last year.

But during the last week in July and early August Ramos has not been on the campaign trail. Instead his time has been spent at the Board of Elections offices in Manhattan and the Bronx and in court. Diaz's camp is trying to knock Ramos off the ballot by claiming a number of his signatures are invalid. Meanwhile, Ramos has mounted his own challenge, alleging that the man in charge of organizing Diaz's campaign is not a citizen and yet has voted in several elections. Ramos said that would constitute fraud and hopes it would invalidate Diaz's signatures.

Diaz said he can withstand any challenge. "I had most signatures in the state except for Cuomo. They are not going to be invalid," he said.

The challenges have taken a toll on Ramos. "You spend so much time tied up at the Board of Elections, and you end up only having three weeks to run." Ramos said once things are settled in court he will hit the train stations in the morning and senior citizen centers for lunch and the train stations again for rush hour.

Why is Ramos running? He said he would like to provide an alternative for voters who have had a "limited menu" and offer an option for people who support gay marriage and a woman's right to choose.

Charlie Ramos

He also thinks the district needs more jobs and better schools. He is looking into the idea of creating duty free zones in Hunts Point and would like to teach kids in Bronx schools how to organize campaigns, run for office and navigate the kind of legal challenges he is facing.

"We aren't bringing up the next generation of leadership in the Bronx. I want to help cultivate that," says Ramos. "I want to try to enfranchise voters. Only a small percentage of the district votes. If we could get more people, out victory would be easy."

As of July 1, Diaz had $163,100 on hand for the race. Ramos estimates he has about $6,000. Ramos relies on small contributions of $50 to $75, a good percentage of which have come from across the country. He says his backing for same-sex marriage -- and Diaz's fervent opposition to it -- has given him support from outside the state. Diaz has received large contributions, in the thousands of dollars, from businesses, industry groups and political action committees.

On the Road with Diaz

On a Saturday late last month, it is a party wherever Diaz goes in the Bronx. He shakes his hips to salsa music, blows and or applies kisses to all the women he encounters and poses for pictures. Three times during the sweltering afternoon Diaz orders the caravan to circle the street while he squeezes the hands of community members at block parties sponsored by him and his son, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr.

Senator Ruben Diaz

Big white banners with blue and red lettering wave over the streets. On one block the sign reads, "Sponsored by Christian Community Benevolent Assoc. Inc. Hon. Rev Ruben Diaz Hon. Ruben Diaz Jr., Hon. Marcos Crespo." There are hot dogs, chicken and rice, burgers, soda, bouncy ball rides for kids. Staffers guide Diaz toward outstretched hands.

Despite all the activity, Diaz insists he is less than concerned about his challenger. "This is a good way to get out and talk to the people," he says.

Diaz is running with Albany dysfunction as a backdrop -- and some of the blame is aimed directly at the four-term senator. He is one of the "four amigos" who held out for rewards from the Democrats in exchange for supporting Sen. Malcolm Smith as majority leader in the winter of 2008. It has been reported that Diaz asked Smith to promise he would not allow same-sex marriage to come to a vote. Diaz proudly says that he "only asked for one thing. I asked for no gay marriage."

Diaz cares little about the effect his actions might have had on the Democratic majority. "The Democrats are hurting housing, education, health care. For years the Democrats blamed Republicans, but it is time to stop blaming Republicans. It is time to blame the Democrats. The Democratic party is doing this to blacks and Latino," said Diaz.

Blurring the Boundaries

Ramos, though, believes Diaz is one of the major offenders. "I think he has been part of the problem. He has been obsessed with blocking gay marriage when there are a host of issues that have not been addressed," Ramos said

"Diaz has no problem blurring the lines between the work of his ministry and his political work," says Gary Axelbank, the host of BronxTalk. Axelbank says the borough's issues are fairly clear: unemployment, health care, housing and schools. He said, though, that Diaz probably would put gay marriage and abortion on the top of his list despite all the problems the district faces. He blends his role as a man of faith with his political life. In fact, on Saturday Diaz, in his cowboy hat, musters his campaign vehicles out of his church's parking lot, where they had been corralled. There is no separation between his campaign and his church.

