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The Week That Was in New York Politics, Jan. 11-15


week in review bus readers

photo: Stanley Kubrick via Museum of the City of New York


Gotham Gazette's Week in Review, Friday January 15

PHOTO OF THE WEEK: Governor Cuomo gives his State of the State address, via the governor's office

andrew cuomo mario cuomo

TOP FIVE STORIES OF THE WEEK:

1. State of the State: Governor Andrew Cuomo delivered his combined State of the State and budget address on Wednesday. The plan has major infrastructure components to it as well as efforts to achieve social and economic justice, as the governor put it. Some of Cuomo’s 2016 “Built to Lead” agenda will place new financial strains on New York City, as the plan would end the state’s payment of some of the city’s Medicaid costs and change how CUNY is funded. Those changes and others are expected by some experts to cost the city $1 billion starting in the next fiscal year. In response, Mayor de Blasio has called the budget proposal “debilitating,” and said he would use “any means necessary” to restore the millions in state financing. Cuomo appeared to strike a conciliatory tone on Thursday, saying the city and state would work together to find Medicaid and CUNY efficiencies. [Read: Cuomo Outlines $144 Billion Budget & Cuomo Unveils Ethics Plan to Questions Of Follow Through]

2. Cuomo Cleared: On Monday, the office of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara announced there was not enough evidence to prove a federal crime in the investigation into Governor Cuomo’s interference with and closure of the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption.

3. Gun Courts: On Tuesday, Mayor de Blasio announced “Project Fast Track,” which aims to reduce gun violence in New York City through the creation of a new Gun Violence Suppression Division in the NYPD and by designating judges to fast-track illegal gun cases and resolve the cases within six months. [Read: City to Open Gun Courts to Expedite Prosecutions]

4. Spotlight on Sexual Assault: The alleged gang-rape in a Brownsville playground last Thursday, the rise in the number of reported rapes in 2015, and NYPD Commissioner Bratton’s suggestion that women going home late at night use the “buddy system” have led sexual assault to become the focus of public discussion this week. On Monday, lawmakers and advocates rallied outside City Hall to call for more legislation and resources to protect women from sexual assault. [Read: To Combat Increase in Reported Rapes, Experts Point to Prevention & Sexual Assault Becomes Focus of Public Discussion]

5. 421-a, Uber, Carriage Horses: Negotiations between construction unions and real estate developers to extend the controversial 421-a development tax break are at a standstill, with both sides certain they will not reach an agreement by the Friday deadline to renew the program. Meanwhile, the city releases its long-awaited study of the for-hire vehicle industry, leading to little other than acknowledgement that the city is unlikely to pursue a cap to Uber’s growth. And, a deal on reducing horse carriages appeals imminent. [Read: Negotiations to Extend Important Affordable Housing Tax Break Said to Reach Impasse]

THIS WEEK’S NUMBERS:

  • $145 billion budget was laid out by Governor Cuomo during his annual state of the state and budget address.
  • $20 billion commitment to combat homelessness was announced by Governor Cuomo during the address, with $10 billion earmarked for 100,000 permanent affordable housing units and $10 billion for 6,000 new supported beds over 5 years, 1,000 emergency shelter beds, and other services, Gotham Gazette reports.
  • $1 billion is about how much experts estimate the changes in funding to CUNY and state payment of Medicaid costs will cost New York City starting in the next fiscal year, Capital New York reports.
  • 78.1% of public school students in New York graduated on time last june, up from 76.4% the previous year, marking an increase for the third year in a row, Gannett Albany reports. Meanwhile, the graduation rate in New York City crept above 70% for the first time.
  • 1,439 rapes reported in 2015, up 6.3% from 1,354 in 2014, Gotham Gazette reports.
  • 1.4 million New Yorkers - 16.5% of the population - are food insecure, Gotham Gazette reports.

THE GLORY AND THE GOAT:

It was a good week for Governor Andrew Cuomo, after he was cleared by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s office in the investigation into his interference with the shutdown of the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption.

