Gotham Gazette

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2021 Borough President Election Set to Unfold Amid Dramatic Shift in Bronx Politics

Bronx Democrats Crespo Diaz Jr

Bronx Democrats (photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayor's Office)

The Bronx’s political landscape is undergoing major shifts, full of electoral upsets and unexpected political departures. While Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie remains one of the most powerful elected officials in the state, the borough’s Democratic County Party that he has been leading, in essence, for many years is faltering amid election losses and retirements from politics, all setting the stage for what will be an immensely important 2021 New York City election cycle with a great deal at stake both within the borough and across the city.

Several longtime Bronx figures in city and state politics have exited or are about to exit the political arena, most prominent among them being Ruben Diaz Jr., the borough president for over a decade who surprised many by opting out of the 2021 mayoral race. City Council Member Ruben Diaz Sr. announced after losing in a recent congressional primary that he will be retiring at the end of his current term in 2021, and Assemblymember Marcos Crespo, a longtime ally of the Diazes and Heastie abruptly resigned his Assembly seat and his post as chair of the county Democratic Party earlier this year for a private sector job.

This wave of retirements marks the end of an era in Bronx politics, as David Cruz recently wrote in Gothamist, with the Bronx Democratic political machine apparently reaching its zenith in 2015, when Heastie was elected Assembly Speaker. Where it was supposed to be gearing up to try to elect Diaz Jr. as mayor next year, the party is now facing the need to reinvent itself, and refocus its priorities on finding common ground with insurgents, winning local races, like those to replace both Diaz Jr. and Sr., and influencing the mayoral race in other ways.

The race to replace the term-limited Diaz Jr. -- who has held the position since he won a 2009 special election -- as borough president is shaping up to be one of the most interesting races in the borough. Two City Council members are already running to replace him and more current Bronx elected officials are expected to join them, among other candidates in what will likely be a crowded, competitive Democratic primary. That election will take place in June 2021 and is all but certain to determine the next officeholder in the very heavily Democratic borough.

With the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, including mass unemployment, among other long-standing issues in the Bronx, the next borough president will have their hands full, even in what is a position with limited powers. Whoever takes office in January 2022 will also have big shoes to fill after Diaz Jr.’s nearly 13-year tenure, in which the borough’s unemployment rate fell from 14.1% in January 2010 to 4.6% in February 2020, an all-time low for the borough, then shot up to 24.7% as of this June given the shutdown of the local economy.

Essential to the role of borough president are making community board appointments, allocating capital funding for local projects and initiatives, weighing in on land use matters, being a cheerleader for the borough and using the office to set an overarching vision for the borough, and taking on special projects that can range widely depending on the office-holder’s priorities.

Declared Candidates & Initial Fundraising
There are currently three declared candidates running to be the next Bronx Borough President: City Council Member Fernando Cabrera, City Council Member Vanessa Gibson, and Victor Gutierrez, who does not seem to be running much of a campaign.

Gibson was interviewed for this story, while Gutierrez did not respond to Gotham Gazette interview requests, and Cabrera was unavailable for several days, a spokesperson said, due to a family health emergency outside of the city.

Out of the declared candidates, Cabrera leads the field in fundraising, with $50,493 raised so far and $40,406 currently in his campaign account. Gibson has raised $20,692 thus far and has an estimated campaign balance of -$9,430 at the moment (her campaign has spent almost $30,000 so far). Roughly 58% of Cabrera’s contributions and 51% of Gibson’s came before this year. Guitierrez has raised $175, including a $100 contribution from himself, and has not spent any of his campaign funds as of the most recent disclosure filing.

Cabrera is the Council’s majority whip and chair of the Government Operations Committee. He is a pastor who was registered as a Republican until 2009. After his party switch, he was first elected to the City Council, defeating incumbent Maria Baez with the backing of the Bronx County Democratic Party in the primary in that same year. Baez had been an ally of onetime Bronx County Party Chair Assemblymember Jose Rivera, but became a target of the new county party leadership, under Heastie, when the latter dethroned the former in 2008.