A Split on Marriage

On the previous Friday afternoon, at the Manhattan Board of Elections, Ramos waited patiently for his case to be called. He says that despite gaining multiple endorsements from progressive groups and the LGBT community, including the Empire State Pride Agenda, Pro-Choice NY and Democracy for NYC, he has had trouble drumming up support in the community. He says it’s because people are afraid to anger Diaz. "I'm going against the machine. Folks sit me down behind closed doors and say, 'I can't support you in public but I support you.' They don't want to do anything to upset the reverend or his son, the borough president." Ramos says he has "silent supporters."

It has been reported that Ramos wavered between a run against Diaz and a challenge to Bronx Assemblymember Marcos Crespo. Ramos says Diaz's stance on a number of issues made him decide to challenge the reverend. Diaz's vote against a bill that would have increased support for people with HIV was icing on the cake, said Ramos. "I have family members who have died of the disease, so it's close to me."

Crespo, who was campaigning with Diaz on the Saturday in July, said that he thinks Ramos chose to challenge Diaz because he knew he would be able to raise money through the LGBT community.

Ramos says he appreciates support from the Fight Back New York PAC but he doesn't exactly coordinate with them -- that would be illegal. And it isn't exactly clear that that PAC is going to do anything besides "hire expert political researchers to find every piece of information we can on Ruben Diaz."

"There are enough progressive people who care about gay marriage and reproductive rights to unseat Diaz," said Axelbank. "It is just about having the kind of candidate with the resources. They need to reach them all."

As the day goes on, Diaz's pace begins to slow. He sips water and sits on a curb to eat some rice and chicken. A few children splash about in the puddles next to him. When he rises, he finally begins to open up about the race and his feelings on gay marriage.

"I have an army," he says. "I got 40,000 people to show up in front of Paterson's office on a Sunday. Who else can do that? Barack Obama, that's who -- or at least he could have. Probably not anymore. They took a stand against gay marriage."

Diaz looks around at the street, at the children playing in the spraying water of an open hydrant, at the families gathered around small grills.

"Do they want housing or do they want gay marriage?" he asks. "Fight Back is using Ruben Diaz statewide to raise money. It is a nice way to raise money for them, but not for Charlie. They don't care about Charlie. Charlie is no one."

Diaz says that many groups and candidates have tried to raise money off his opposition to gay marriage. "They should thank me, because without me they can't raise money. When I quit," Diaz says, then corrects himself, "When I am no longer there, they will have no way to raise money."

The tactic does not make sense, he said, "to come here to the Bronx and use gay marriage in the Latino community. That is stupid."

Helping the Community

Diaz finally has had enough. The caravan wings its way back to his church on Longfellow Avenue. The drivers navigate the narrow streets with double parked cars on both sides.

Diaz sees a small woman standing on the street near the corner of Bryant and 172nd Street. He does his signature double arm point and flashes a wide smile. The woman smiles back and holds up a jack and tire iron; she wants help. The caravan continues on its way, Diaz continues to smile and point, the music blares. Diaz's voice blazes out of the speakers on his truck and the van behind him, though not in sync. "Este reverendo y el senador Rubén Díaz," spews from the loudspeaker and echoes off the walls. "Votar, votar, votar," blasts from one of the vans.

The woman stops looking at Diaz and waits for the caravan to pass so she can safely change the tire. Diaz continues on, smiling.

On Wednesday August 5, Ramos calls to talk about the last few days he has spent in court. He is on his way to a rally to celebrate a judge's ruling that has temporarily struck down Proposition 8 banning same sex marriage in California. He seems slightly optimistic, slightly wary and tired. He says his court challenge to Diaz's signatures "is a bit of a long shot."

"They don't want me on the ballot," Ramos said, "because they don't want people to have options. If I run and get 40 percent of the vote, if all the people who don't like how he behaves vote for me, it would show that he is vulnerable."

If people in the district had an option, he said, they might begin to see that there is an alternative to the way Diaz conducts himself, an alternative to Diaz's combination of belief and politics.