It was a bad week for Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, who came under fire for suggesting women should use the “buddy system” when coming home late at night to avoid becoming the victim of sexual assault. The NYPD has also been criticized this week for not notifying the public of the alleged gang rape in a Brownsville playground sooner.

THE FLASH:

Around this time 27 years ago, on January 13, 1989, subway gunman Bernhard Goetz was sentenced to a year in prison for possessing an unlicensed gun which he used to shoot four people he said were going to rob him.

Around this time 116 years ago, on January 10, 1900, bids went out for the construction of an underground railroad line running between City Hall and the Bronx. The city’s first subway opened four years later.

GOTHAM GAZETTE HIGHLIGHTS OF THE WEEK

Special Election Spotlights Machine Politics in The Bronx, by Gabe Ponce de León

To Combat Increase in Reported Rapes, Experts Point to Prevention, by Meg O'Connor

Cuomo Outlines $144 Billion Budget, by David Howard King

Cuomo Unveils Ethics Plan to Questions of Follow Through, by David Howard King

At Hearing on Hunger, Council Presses De Blasio Administration on SNAP Participation, by Ryan Brady

New Data Indicates IDNYC Popularity Among Immigrants, by Samar Khurshid

Cuomo Heads Into State of the State After Big Announcements, With More to Say, by Ben Max

Assembly Democrats Reject Republican Rules Changes, Promise Own Proposals Soon, by David Howard King

Council to Assess Hunger Problem, City Efforts to Reduce It, by Ryan Brady

New York One Signature Away from Calling for Overturn of Citizens United, by Samar Khurshid

Sexual Assault Becomes Focus of Public Discussion, by Ben Max

To Meet Staten Island Needs, Borough President Focuses on Beating Bureaucracy, by Meg O'Connor

Don't Be Seduced By Sexy Transportation Projects, by Philip M. Plotch and Nicholas D. Bloom (opinion)

A Case for None-Time-Limited Supportive Housing for Young Adults, by Colleen Jackson (opinion)

More Cities Should Do What States and Federal Government Aren't on Minimum Wage, by JoEllen Chernow (opinion)

MORE FOR THE WEEKEND:

Governor Andrew Cuomo sat down with NY1's Errol Louis for an interview Wednesday after laying out his vision for the year in his State of the State address.

Human Resources Administration Commissioner Steven Banks discussed the ways the de Blasio administration is dealing with the homelessness crisis and the governor’s plans to audit the city’s shelter system with Errol Louis NY1.

Mary Brosnahan, executive director of Coalition for the Homeless, talks about the new proposals for addressing New York City's homeless population on the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC.

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NOTE TO READERS: we hope you enjoy this new Gotham Gazette weekly feature - please share it if you do; on Twitter, use our handle @GothamGazette.

If you have feedback on this feature for us, you can email editor Ben Max: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Watch Sunday evening for our latest Week Ahead in New York Politics, which gives you a preview of key issues and events to be aware of for the week about to start. In the meantime, catch up on the latest original reporting from Gotham Gazette here. And have a great weekend!

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by Meg O'Connor and Ben Max

 

To Combat Increase in Reported Rapes, Experts Point to Prevention


cumbo presser

City Coucil Member Laurie Cumbo leads a press conference (photo: William Alatriste)


Reported rapes are on the rise in New York City. Despite an overall downward trend in felony crime, 2015 saw a 6.3 percent increase in the number of rapes reported, up to 1,439 from 1,354. Police Commissioner Bill Bratton and others have attributed this increase to the “Cosby effect,” meaning more women are coming forward to report rapes, including from years before, rather than more rape actually being committed.

In the early days of 2016, three reported incidents of rape - all stranger rapes - have garnered attention: two allegedly committed by for-hire vehicle drivers and the horrific alleged gang rape of an 18-year-old in a Brownsville playground. Most rapes are not widely reported in the media - most are committed by someone the victim knows.

Both the increase in rapes reported in 2015 and the Brownsville incident have made rape more central to public policy conversation.

While the city has implemented a number of measures in recent years to encourage victims of sexual assault to come forward, the question remains, what can elected and appointed officials do to help prevent these crimes from happening in the first place?

