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