On Thursday Ramos finds out that a judge will likely soon rule that he has enough petitions to be on the ballot. He decides to abandon his fraud charges against Diaz so that he can get out of the court room and have more time to actually campaign.

Challengers Emerge to Take On Espada

Gustavo Rivera
Photo by Jon Reznick
Gustavo Rivera hopes anger at State Sen Pedro Espada, along with his owns endorsements and connections can help propel him to victory in the September primary.

"My name is Gustavo Rivera. I am running for State Senate," the well-dressed man says as he pushes his flyer toward a sweat-drenched man wearing shorts and a white t-shirt hurrying across the intersection of West 231st Street and Broadway in the Bronx. The hurried man puts up his shoulder, blocking the literature.

"I'm running against Pedro Espada," Rivera continues. The man pauses, stops and turns in the middle of the street. "Oh, you've heard that name before?" Rivera asks. The man smiles and tells Rivera that he lives in Espada's neighborhood.

"So you live in Mamaroneck," Rivera retorts, again smiling as he brings up one of the many controversies that swirl around incumbent State Sen. Espada, the architect of the Senate coup that threw the state into months of chaos last year, the man currently under investigation by Attorney General Andrew Cuomo and the federal government.

This is how it goes as Rivera, his campaign manager, treasurer and five young volunteers catch the rush hour crowd to hand out literature as they pound down the subway steps in the deep summer heat. The only relief is the filthy water that splashes down from the tracks above. Rivera is excited; he has just received an e-mail on his Blackberry informing him that he has won another union endorsement. A few minutes later he learns that the Albany Project has rated him the top challenger to watch this election season.

Emerging from the Pack

In the past few weeks Rivera has become the favorite among the three men challenging Espada to represent the 33rd State Senate district. The one-time assumed front runner, Desiree Pilgrim-Hunter, dropped out of the race, citing a lack of money. That event was quickly followed by a New York Times article announcing that the Working Families Party was endorsing Rivera and will lend its considerable muscle to help him beat Espada. The race has gone from snoozer to the hot list.

Rivera, born in Puerto Rico has lived in the Bronx near the Kingsbridge Armory for 10 years. He is a former director of outreach for Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and served as chief of staff to State Sen. Andrea Stewart Cousins. Rivera came to New York City in 1998 from Puerto Rico to pursue his doctorate degree in political science from the CUNY Graduate Center and has taught political science as an adjunct professor at Pace University. He headed field operations for the Obama campaign in 2008.

The New Roosevelt Initiative, a political action committee that plans to dump big bucks behind the candidate, and the Working Families Party both back Rivera. He also has endorsements from Communications Workers of America, AFL-CIO, Local 1180, the 504 Democratic Club, Educational Justice PAC and the Tenants PAC. There is no question that Rivera is well connected.

His fellow challengers, Daniel Padernacht -- a life-long Bronx resident, lawyer and member of Community Board 8 -- and Fernando Tirado -- the district manager for Community Board 7 -- are nowhere near as tied in, but some say they have more first hand knowledge of the problems that face the community thanks to their work on the boards. Tirado moved to the Bronx from Queens in 2006.

According to the most recent campaign finance filings, as of July 1 Padernacht raised $19,405 and spent $16,101, leaving him with $957 on hand. Tirado raised $3,335, spent $3,087 and so had $387. Rivera raised $65,535, spent $27,092 and was left with $38,443. Espada, raised $81,775, in addition to the $252,478 he had left over from last year. After expenditures Espada has $322,903 on hand.

All three men answered a series of questions about the issues" for the Bronx News Network. The candidates generally agree on most issues. Espada declined to participate. His office did not return multiple calls seeking an interview or comment for this article.

No Easy Feat

Espada is by no means an easy target for Rivera. Besides having a sizable war chest, name recognition and incumbency to help him he also has his Soundview Health Clinic which many residents say have provided them with decent health care for years. During the senate coup while many mainstream papers tore Espada apart,local publications hailed Espada as a hero for Latinos. There is still the sentiment in the community that Espada is a Robin Hood figure being persecuted for sticking up for himself and the community he represents. Espada insists that he is being persecuted because of his race.

