BRONX, N.Y. — Talk of corruption is unavoidable in the race for the 86th State Assembly District in the Bronx. The subject pops up when candidates knock on doors, when they get into conversations with constituents, at forums.
Voters openly wonder why they should bother casting a ballot when so many Bronx representatives end up in trouble with the law. They haven’t forgotten about Councilman Larry Seabrook and Sens. Pedro Espada and Efrain Gonzalez — all of whom are currently serving jail sentences. And, in this district in the West Bronx, they have surely not forgotten the name of the man who used to be their Assembly representative — Nelson Castro.
How could anyone forget? The case of Castro went beyond the normal embezzlement schemes and voter fraud that has become so common. First caught lying under oath, he then reached a deal with authorities in which he agreed to be a mole in the state Legislature. He did so for the next three years — even winning re-election while recording fellow legislators. His role as informant was unveiled this spring when fellow Assemblyman Eric Stevenson was charged with taking $20,000 in bribes to move a piece of legislation. Castro claimed he was responsible for the indictment but authorities never confirmed his role. Castro then resigned from his seat.
Normally, the governor would call a special election and allow the Bronx County Democratic machine to effectively appoint its choice to Castro’s seat but Gov. Andrew Cuomo didn’t — thereby opening up a primary that has allowed a number of interested candidates to launch campaigns. The district includes parts of University Heights, Fordham Heights, Morris Heights, Mount Hope, Belmont and Tremont.
So far, five candidates have made their presence felt in the race: Victor Pichardo, a former aide to US Rep. Chuck Schumer, who is regarded as the frontrunner in the race; district leader Yudelka Tapia, who previously ran for City Council; Haile Rivera, a community activist and former staffer for Espada; former district leader Hector Ramirez, the county’s candidate against Castro in the last election; and — not to be forgotten — Keny Nunez, whom Castro calls his “stand in candidate.” (Castro himself had weighed getting into the race, but in the end decided not to).
“I think there are some very credible candidates for this open seat, and that is a very good thing for the Bronx,” said Gary Axelbank, host of BronxTalk, a cable access TV program that has held debates in the Bronx for decades. He said the number of challengers could also benefit turnout in a district that barely registers under 4,000 voters during primaries.
“We have three officials in jail currently, and that really wears on the community. When people go to their representatives and complain about legitimate things and get no change or little response, they aren’t coming to the polls. This district also has many immigrants and non-English-speaking communities. What it all adds up to is a large, disenfranchised voter base,” Axelbank said.
A Fresh Face In Politics?
Twenty-eight-year-old Pichardo, a fresh-faced, well dressed, stocky gentleman of Dominican descent, enjoys the pedigree that comes from working for US Sen. Chuck Schumer for four years. In a recent interview over lunch in the Bronx, he made it clear that he doesn't want to talk about the past. He doesn’t want to criticize Castro, who remains popular in the district, or weigh in on the problems faced by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.
“I want to focus on the future, on providing this district with the kind of representation it needs,” said Pirchardo, who is backed by Bronx County Chair Carl Heastie and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz.
Pichardo says the constituents of the 86th district have been robbed of proper representation because of the scandals in the Bronx. He said he would like to see the implementation of a member item system in Albany that would prevent abuse but allow lawmakers to help boost projects in their neighborhoods. And he wants to work on housing issues and to help see to it that those who live in affordable housing are treated fairly. He also wants to raise awareness of the importance of college, so that others in the 86th can get the kind of education that he did.
And yet scandal and corruption is the most prominent issue in the race; it is the most effective opponent of every candidate vying for Castro’s seat. Pichardo may raise warning signs for some Bronx residents because Castro was a newcomer to Bronx politics and was chosen by the Bronx County Democrats to replace Luis Diaz in 2008. The Bronx County Democrats backed Hector Ramirez as a challenger to Castro in 2010 but Ramirez lost.
While his opponents might call him a “machine politician,” his political career has consisted of working for two men who have reputations for being clean. Besides Schumer, he most recently worked for state Sen. Gustavo Rivera as director of community affairs.
Rivera said he had been discussing Pichardo’s desire to eventually run for office around the time that Castro resigned. He said he was initially put off by the candidates who were being considered to run with the county’s blessing.
When Castro’s resignation hit, Rivera says, “I was like, OK, so I’m have a slot in my backyard.” He said he continued to push Pichardo on whether he was ready to run for office and “gave him homework.” Pichardo came up with lists of whose support he could count on, where he could raise money and what constituent bases he could tap into.
“I told him, 'This is your decision. It is not going to be an easy transition, but I will be with you 100 percent,'” Rivera said.
Initially, Rivera said, the county was considering “three candidates. One candidate I have a good relationship with, but unfortunately she finds herself owing the city $100,000, and I am a strong advocate for the state to adopt the city’s campaign finance system and I worried it would hinder her ability to raise money for the campaign.”
Rivera spoke to Heastie about his concerns. “Carl Heastie took him a second look (at Pichardo) because he has not been in the same circles as Pichardo, he spoke to Chuck (Schumer) and that was that,” Rivera said.
Neither Heastie nor Schumer could be reached for comment by the Gazette.
Bronx BP Diaz is also a Pichardo supporter. He said he wants to see the candidate elected to help increase awareness of the Bronx.
