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A Pandemic and A Primary in the Most Impoverished Congressional District in the Country


Ritchie Torres Ruben Diaz Sr congress

Ritchie Torres looks at Ruben Díaz Sr. (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


This story, and the series it is a part of, has been supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.

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New York City has had very limited success in the voter turnout department for congressional elections in recent years. For the 2018 congressional primaries, the turnout did go up — to 11 percent, from a shockingly low 8 percent in 2016. Though the Bronx was part of a huge surge in turnout for state elections in 2018, the last primary election to take place in the borough’s heavily-Democratic 15th congressional district, in 2016, netted a voter turnout of just under 3 percent.

That’s during ordinary times in a district that encompasses south and west Bronx neighborhoods including Hunts Point, Melrose, Tremont, Fordham, and Bedford Park, which collectively make up the country’s poorest and most nonwhite district.

To add to the structural obstacles, would-be voters are now contending with the swirling maelstrom of a still-ongoing pandemic that has ravaged poorer communities in the global epicenter of New York, and its vast social and economic consequences; a mass popular uprising against police brutality that was met with a heavy-handed response from the NYPD; and confusion over whether the primary is even taking place, and if so, in what format.

The 15th congressional district has been one of the hardest hit by the novel coronavirus in what is thus far the most affected city in the country. A mix of higher prevalence of pre-existing conditions and higher concentrations of essential workers who couldn’t work from home has led to higher death rates in the Bronx and a dire socio-economic picture.

Beyond that, the district has some special political upheaval and intrigue this year: an “open” congressional seat, up for grabs for the first time in 30 years. Longtime Rep. José Serrano announced last year that he would not be seeking reelection following a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, setting off a scramble to succeed him.

Even by normal-year standards, it’s a crowded race with a deep bench of political figures with history in the district, many of whom have been waiting for just such an opportunity. No fewer than five of the primary contenders are current or former elected officials — City Council Members Ritchie Torres, Ydanis Rodríguez, and Rubén Díaz Sr.; Assemblymember Michael Blake (who is also a national vice chair of the Democratic National Committee); and former New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito.

Also in the race are Samelys López, a community organizer and former aide to Serrano who has received the endorsement of the Democratic Socialists of America and the Working Families Party, as well as progressive heavy hitters like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Bernie Sanders; Chivona Newsome, a former financial advisor who co-founded Black Lives Matter of Greater New York; Tomas Ramos, a program director at the Bronx River Community Center; and a handful of others from outside the established political channels.

“I watched a panel the other day, and there were about five candidates that I wasn't even aware were running that were on that panel talk,” said Ed Mundo, a city tunnels and bridges worker who said he’s lived on the same South Bronx street since he was six years old. Mundo volunteers for a few community organizations, is active in pro-bike advocacy, and is more politically engaged than most of his neighbors, yet he still feels that there is precious little information trickling out about the candidates and the election.

In the current moment of crisis, Mundo worries that “a lot of folks are not aware there is a primary. So many folks are just accustomed to the November elections, see whoever is on that ballot, then they vote.”

The race has become particularly high-profile as a result of its position at the intersection of several broader political currents and movements — longtime political establishment versus insurgent outsiders; the chance to shift the balance of power for the first time in decades; the acute power of federal policy-making during moments of crisis in particular. There’s also the Díaz Sr. factor, as a long-serving, socially-conservative Democrat with strong name recognition, a solid base of support, and a polarizing presence is within striking distance of victory. He has no dearth of critics in the district, a fact that has seemed not to phase him; in fact, he appears to thrive in controversy. His presence in the race has driven local and national attention to the primary.

For the residents of the district, it’s an opportunity to collectively exert real influence, and the race has appeared very much up in the air. Motivating even small groups to turn out can make all the difference, lifting the voices of those living in a district with such great needs.

Several campaigns told Gotham Gazette that they were focused on providing support and services to the community in lieu of pure campaigning. “What we do is we ask people how they're feeling, how they're doing. If they need anything, if they need an errand to run, if they have a need for food,” López said in late May.

“Whenever my volunteers and I are out in the field,” said Torres, “we're limiting ourselves to distributing food and PPE and doing no electioneering out in the field at the moment. The reason for which is simple: campaigning, business as usual, would come off as insensitive to the deep suffering in the South Bronx.”