Pedro Espada
Despite his legal problems, incumbent State Sen. Pedro Espada has a sizable campaign war chest and is regarded as a hero by some in his community.

But a number of community members say the tide is changing. Cuomo's investigation and Espada's absence from the public eye as of late has a number of residents casting a more critical eye on the incumbent. Members of Espada's own party have tried to challenge his status as a Democrat.

Rivera hopes to take advantage of this.

Making the Pitch

Rivera's pitch is simple and direct. "What are you gonna do better than what he does?" asks a man who has already announced that he is "disgusted" with Espada."

"First of all, it's not going to be hard to do better than this guy," Rivera begins, tapping into the distrust of Espada that many people who stop him express. And then he moves into the catch line. "I am not magic. I am a human being. But I can promise to do what the incumbent does not. I will remember who put me here. I won't disappear into the other universe that is Albany. I will make sure that when I'm in Albany I will remember it is the people of the Bronx who put me there. And I want you to come and remind me who I work for."

In other words, Rivera says his door will be open to the people. Espada didn't open a district office for the first year he was in office and lately he has held town meetings by invitation only. Earlier this year he held a town hall meeting from the floor of the Senate chamber via the internet, taking questions by submission by phone and e-mail. Espada has said that he is very much a part of the community through his Soundview Health Clinic.

Unseating Espada is a crusade for many Democrats this year. They fear that having Espada on the Democratic ticket in November would be like a giant bull's eye on Democrats' backs, offering Republicans an opportunity to drag them over the coals for being corrupt. "If we don't beat Pedro Espada here, the Republicans will attack us with it throughout the entire state," said City Councilmember Oliver Koppell, who has endorsed Rivera.

Both parties, though have close ties to Espada. While Republican senators plotted with Espada and voted to make him the Senate president during the coup last year, rank and file Senate Democrats did nothing when their leadership wooed Espada back, making him majority leader — a title most Democrats will tell you is no more than that; it comes with absolutely no power.

Building Momentum

Back on 238th street a woman named Holly stops to volunteer. She tells Rivera's staff she lives a few blocks up the street. "I read literature about the candidates and like that he supported Obama and Gillibrand," she says.

Rivera is definitely the hot shot at the moment. Today in the Bronx he is preparing to accept yet another endorsement, this one from the Benjamin Franklin Reform Democratic Club. He refuses to say the endorsement is a done deal, but his jubilation is a dead give-away.

As he makes his way up the hill from the subway stop to the Democratic club, Rivera jokes with one of his volunteers about his taste for PBR beer and promises to show him what a real beer tastes like after the meeting.

The meeting itself is a bit tense. Bill Samuels and his staffers hover around the crowded storefront as the members enter. The room is packed. Espada is a no-show. It is noted that he was invited by phone call and two certified letters.

Earlier in the year, Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz" suggested the club put off endorsing a candidate so that challengers to Espada would have time to raise money and establish themselves. Now, the candidates are invited to speak on their own behalf.

Daniel Padernacht
Community board member and lifelong Bronx resident Daniel Padernacht said some Democrats have tried to encourage him to drop out of the race.

Padernacht tells the crowd how he was recently encouraged by party members to drop out of the race. He mentions being warned that he will be a spoiler. He says he spent all night at the Board of Elections before the deadline for filing to get on the ballot, wavering about whether to run or not. He seems under siege, shaken. (The Daily News reported before the meeting that Diowitz organized a meeting with State Democratic leader Charlie King; Kevin Finnegan, political director at 1199 SEIU, and Public Advocate Bill DeBlasio to try to convince Padernacht to drop out of the race, saying he could split the vote like Ralph Nader.)

He notes that he has been endorsed by his mother.

Tirado gives a similarly wounded speech, noting that he was pressured to drop out by Democratic officials but plans to persevere.

They both say they feel like they know the community and are ready to run real grass roots campaigns.

The members of the club are then given a chance to speak. A few members voice their concern that Rivera has not lived in the community as long as Padernacht.