Of the 1,439 reported rapes last year, 166 were committed by strangers (up from 117 in 2014), and 14 took place in for-hire vehicles like taxis and Ubers (up from 10 in 2014). Speaking about this increase on WNYC radio last week, Bratton encouraged women going home late at night from bars or clubs by cab “to adopt the buddy system.”

That comment was met with widespread criticism, prompting a press conference outside City Hall on a frigid Monday morning, where City Council members and women’s rights advocates denounced the remark.

“It should not be the sole responsibility of a woman to guarantee her safety,” said Council Member Laurie Cumbo, chair of the Committee on Women’s Issues. Cumbo and others outside City Hall called on the NYPD to focus on preventing sexual violence and catching perpetrators, rather than telling women what they should do to avoid becoming a victim.

It’s important that in response to rape, the police department is not “encouraging women to implement buddy systems, but rather saying ‘you have a right to be safe,’” chair of the Committee on Public Safety, City Council Member Vanessa Gibson added.

Three bills have been introduced in the City Council which aim to better protect women from sexual violence:

  • Intro 762, which would require all taxicabs, hail vehicles, liveries, black cars, and luxury limousines to have a panic button installed that would allow a passenger to send a distress signal to law enforcement. There is currently no upcoming hearing scheduled on the bill, which has ten sponsors and has not been moved on since it was introduced by Cumbo in April, 2015.
  • Intro 869, which would require the NYPD to add sex offenses to its crime status report. They would be listed in total and by type of sex offense separately. The bill has eight sponsors and does not seem to have an upcoming hearing.
  • Intro 868, which would require the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications to create a plan that would allow the public to communicate digitally with emergency responders using the City's 911 system. The system would allow the public to send digital communications including text messages, videos, and photographs. The bill was discussed by the Committee on Public Safety and the Committee on Technology at a hearing Thursday morning.   

Those gathered outside City Hall on Monday demanded that these bills be passed, that the city allocate more resources to increase monitoring of high incident locations and improve access to rape crisis counselors and centers, and that the NYPD come out with a comprehensive strategy to address the rising number of sexual assaults.

A spokesperson for the NYPD informed Gotham Gazette that over the past two years, with support from the Mayor and the City Council, the NYPD has made several changes to better deal with sexual assault, including:

  • Increasing the size of NYPD special victims division, adding 30 investigators to make 240 total
  • Creating a DNA Cold Case Squad, Bronx Child Abuse Squad, Analytic Squad, and increasing the Sex Offender Management Unit by seven investigators to total 20 officers
  • Increasing specialized training for the special victims division from 5 to 10 days per year
  • Increasing efforts to encourage reporting of sexual assaults, distributing 32,000 cards and 16,000 flyers in 2015 which explained sexual violence and encouraged people to call the special victims division

Yet all of these legislative proposals or policy changes by the NYPD are designed to either stop a sexual assault from taking place once the threat of assault has already been made clear, or to help victims after they have been violated. In order to truly reduce the number of sexual assaults that take place, both advocates and the federal Center for Disease Control and Prevention say ‘primary prevention’ or prevention education is the most effective method.

Primary prevention aims to stop sexual assault by focusing on potential perpetrators, rather than the victims, and can involve educating high school, middle school, or college-aged students. Prevention education raises awareness of sexual abuse and harassment, promotes positive social attitudes and a negative view of sexual violence and harassment, and promotes bystander intervention.

“We are not going to end sexual violence if we are not being preventative in our nature and engaging those who are committing the violence,” said Quentin Walcott, co-executive director of CONNECT. The organization works to end violence against women and girls by addressing “the root cause of violence” through “engaging men and boys to change the attitudes and belief systems” under which “men think that they’re entitled and privileged to treat women in a particular type of way.”

Sonia Ossorio, president of NOW-NYC, told Gotham Gazette that engaging “men and boys in the discussion of what is manhood, what are healthy relationships, and what does consent look like” through comprehensive sexual education in schools at a young age is “critically important” to reducing the number of sexual assaults that take place.