Newsome said she had her volunteers teaching people how to file for unemployment, and had been riding around the Bronx in a truck with supplies including diapers and baby food. Mark-Viverito has been working with a local restaurant to provide meals to undocumented residents. Not everyone has executed this notion without controversy; Díaz Sr. has been accused of piggybacking off of food distribution events that neither his office nor campaign was involved in to raise his profile, distribute campaign materials and electioneer.

The aid strategy has also been embraced by community organizations, who are focused on simultaneously providing the type of support that their members and clients have always relied on them for, while gently prodding them to exercise their civic voice in the election.

“We started doing care packages, and in those care packages we have a bunch of those safety supplies, some tea, some canned foods, some Asian groceries and veggies. And then we've also put resources and materials in there,” said Khamarin Nhann, campaign director for Mekong NYC, which provides community organizing, cultural activities, assistance with public benefits, and other social services for the Southeast Asian community. These materials include those related to the 2020 Census, access to health care, and elections, including information about where to vote and how to vote in-person and via mail.

The question of tone is one that comes up often as a contentious, high-stakes election unfolds amid a multi-faceted humanitarian crisis. There is real and obvious devastation throughout the district. Yet the overlapping crises to some degree present the opportunity to very plainly tie the political questions at stake to Bronxites’ lived experiences. Questions related to jobs, affordable housing, food security, health care, and police relations have never been abstract in what is the poorest and most nonwhite district in the country, but the pandemic and the social unrest have brought everything into stark relief.

“There are absolutely competing needs for our folks. We've seen our members really struggle with food or worried that when the eviction moratorium ends, will they become homeless and what that looks like,” said Sandra Lobo, the executive director of the Northwest Bronx Community & Clergy Coalition (NWBCCC). “What we've tried to do is really equip our folks with an understanding, a deeper analysis that, what they do, how they vote, and how they organize, absolutely impacts what's next for all of us.”

This has involved emphasizing that none of these issues exist in isolation, and in fact they compound; any effort to tackle the current emergencies must also tackle the circumstances that let them get so bad, especially in the district. “I think communities of color, low-income communities, have always struggled with layered issues,” said Lobo. “We've seen our folks really understand and be sophisticated about, where does the power lie, both in organizing and in the electoral system?”

There are particular groups for whom federal policy-making looms particularly large; for example, healthcare workers, many of whom are represented by 1199SEIU, a union that has endorsed Blake, who has amassed a great deal of labor support in the race.

“We've had our members engaging our congressional leaders. We've done roughly 20 video conferences with our New York delegation, where we've had members…explain the realities of what's going on in the frontline,” said an 1199SEIU official who asked not to be identified. “I think that helped our members make the connection, or made it stronger, that politics is the way that we make the transition” to a system more responsive to their needs.

Nhann said that particularly in the last couple of weeks, he’d actually seen a spike in the number of community residents interrogating the decisions of their political leaders. He dismissed “this whole notion that just because folks don't speak English, they're not aware of politics or they're not aware what's going on in the news. For the most part, our folks are actually pretty savvy.”

Dariella Rodríguez of The Point CDC, a community development nonprofit, said the organization’s approach partly centered around making clear that the district was particularly hard hit not just because of decisions made during the pandemic, but decisions made before. “Although we are struggling with the impact of covid in our community, we've been burdened with issues around respiratory health and asthma, issues with water quality — we've been burdened with those issues for a very long time. We've been saying we know when something like this happens, our community is at higher risk.”

For her part, Newsome has found a natural connection between her work with Black Lives Matter and the campaign, particularly as the outrage over police brutality again takes center stage in New York and nationally. Even before current wave of protests, Newsome said she had been part of a group pressuring Governor Andrew Cuomo to acknowledge that “the NYPD was incapable and incompetent in handling the enforcement of social distancing.” The current popular movements presented an opportunity to connect police brutality directly with political participation.

No one knows how many of the roughly 337,000 eligible Democratic voters in the 15th congressional district will cast a ballot, absentee or in-person, for this month’s election. In 2016, Serrano received just over 9,000 votes in the Democratic primary, beating an opponent who received just over 1,000. A total of about 74,000 votes were cast in the district during the 2016 presidential primary. In 2018, Serrano did not have a primary, but won the general election with around 125,000 votes to his opponent’s 5,000.