“No matter what kind of veterans you have you can always add new talent and a new rookie and Victor Pichardo is gonna be the new addition to our team,” he said.
And Rivera said the 86th district has gone underrepresented and underserved long enough and that teamwork can help change that.
“I believe Victor has demonstrated he is not an establishment candidate even though he is supported by those of us in the establishment,” Rivera said. “For lack of a better term, there is synergy there. There is a natural opportunity with these smart, young, progressive people in the Bronx who are community-focused people.”
But Richard Soto, the man who gleefully takes credit for providing the Bronx district attorney with evidence that Castro had lied under oath, referred to the county and Heastie as “f---ing shitheads” and said of Pichardo: “They think they can just bring in some kid who hasn’t put in his time … I don’t know him. No one knows him.”
The Other Candidates
While Pichardo may carry the "machine" label, his opponents have other problems.
Tapia, who has been running for the seat longer than any other candidate and enjoys strong community support, owes the Campaign Finance Board $107,704. $47,774 of that number is from a combination of violations; she owes the CFB $59,950 for repayment of public funds given to her campaign.
Tapia’s 2009 campaign failed to file fundraising information a number of times, failed to report expenditures, failed to provide deposit reports, accepted five over-the-limit donations and failed to pay back thousands of dollars in liabilities and loans among a host of other violations. Tapia owes the board $59,930 in public matching funds.
The CFB stresses it is “taxpayer money” that has yet to be repaid. Tapia sued in state court to overturn the CFB’s ruling and lost. Tapia’s camp has failed to provide a July campaign finance filing to the Board of Elections.
Tapia declined to be interviewed due to a family health emergency.
Matthew Rey, a consultant from Tapia’s campaign, said that the candidate intends to pay back the CFB. “This was an administrative issue. We’ve decided to live with their decision and pay it all back,” he said, adding that Tapia is supportive of the city campaign finance system and hopes to see a similar system implemented on the state level. But he also blames the nebulous rules of the public campaign financing system.
Matthew Sollars, a spokesman for the CFB, said that its staff was “available to provide detailed guidance on the rules for any candidate who needs it.”
“Candidates who participate in the City’s matching funds program have an obligation to comply with both the spirit and the letter of the law, ” he said in a statement.
Another candidate for the Assembly seat, Haile Rivera, is a longtime community activist whose claim to fame is that he was a small donor selected to have lunch with President Barack Obama.
He has launched attacks on the better-financed campaigns of Pichardo and Tapia, saying they “haven’t done much” and touts his work for the Obama campaign as evidence that he has worked on behalf of the community.
Rivera has also called for Silver to resign. “If we want real change, the problems really start at the top,” he said. “That is why I’m not taking a position that is politically convenient. I plan to issue a statement asking all of [the other candidates], if they stand for reform they should go for different leadership or call for the speaker to resign.”
Rivera has left off part of his resume off of his campaign literature — something that could be seen as a direct link to scandal and corruption. Rivera worked for disgraced former state Sen. Espada during the last year of Espada’s term in office. “I worked for him for five or six months. I needed to work to support my family,” Rivera said. “I was doing constituent work, and then I was made a spokesperson in July, but I didn’t know what was going on so I had nothing to say.”
Rivera says he is proud that he did to help constituents in his role working for Espada. “Sometimes you work for people who are not what you thought. That's not your fault.”
Then there is the case of Kenny Nunez, whom Nelson Castro has called his “stand-in” candidate.
Nunez does not have a functioning campaign website and has not been seen doing much campaigning. He failed to file the July and pre-primary campaign finance statements with the state Board of Elections since creating a Friends of Nunez committee in June. The BOE has sent Nunez a letter regarding the July filing.
Also in the running is former district leader Ramirez, who unsuccessfully challenged Castro in the last race with the county machine’s backing. But he also lacks a website and failed to file any campaign finance documents by the July and pre-primary filing deadlines after his committee was created in January. The BOE also sent Ramirez a letter regarding his July filing.
Ramirez lost the primary in 2010 to Castro but was uncontested on the Working Families Party line and faced Castro again in the general and lost.
The Gazette was unable to reach Nunez, Ramirez or Castro despite calls and emails to their campaigns and associates.
Pichardo’s campaign appears to be the most professionally run of all the candidates in the race. He has raised $46,000 with major donations coming from the Bronx Democratic Party which donated $4,100, major unions like the SEIU1199, Plumbing Contractors PAC and The Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, elected officials like Sens. Liz Krueger, Gustavo Rivera and Mark Weprin, Assembly members Heastie, Phil Goldfeder, and the scandal plagued Micah Kellner. He also received $500 from the Real Estate Board of New York.
Tapia has raised $22,958 mostly from individuals and businesses — she has also donated to herself in the amount of $3,000 and transferred $5,000 to herself from her People For Yudelka Tapia committee — a committee that was apparently created early this year for a run for a different office. She also has unitemized donations totalling almost $500.
Rivera has raised $15,237. Most of the cash came in small donations from individuals with a few businesses here and there.
Pichardo’s fundraising edge, campaign style and backing by major incumbents, including Schumer and Rivera, would normally be more than enough to close the deal. But coming off a year in Albany that felt like an episode of Dragnet, it may be the wrong time to be the guy with the connections.