Some may take issue with teaching sexual education and primary prevention to middle or high school students, but, as Council Member Gibson pointed out in an interview, “the bottom line is our children are going to learn about sex one way or another” and, she said, it is certainly preferable that children learn about sex through trained educators.

The five individuals who are accused of gang raping an 18-year-old in Brownsville are between the ages of 14 and 17. One of the rape suspects, 15 years old, is about to be a father.

Yet educational efforts like the prevention programs “shown to prevent sexual violence perpetration,” according to the CDC Injury Center, are “not really standardized” in New York City schools, but rather are “up to the principle,” Min Um-Mandhyan, director of development and communications for the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault, told Gotham Gazette.

The city does have some preventative efforts in place, but those mainly involve bystander intervention training for adults. Ossorio says the city’s district attorneys “work with nightclubs to partner with them and have an open line of communication to reduce assaults that may happen.”

A spokesperson from the Manhattan DA’s office told Gotham Gazette that its Sex Crimes Unit regularly conducts trainings to help individuals better identify and encourage reporting of sexual assault through sessions in conjunction with the New York Nightlife Association, tailored toward workers like bouncers, managers, and bartenders, and through training with representatives from local colleges and universities. DA Vance also awarded $38 million to cities across the country last year to test a backlog of rape kits.

“Providing [prevention] education in the schools for age-appropriate levels is something…the city could hopefully provide some more funding for. We know that it is important in terms of prevention.” Jennifer Wyse, a social worker at Safe Horizon’s Community Program in Brooklyn, told Gotham Gazette.

When asked whether the City Council would like to see more primary prevention in schools, Gibson responded, “Absolutely,” and added that several Council members have put forth legislation on sexual education in schools.

“We obviously need to have this conversation during the budget…we’re very supportive of any effort [to reduce sexual violence] because look at what’s happening in this case in Brownsville,” Gibson said, referring to the fact that the alleged perpetrators were teenagers. “Any way we can prevent these cases, we support.”

“New York State has really put more funding behind” primary prevention programs, Um-Mandhyan said. The New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault is one of six Regional Centers for Sexual Violence Prevention in New York State that implement primary prevention and community-based strategies to decrease sexual violence. In April, 2015, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the allocation of $4 million in federal funding to the six regional centers.

“Unfortunately, New York City doesn’t really have a separate funding stream for rape crisis programs for sexual assault,” Um-Mandhyan said. “City Council is going to launch into budget season, so we’ll really be pushing for a funding stream.” Pointing to the disparity in access to rape crisis programs and resources for victims in Brooklyn and the Bronx, Um-Mandhyan said the Alliance would also like to see the city allocate more resources to underserved neighborhoods.

At Monday’s press conference, Gibson called the increased number of sexual assaults a call to action. “We are in the midst of a new budget season, so we have a very unique opportunity. We must ensure that we not only talk about it but we ‘be about it.’ We must put money where our commitment is…We must be sure that we provide the resources and programs necessary.”

When asked whether primary prevention education is something the City Council would consider implementing in New York City’s schools, Cumbo told Gotham Gazette that she hopes to pass a bill, Intro 952, at the next City Council stated meeting, which would require the Department of Education to report information regarding school compliance with state regulations governing comprehensive health education and sexual education for students in grades six through twelve.

There was another bill introduced in the City Council, however, not mentioned at Monday’s press conference, which would require the Department of Mental Health and Hygiene to develop a sexual assault prevention and response curriculum that would include training in affirmative consent for students, faculty, campus safety officers, and college administrators in New York City’s college campuses, as well as provide better information to students about available services for sexual assault victims.

The bill, Intro 517, was laid over by the Committee on Higher Education in February, 2015.

What advocates who work with sexual assault victims want to happen, Um-Mandhyan said, is “to see the city adopt sexual violence prevention education in public school curricula. It’s important to work with youth as prevention tends to work more effectively with younger people…We believe when you get to college level, it’s already too late.”

Gov. Cuomo made has made campus sexual assault a significant focus, pushing New York colleges and universities to adopt new measures related to preventing and responding to rape.

Bratton’s ‘buddy system’ comments were quick to elicit condemnation by City Council members, who called on him to come out with a comprehensive strategy from the NYPD to reduce sexual assaults.