Koppell, who has already endorsed Rivera, tells the crowd, "If it wasn't for Nader, Gore would have won, and maybe we wouldn't have lost all those lives in Iraq."

The candidates take questions. Rivera is asked if any of his prominent former employers-- Gillibrand or Andrea Stewart Cousins — might endorse him. He notes they are both busy and that he already enjoys a slew of other major endorsements.

The vote is finally taken: Espada 0 votes, Tirado 0 votes, Padernacht 2 votes, and Rivera 43. Rivera thanks the crowd, telling them, "Now the real work begins." Samuels then strides up to the microphone to assure the members they made the right choice.

Padernacht leaves quickly, Tirado lingers outside. He has responded to multiple interview requests by insisting I e-mail him my questions. Tonight he insists again that he is very busy and that I should e-mail the questions. He looks disappointed, a bit lost.

Fernando Tirado
While some Democrats credit Fernando Tirado with knowing about the district, he has struggled to gain support.

Off the record, some members of the Benjamin Franklin Club say that Tirado and Padernacht mean well; they just don't have the connections and political muscle Rivera enjoys.

Outside the club, in the dark, Samuels is asked how Rivera will be able to deliver for the district, which faces some of the highest unemployment in the city and such major issues as a lack of affordable housing. Rivera will be a freshman, after all, and Espada is now the majority leader.

"He will have the tools he needs once he gets there. He will be able to deliver for the district," Samuels says. I ask him to elaborate. "He has the power of persuasion. Look at Daniel Squadron; he is a freshman but he puts up bills and people pay attention. Not to slight Daniel, but Gustavo has more of this energy. He is a star, and people all over the state are watching this race. He has connections."

Rivera, however is not nearly as bold. "We can't relax for one second to beat this guy," Rivera says of Espada, "We can't count him out for one second. All I can promise if I win is that I will be accountable to the people who put me there."

GOP Faces Election with Big Hopes but Few Candidates

steve levy
Some Republicans hope Democrat Steve Levy, currently Suffolk Countuy executive, can win the race for governor for the GOP and bring the party in the state back from the political wilderness

Earlier this month Republican State Chairman Ed Cox shook up the political narrative by backing a Democrat -- Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy-- to run for governor on the Republican ticket. The move angered some in his party who back Republican candidate Rick Lazio; it enraged conservatives and tea party members who do not want a Democrat at the top of the Republican ticket. But at the same time it put the names of the Republican candidates into the headlines and steered the conversation away from assumed Democratic nominee Andrew Cuomo.

"We've heard more from Lazio in the last few weeks, since Levy entered the race, than we have in the last five months," said Alex Carey, director of communications for the New York State Republican Party. "The public is now paying attention. All we heard about before was Cuomo and Paterson."

Cox's move is a brazen gamble, and he has a lot to lose, but with every major state office and both houses of the legislature in Democratic hands, some say Cox had to do something bold. While the Democrats are dogged by scandal and allegations of gross mismanagement of the state government, the Republicans so far have not been able to capitalize on that. Cox has been unable to find Republican candidates with a realistic chance of actually winning statewide office -- or energizing the party. Now, Cox hopes, Levy will do that -- and bring the Republicans, seemingly lost in the political desert after the 2008 elections, back to power and influence in Albany.

High Stakes Contest

The results in November will determine not just who holds what state office but also the very future of the Republican Party in New York.

Following the 2010 census the legislature will have the power to redistrict the state. Experts say that, as Republican support in the state declined and population in the state has shifted to urban areas the party maintained political relevance in the state by controlling the districting process. In New York State, the legislature and the governor control redistricting. Last time around -- in 2001 -- the party held the State Senate and the governorship. This let them draw the lines to their advantage.

Now the Democrats control both houses of the legislature and the governorship. If the GOP does not win back two Senate seats to regain the majority there, the party will find itself facing permanent irrelevancy. "They are in danger of entering a state of being a perpetual minority party," said Ken Sherrill, a professor emeritus at Hunter College. "Malapportionment is the only thing keeping them near political power."