Cabrera challenged State Senator Gustavo Rivera, who is not an ally of the party machine, twice in Democratic primaries, in 2014 and 2016, losing by 20 and 25 points, respectively. In his 2017 reelection to the Council, Cabrera received 55% of the vote in his district primary. Last year, he briefly launched a primary challenge to Rep. Ocasio-Cortez before switching to the Borough President race.

In his campaign announcement video, Cabrera touts metrics that have improved in his district over his tenure, before the pandemic hit, including the unemployment rate (down from 23.5% to 5.7%) and crime (down 66%). Recently, he sponsored legislation to legalize e-bikes and scooters in the city. He also touts his sponsorship of the Cure Violence initiative, which allocated $27 million to gu violence reduction, and the Tenant Bill of Rights in 2014 among his top accomplishments.

Gibson chairs the Council’s Capital Budget Subcommittee and co-chairs the Council’s Women’s Caucus. Last Council term she chaired the Public Safety Committee. She previously served for four years in the State Assembly, then moved to the Council by winning a 2013 primary by 27 points, and ran unopposed in her 2017 primary.

Both Cabrera and Gibson are term-limited from running again for their current seats.

Potential Candidates
Gibson and others expect more candidates to jump into the Borough President race within the next few months and quite a few Bronx elected officials have been rumored to be weighing whether or not to throw their hats in the ring.

A senior Bronx political strategist with ties to Assemblymember Nathalia Fernandez says that she is “seriously considering” and “exploring” a run for the borough presidency. Fernandez, who represents the Alterton, Pelham Gardens, and Morris Park neighborhoods of the Bronx in the 80th Assembly District, served as chief of staff to then-Assemblymember Mark Gjonaj and then as Governor Andrew Cuomo’s liaison to the Bronx before winning a special election for Gjonaj’s Assembly seat upon his election to the City Council.

State Senator Luis Sepúlveda, who represents the southwest Bronx in Senate District 32, told Gotham Gazette on August 5 that he is “considering” a campaign for the borough presidency and expects to make a decision “within the next three weeks.” Sepúlveda has been in the Senate since 2018 after winning a special election to replace Ruben Diaz Sr., who’d made the jump to City Council, and before that was elected three times to the Assembly.

Several sources familiar with Bronx politics named City Council Member Andrew Cohen, who represents the northwest Bronx in Council District 11, as a possible candidate. A spokesperson for Cohen replied to a Gotham Gazette inquiry that Cohen “does not plan to make a definitive decision regarding a run for Bronx Borough President until after the November election.” Cohen is himself term-limited from seeking reelection in 2021.

Declined and Unlikely Candidates
Another Bronx Council Member, Rafael Salamanca Jr., who represents the southeast Bronx primarily along the East River in the 17th Council District, is eligible to run for reelection in 2021, but has also been named by people familiar with Bronx politics as a potential candidate for the borough presidency. His office did not respond to requests for comment for this piece. Salamanca, who chairs the powerful Council Land Use Committee, is also seen as a potential candidate to seek becoming the next Speaker of the City Council if reelected to his Council post.

Council Member Gjonaj is running for reelection to the Council in 2021, according to his Chief of Staff Reginald Johnson.

State Senator Gustavo Rivera and Assemblymembers Michael Blake, Latoya Joyner, and Karines Reyes all told Gotham Gazette that they will not be seeking the Borough President position.

While there has been speculation over whether the New York City branch of the Democratic Socialists of America will field a far left candidate for the Bronx Borough President race, Chi Anunwa, who co-chairs the group’s steering committee, told Gotham Gazette, “as a chapter, we’re probably going to focus on Council races. In terms of city races, we are prioritizing two demands, defunding the police and housing, so going forward we are trying to endorse candidates who can advance our demands in those areas.”

According to Anunwa, Borough President races are not a priority for the group, compared to Council races, at this time.

Vanessa Gibson
“I love what I do, being a public official,” Council Member Gibson told Gotham Gazette in an interview. “It comes with so many challenges, but a lot of rewards. I would really love the opportunity to expand on what I’ve learned on the Council and from being a state legislator, putting all of that together and really being the leader of the borough.”

“Being the president of a borough is really about being the champion of that borough and its constituents, about elevating the voices of those who have felt voiceless and powerless, and that’s never been more apparent that in the response to COVID-19,” Gibson continued.