But with the CDC and organizations that work to help victims of sexual assault pointing to primary prevention as the single most effective method to reduce the number of assaults that occur, the responsibility for coming up with that “comprehensive strategy” to prevent and reduce sexual assault, including providing funding for primary prevention programs and legislation to implement them in schools, rests with city lawmakers, not the NYPD.

***
by Meg O’Connor, Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette, @MegOConnor13

Special Election Spotlights Machine Politics in The Bronx


heastie diaz jr crespo

Heastie, Diaz Jr., Crespo (l-r)


By the time Julio Pabón got called in for his interview with the Bronx Democratic County Committee, he had heard all the chatter. Political insiders were saying that party leadership had already chosen a candidate. What's more, Pabón had seen a telling flyer for a Christmas event to be held at a local public school. It had been emailed, on Dec. 8, from the state Senate account of Ruben Diaz Sr. At the head of the flyer were portraits of New York Republican Party Chair Ed Cox and the senator himself, alongside a relatively unknown community board manager—Rafael Salamanca—the rumored choice of the county organization in the upcoming special election for the District 17 City Council seat, from which Maria del Carmen Arroyo recently resigned.

Present at the interview, conducted on Dec. 11 at the Bronx Democratic County Committee headquarters, were a handful of elected officials, including Assemblymember Marcos Crespo, the committee chair, Assemblymember Jeffrey Dinowitz, City Council Member Annabel Palma, along with other committee members and Democratic club members. Stanley Schlein, a Bronx attorney and long-time Democratic operative, made an appearance toward the end of the interview, according to Pabón.

In Pabón's retelling, Crespo opened the interview with an assurance that, contrary to what he may have heard, the committee was yet to settle on a candidate. It was how the interview ended, however, that further cemented Pabón's belief that the opposite was in fact true. Crespo asked him, Pabón recalled to Gotham Gazette, whether he would step aside if the committee chose to support another candidate.

BX Christmas Cox Diaz Sr Salamanca Flyer BX Three Kings flyer Salamanca Crespo others

One week later, on Dec. 18, at a holiday event hosted by party leaders in the Bronx, Diaz Sr. and Crespo all but endorsed Salamanca, whose candidacy was still unofficial, before the assembled crowd. Pabón, in the meantime, got word from an influential stakeholder that the county chair had called to solicit support for the district manager. On Dec. 29, Diaz Sr. sent another flyer, this one for a Three Kings Day event, with Rafael Salamanca alongside the senator, Crespo, and Assemblymember Luis Sepulveda. 

Salamanca, who was officially endorsed by the county committee on Jan. 6, told Gotham Gazette that he received no preferential treatment.

"I put in work to get to where I'm at," the Community Board 2 district manager said. "And I'm pretty sure...I went through the interview process just as everyone else went through the interview process, and I had to wait to get a phone call to tell me, 'Hey Raf, the committee has met and decided that you are the best-qualified individual for the seat.' I was home sweating like, 'Oh my God, what's going on?'"

For Pabón, however, there was never any suspense. Earlier in the year, he had met Crespo for lunch to discuss his interest in running for the District 17 seat in 2017, when Arroyo would have been term-limited. During that meeting, Pabón told Gotham Gazette, the newly minted Democratic chair asked him: "What would happen if we were to endorse you and you have a different position than the borough president or my own?"

"They are totally afraid of differences," said Pabón (pictured below), a community activist and entrepreneur who, in 2013, challenged the incumbent Arroyo in the Democratic primary for the District 17 seat. "They want a candidate they can easily mold, rather than one who thinks independently. They think their plan for the Bronx can only happen if they have total control."

pabon

Assemblymember Crespo did not respond to a request for comment about the interview process for the vacant District 17 seat. Given the advantages in resources they normally enjoy, county-backed candidates rarely lose local elections—and institutional support can prove even more critical in expedited special elections, which are typically marked by low voter turnout.