Some Republicans see things coming together so they can do that. "This will be the best year Republicans have had in 50 years," State Republican Chairman Ed Cox said during a recent interview.

Cox thinks the public will turn to Republicans in reaction to the passage of national health care reform, smoldering scandals that have marred Democratic control of Albany and the economy. "If you take a look at the big issues, economic issues, we have to close a $9 billion budget gap that will become a $20 billion deficit by the time the next elected governor takes office," said Cox. "The Democrats who control Albany can't confront it because of distractions: the scandal of an unelected governor who is being investigated by an attorney general who failed to recluse himself until after a 13 point drop in the polls. An unelected comptroller because of corruption by staffers of the previous comptroller. Democrats control the Senate, and both leaders are under investigations for problems that they have. It is a mess!"

Cox said the public will come to the conclusion that, "the political solution to this is to vote in a Republican governor who is fiscally conservative and a Republican Senate. Together they will be able to solve the problem. Being fiscally conservative is in our DNA."

Democrats counter that Republicans were in charge of the governorship and Senate for years and did not exercise much fiscal conservatism then.

Cox points out that a number of major Democrats were not elected by voters, but were instead appointed, either due to scandal or a seat opening. Those unelecteds include Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Comptroller Thomas Dinapoli and Lt. Gov. Richard Ravitch.

No one denies that scandal has dogged the Democrats during their recent period of control in Albany. The fall of Eliot Spitzer, the scandal surrounding Allan Hevesi, the domestic abuse trial of Hiram Monserrate, the continuing scandals and gaffes surrounding Gov. David Paterson -- and even the odd saga emanating from Rep. Eric Massa have left the Democrats scrambling to emphasize their accomplishments and push the ugly past under the carpet as they head into election season.

Yet the Republican Party is not exactly a betting favorite among political observers.

The top of the Republican ticket has Sherrill doubtful that the GOP can make any great gains come this fall. "They are right to think they have things going in their favor, but it's not clear they are going to get things together to have the ability to take advantage of it," Sherrill said, pointing out that the party does not yet have any challenger to Sen. Chuck Schumer or "formidable candidates" for attorney general, state comptroller or to face Paterson-appointed Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.

"To use a sports metaphor," said Baruch professor of political science Douglas Muzzio, "the Republicans don't have a starting team, they don't have a bench and they traded to get a guy from the other team."

Gambling on Levy

That "trade, as Muzzio calls it, has produced major tension within the Republican ranks. Insiders say Lazio supporters, including former Sen. Al D'Amato and former governor George Pataki, are very unhappy with Cox and would rather lose this year than see Cox get his way. "It looks like the Republicans have borrowed the Democrats' strategy of a circular firing squad," said Muzzio, "It is civil war."

Levy's nomination is by no means assured. He must now secure 51 percent of the party support at the convention to even get on the primary ballot, because he still is technically a Democrat. The struggle is on between the two candidates with the Conservative Party and tea party supporters insisting they will back Lazio into the general election. Observers say the move could lead to the kind of split that occurred in the race for Congress from New York's 23rd district upstate. Republicans backed moderate Republican Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava while conservatives got behind Doug Hoffman. Scozzafava eventually quit the race but Democratic nominee Bill Owens was able to take the seat thanks to the split.

Cox sees little reason for his fellow party members not to back Levy.

"This is not a party of exclusion," said Cox of the move. "Levy is a real fiscal conservative. There is no Republican who is more fiscally conservative than Steve Levy."

Lazio supporters counter the Levy is in actuality a liberal and have put out numerous talking points attacking Levy in that manner. Lazio scored a recent victory by winning the endorsement of Nassau County Executive Ed Magano. Magano announced on Wednesday that he is "joining the Republican and Conservative Parties by endorsing Rick Lazio for Governor because of his solutions to change Albany. Rick will be a stronger partner for reducing taxes and fostering a business climate that puts people back to work in Nassau County. Rick has the right experience and the right message to succeed in November."

Trouble at the Top?