“I’m really looking at this opportunity as a way to take the Bronx to the next level to continue a lot of the great investments through this [Diaz Jr.] administration, but also the work that lies ahead and what the next leadership of the Bronx and the entire city is going to look like,” Gibson said.

When asked about her relationship with the county party, Gibson asked voters to “judge me by my record. There’s nothing wrong with having relationships if they’re going to help your districts, but I also work with candidates who didn’t get county’s backing. I just try to work with officials who are trying to do right by their constituents. You don’t necessarily need the county’s support to do your work as a legislator.”

Gibson said “great partnerships and relationships” are integral to the job of a borough president, saying “you cannot do this work by yourself.” She named key challenges of the next borough president as attracting public and private investment to the borough, particularly for infrastructure projects, and supporting the Bronx’s City Council delegation, most of whom will be new members given turnover in part spurred by term limits.

Food access, stable housing, healthcare access, and sustainable jobs are four issues that Gibson believes are the biggest challenges facing the Bronx in the next few years, saying “the next administration needs a very keen focus on recovery, healing, and rebuilding from COVID-19.”

“Many of the residents who lost their battles to covid, had underlying health conditions and those diseases are preventable. We have to find a way to focus on better food in our communities and too many residents are uninsured and underinsured without access to primary care,” Gibson said.

She proposes that the Bronx commit more to urban agriculture programs, particularly in Hunts Point, and community gardens as a way to bridge gaps in access to healthy food options for Bronxites. At the same time, she says “there’s no way you can talk about healthy options and wellness without stable housing.”

Gibson praised Diaz Jr.’s record on employment, helping take the borough’s unemployment rate from an all-time high when he took office to under 4% in the months before the pandemic. She said job growth in the borough should be “self-sustaining, union, prevailing wage jobs in industries like tech and construction.”

“I’m not a fan of the trash and the waste industry, how the South Bronx is one of three neighborhoods that absorbs most of the city’s trash,” Gibson said. “That’s unacceptable. We can’t be the dumping ground for the rest of New York City. Everybody should take care of their own damn garbage.”

“Because I know how the budget process works, I absolutely would have a very close partnership with the Council and State Legislature delegations, because the delegations are critical to carrying the voice of the Bronx to the broader bodies of government,” Gibson said, when asked about the historic underfunding of the Bronx she noted. As part of the Bronx Council delegation for the past seven years, she said she has steered funding towards Bronx projects such as the Hip-Hop Museum, Orchard Beach, and the Bronx’s CUNY colleges.

“Over the years, I acknowledge things have gotten a lot better, but I still think we have a lot of challenges that remain and the next administration is going to have to have a very aggressive plan to attack the Bronx’s historic challenges,” Gibson said.

Land Use
On land use, one of the key focus areas for all borough presidents as mandated by the position’s few set powers, Gibson said, “I’m a very big fan of engagement and partnerships,” pointing to her experience with the Jerome Avenue Rezoning in which she engaged, along with Cabrera, with working groups and advisory boards to get community buy-in for the rezoning. She promised if elected borough president to “formulate an advisory board composed of the community boards and their land use point-people so that the whole borough is at the table.”

“Parts of the Bronx are less dense than others, with more open lands, vacancies, and opportunities but the goal is mutual balance and common goals and compromise. We don’t always get it right,” Gibson conceded.

“Land use applications are controversial because they’re always perceived as a form of displacement and gentrification,” Gibson said. “The land use application process and ULURP both have to be fundamentally shifted and revamped a little bit, because the recommendations of the community boards are just recommendations. They don’t have a real foothold in making a final decision like the Council members and Borough Presidents do.”

“As housing continues to change and as rents are going up, we have to find a way as the government to put a control mechanism in place on things that we can control,” Gibson said.

“People have to want to vote for someone. If you don’t ask, you don’t receive, so I will be very much in the streets, talking to voters,” Gibson said. “You have to have a say in who your leaders are. More candidates will emerge with their records of accomplishment, but I’m excited. I’m worried and disturbed by what I’m seeing, but I’m also optimistic.”

[Note: when Council Member Cabrera is available for an interview about the borough president race, Gotham Gazette will add his comments to this article]

by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette

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