In the Bronx, concerns around open democracy, which have been present for decades, surfaced anew last November, when Democratic county leadership was widely criticized for orchestrating a backroom deal to replace then-District Attorney Robert Johnson. With Johnson resigning from the ballot after he had won the district attorney primary, Democratic leaders were allowed to handpick a candidate to replace him on the ballot. Current DA Darcel Clark was added to the district attorney ballot while Johnson landed in a judge's seat in the state Supreme Court.

"My contention has always been that it's a facade," Pabón said. "County leadership is trying to show that they are different from past organizations, which were all about exclusion and nepotism. But where else do you have a borough that is essentially run by four families? Where are the reformers in the Bronx?"

The current leadership took control of the Bronx Democratic organization in a 2008 insurgency that came to be known as the "Rainbow" rebellion. The overthrow of former party chairman, Assemblymember José Rivera, would give rise to a new era of party politics, so the new leaders claimed—one more committed to inclusion and welcoming of diversity.

Yet numerous sources interviewed for this article see that promise as unfulfilled. "For the most part, there has not been a major change in terms of how inclusive the whole process is," Angelo Falcón, a political scientist and founder of the Institute for Puerto Rican Policy, told Gotham Gazette. "It's not necessarily a process of democratization, but more a transition from one set of elites to another. You have a certain disruption: new players come in, old players move out."

"In the Bronx," Falcón added, "you still have a relatively small number of politicians controlling everything, and mechanisms like community boards are not very strong."

Critics of the Bronx establishment argue that community boards serve as rubber stamps for the borough president, currently Ruben Diaz Jr. "Salamanca is, in essence, already an employee," said Aubrey-Eric Smith, vice president of the South Bronx Community Association, who is advising the Pabón campaign. "[Salamanca] serves at the pleasure of the borough president."

In a Jan. 7 phone interview, Gotham Gazette asked Salamanca whether he had ever been in disagreement, philosophically or on a particular project, with the borough president. "I can tell you what I disagreed with the mayor on," Salamanca responded. "That I can speak on."

Salamanca, who cited affordable housing and public safety as centerpieces of his platform, did not provide any instances of past disagreement with Diaz Jr.

Since the "Rainbow" rebellion, the leaders of the Bronx Democratic party have catapulted to the fore of city and state politics. Assemblymember Carl Heastie, Crespo's predecessor as county chair, is currently the speaker of the Assembly, and Sen. Jeff Klein, the leader of the Independent Democratic Conference in the state Senate. Ruben Diaz Jr., the borough president, is seen by some as a potential mayoral candidate. As the leaders of the "Rainbow" coalition have grown in stature, a handful of their candidates have been elected into public office, further strengthening the base from which they were able to take control of the party apparatus.

County leadership, many believe, is looking to solidify its base and consolidate all the players in the Bronx, to control policy and programming, and in preparation for a future Diaz Jr. run for higher office.

"They need to have as many individuals beholden to them as possible," Smith said.

In the 2013 primary for the same City Council seat, Pabón, the only Democratic challenger to the county-backed Arroyo, received some 2,000 primary votes—slightly over 30 percent of the total. That race is mostly remembered, however, for drama that played out in the courts, when the Pabón campaign challenged thousands of Arroyo nominating petitions, which included fraudulent signatures of "Derek Jeter" and "Kate Moss," among other public figures.

Pabón succeeded in invalidating more than half of Arroyo's 3,200 petition signatures as forgeries committed by three campaign employees (including an Arroyo nephew), two of whom had worked for the candidate and her Assemblymember mother in previous elections. Pabón's attorney at the time argued that the extent of the forgery should have been enough to knock the incumbent off the ballot based on "permeation of fraud," and his campaign maintains that the legal fight, which ultimately went to the Appellate Court for the First Department, raised questions about the independence of the borough's Board of Elections, as well as the separation of its legislative and judiciary branches.

"You're not going to beat a county-backed candidate in court," Aubrey-Eric Smith said. "The judiciary is not set up to make upsets of incumbents."