Cox also has come in for criticism for not being able to coax a big Republican name to challenge Gillibrand, whose poll numbers have remained stagnant since Paterson appointed her. A number of big-name Republicans have been rumored to be considering a challenge, but so far only lesser known candidates have announced. Pataki is one name who has yet to decide if he will challenge Gillibrand.

"I'm not sure you need a big name to win," said Cox, who pointed to the victories of Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown over Attorney General Martha Coakley and Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano, who upset incumbent Tom Suozzi in November. "An unknown named Pataki came out of nowhere to beat Mario Cuomo," said Cox, "It just takes someone the public trusts."

Sherrill isn't so sure. He says without big, established names at the top of the ticket Republicans will have a hard time enticing voters to the booth to vote for candidates whose names appear lower on the ballot. "You can't beat somebody with nobody," he said.

That may hurt Republican chances to take two State Senate seats away from the Democrats and regain the GOP majority there. Sherrill says this should be within reach -- if Republicans can get their ticket in order. "They may have a better chance of that because of dissatisfaction with Albany, but again, if there is no one at the top of the ticket, there won't be any coattails," Sherrill said.

Muzzio agrees a Republican Senate majority be within their grasp and questions how much the top of the ticket will matter. "My gut tells me Levy, given his war chest and combative nature may have longer coat tails but politics is local," he said.

Cox pointed to a number of seats he thinks Republicans will wrest from Democrats because of local issues.

Sen. Darrel Aubertine, who holds the 48th district in northern upstate, faces a challenge from Patty Ritchie. Ritchie is currently a county clerk. "She was the clerk who first opposed the license plate fee that was just an insane move by Democrats," said Cox. "It was just another dumb way to come up with money."

On Long Island, Cox points to the Senate seat currently held by Brian Foley. He says Foley "took some bad votes that didn't match the needs of the district." The votes Cox is referring to include a vote to support the MTA bailout, which also established a payroll tax, and a vote for same-sex marriage. He says he is confident that Republican challenger Lee Zeldin will win.

Cox thinks Assemblyman Jack Quinn has a very good chance of unseating Democrat Sen. William Stachowski in the 58th Senate district around Buffalo. Stachowski has held the seat since 1981 and had a very tough time getting reelected in 2008. While Cox said he thinks Stachowski may be vulnerable because "he's been there a long time, maybe too long," he may also be having trouble because the Democratic leadership denied him the Finance Committee Chairmanship, which he was expected to inherit. This could reinforce the view upstate that the Democratic leadership, dominated by senators from New York City has ditched upstate Democrats. Stachowksi, who leans right, also voted no on gay marriage and is facing a number of primary challengers. Liz Benjamin reported earlier this year that Democrats are trying to push Stachowski out of the race to replace him with a more popular Democratic candidate so they don't have to spend money defending his seat.

But some Republican seats could be in play as well. Another New York incumbent, Republican Sen. Frank Padavan, had a rough reelection bid in 2008, pulling out a victory with a mere 480 vote lead against Democratic challenger James Gennarro. Democrats are confident Padavan won't be so lucky this year. Former 19th district Councilman Tony Avella has announced he will challenge Padavan. Sherrill thinks it will be a daunting challenge for Republicans to hold the seat. "The elderly constituents are aging out of the district or moving out," said Sherrill. He said Padavan's victory will depend a lot on "the top of the ticket."

But Cox sees things differently. He said in 2008 Democrats had momentum, but things have changed since then. He points out that three City Council seats in Queens were won by the Republicans in November. "I think Padavan is going to do well," Cox said. "Last time was a rough year."

Cox, also predicted Republicans "will pick up 15 Assembly seats. That won't give us control, but will allow us to uphold the governor's veto with some conservative upstate Democrats."

"There is no reason we can't win back seats traditionally held by Republicans," said Carey. "People are tired of senators who slash their girlfriend's throat, congressman who are involved in tickling and governors who take Yankees tickets."

Sherrill agrees with Cox that "all the macro things" are trending in the Republican's direction, but he said, "you have to look at whether they are capable of building the infrastructure and campaign to take advantage of that…They are under the gun, but I don't know that they can get themselves together to do anything about it. Wishing does not make it so," said Sherrill.

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