Gotham Gazette

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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.

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