"The DA [Robert Johnson] could have gone after Ms. Arroyo, or investigated someone other than just the three low-level individuals," Donald Dunn, Pabón's attorney in 2013, told Gotham Gazette. "I think what they did was more of a dog and pony show than any real investigation."
With the Council seat now vacant, a handful of candidates have thrown their hats in the ring. One contender, Amanda Septimo, is district director for Congressional Rep. José Serrano. Septimo, whose age, 25, has grabbed attention, told Gotham Gazette that environmental and social justice are signature issues of her campaign. According to political insiders, a friendly office holder in District 17 could help buttress the increasingly vulnerable congressman against a primary challenge.

"Serrano hasn't had any real challenge in a long time, and if you look at his finances, he's gotten himself reelected with around $30,000, so it's very little money," Angelo Falcón said. "He could be at his weakest politically at this point. He's had for a long time an understanding with the political machine, and they haven't really gone after him, but there have been some threats."

Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr. has in the past called on the long-serving congressman to step aside and, more recently, Council Member Palma contemplated her own challenge, but according to some insiders a more serious threat could emerge in the form of the borough president himself. Rep. Serrano reportedly ran afoul of Diaz Jr. for opposing $3.5 million in subsidies for the FreshDirect move to the Bronx.

At the time, the congressman expressed "deep misgivings about this project because of its impact on the health of Bronx residents."

(Septimo told Gotham Gazette that she has no position on the FreshDirect deal.)

Another Council contender, George Alvarez, held his own in a three-way 2014 Assembly race against the eventual winner, former White House staffer Michael Blake, and a candidate endorsed by the Democratic county committee, Marsha Michaels. Alvarez won nearly 1,200 votes, nearly as many as Michaels, and proved himself capable as a fundraiser. Alvarez is expected to garner support among the growing Dominican-American population in this predominantly Hispanic, though traditionally Puerto Rican, district.

Joann Otero, the long-time chief of staff to former Council Member Arroyo, is another leading contender for the District 17 seat. According to sources, Arroyo's first-choice successor was a Cablevision executive whose potential candidacy came against resistance from party leadership. Otero, who believes she is the candidate most able to "hit the ground running" in the middle of budget season, and touted her personal relationship with stakeholders in the district, confirmed to Gotham Gazette that she has not received the endorsement of her former boss. The candidate claimed that instead of succeeding her as a Council member, Arroyo proposed a "Let's go make cookies plan."

"We never really discussed it," Otero explained, "other than that we were going to do something else. With all the knowledge and skills that I've obtained from both the nonprofit and government sector, she said that makes me a very marketable individual to do just about anything."

Arroyo announced her resignation from the Council late last year, citing "pressing family needs," and has since joined the nonprofit Acacia Network. For the time being, it is unclear whether the former Council member will remain on the sidelines throughout the special election.

One of many unfolding subplots of the race is the role of 1199 SEIU. Montefiore health care network, whose employees are represented by 1199, is the largest employer in the Bronx. One declared candidate, Helen Foreman-Hines, was a political project director at the union, but resigned from 1199 after announcing her intention to enter the race. According to sources, Hines is no lock for support of the union that could prove decisive in this special election, to be held on Feb. 23.

As a nonpartisan special election, the District 17 race will last just 45 days in total. Many see the election as the first real test of Assemblymember Crespo's leadership in the Bronx Democratic party. The new chair is a protégé and close ally of the borough president. A defeat to a grassroots insurgent or other outsider could serve, some political insiders believe, as a symbolic blow to county leadership.

"Generally, the machine has the control in a special election, because there's very low voter turnout," Falcón said. "When you have control of the basic machinery, the petitioning process; when you have control even of the judges that rule on the petitions and all that stuff—that's a lot to go up against."

According to Falcón, political change in the Bronx has typically come in the wake of scandal, such as Gustavo Rivera's 2010 electoral victory over the subsequently convicted Pedro Espada Jr. "You need something extraordinary," he said. And even if a grassroots candidate were to buck history, and prevail in a special election, Falcón cautioned that the battle is not over.

"Once you are in, the problem is there are a lot of ways they can control you," he said, "No matter how old you are, you really need to have an independent base." 

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by Gabe Ponce de León for Gotham Gazette. Ponce de León is a freelance journalist covering politics and policy in New York.
@GothamGazette



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