One quirk of a low-turnout race is that very small differences in the number of votes cast for each candidate can determine a win and a loss. This fact has taken on an added salience for progressives in the district given the candidacy of Díaz Sr., an always controversial and regularly offensive political figure. A pentecostal minister, he is probably the most socially-conservative Democrat holding political office in the city, having staked out positions opposing abortion and marriage equality. A comment claiming that the City Council was “controlled by the homosexual community” last year got his issue committee disbanded and prompted calls for his resignation. He has also called into question the mandate to report sexual harassment.

Nonetheless, he has held political office in the Bronx for nearly 20 years continuously and enjoys a base of support with religious and conservative Latino residents, who have a strong presence in the district. He won his seat at the Council just three years ago, edging out more progressive challengers as he moved from the state Senate with at least tacit support from much of the political establishment. The concern that candidates to his left will split the vote and hand Díaz Sr. the primary win is being used to varying extents by rival campaigns.

Torres in particular appears to be making opposition to Díaz Sr. a centerpiece of the turnout effort. “From day one, I have been sounding the alarm about the threat of a Trump Republican representing the most Democratic district in America,” he said, adding that in the home stretch of the campaign, he would be pitching himself as the candidate most able to head off this threat. Díaz Sr. did not respond to messages seeking comment. He has repeatedly ducked debates in the race.

A significant concern is that there will be issues not only of enthusiasm, but mechanics. An attempt by the state Board of Elections to cancel the Democratic presidential primary over coronavirus concerns failed when a federal judge ruled that it had to be held, in response to a lawsuit filed by former presidential candidate Andrew Yang. Yet a number of voters may have heard that the primary was off, but not back on.

Disseminating the information can be difficult, partly because some of the community groups and campaigns involved aren’t entirely sure what the correct information is. “Is the election going on? Where's my polling station? Can I vote early? Who are the candidates? Where's the platform? All of those have been communicated via text via email, via phone,” said Lobo.

The point was echoed by some of the candidates. “There's a lot of confusion. There was that whole back-and-forth around the presidential primary and canceling it, not canceling it. So some people assume that the primary completely is canceled,” said Mark-Viverito.

Some number of voters won’t want to go to the polls due to the extant viral threat, leaving the option of absentee voting, and herein lies another problem: unlike 34 other states, New York typically doesn’t allow “no excuse” absentee voting. In April, Governor Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order making the coronavirus part of the existing “excuse” of illness and directing county boards of elections to mail absentee ballot applications to all eligible voters, but the lack of a prior generalized avenue for absentee voting has left many voters unfamiliar with how it works and the New York City Board of Elections appears to be straining under the demand, leaving many unanswered questions as voting of all kinds wraps up on primary day, June 23.

Mundo, the community resident, said he’d gotten a ballot application in late May. “It looks like traditional junk mail. So if you're not actively looking for it, you may bypass it. Or someone like my mother, who's been out of town since April, she's not even going to get that application.”

Rodríguez of The Point said that the group had been providing staff members specifically to explain to voters how poll sites (both for early voting and primary day) work and how to access absentee voting. “We're using apps to do mass texting, we're using social media, we're using Zoom, WhatsApp and Signal. There's even been suggestions of other kinds of apps that folks from other countries use, especially Southeast Asian communities,” she said.

The Point, NWBCCC, and Mekong all had a built-in advantage in that they were part of a coalition that spent months crafting a “people’s platform” that had community delegates participate in crafting a set of issues and proposals meant to be representative of the entire district’s political priorities. The listserv has been useful in disseminating information to the community at large, even via word-of-mouth from individual influential residents.

Fundamentally, the winning approach seems to be one of illuminating how the extant crises are manifestations of broader systemic issues. “You can’t separate the political from the personal, especially at these times,” said López. “So this is the time that we need to rally and organize for the kind of society that we want to live in. And those are the kinds of conversations that we've been having through the phone banks.”

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This story, and the series it is a part of, has been supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.

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by Felipe De La Hoz, Gotham Gazette
     

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