Bronx Breakdown: Making Sense of the 15th Council District Race

Let’s start with a confession: The Norwood News wanted to write about the crowded, chaotic and charismatic 15th Council District Democratic primary race for this week’s print edition. It didn’t happen. There just wasn’t enough time to explore all the angles and present something that would paint a better picture of the candidates or the race for our readers. Instead, we presented the six Democratic candidates by publishing their written answers to questions posed by the New York City Campaign Finance Board.

In the end, we felt that was the most democratic way of giving readers an idea of who these candidates are and what their priorities will be if eleced. But that doesn’t tell the story of this race, which could reach Russian novel-like proportions if told in detail. Not even close.

The Bronx Bureau valiantly waded into the murky waters of the 15th District contest earlier this week and managed a solid 1,300-word synopsis that still barely scratched the surface of its twisting dynamics. (Editor’s note: Everyone interested in this race should first check out each candidate’s website, should read the BB article and watch the BronxTalk debate embedded above and look at each candidate’s page on the campaign finance board website.)

This post won’t do it justice either — what are Malcolm Gladwell and Tom Robbins doing this weekend? — but there are some issues we should break down and make sense of with less than 60 hours left before primary Tuesday. (Don’t forget to vote!). Hence the return of the Bronx Breakdown, which was living in Efrain Gonzalez’s Dominican condo for the past several months. So, let’s break it on down with the 15 things you need to know about the 15th Council District race. (This could take a while, settle in.)

1) The candidates. There were as many as nine at one point, but the field has shrunk to a still ridiculous six candidates, all of whom believe they have a legitimate shot at winning the election. And who’s to say they don’t. This contest is wide open and almost completely unpredictable. The candidates who have made it on the ballot are: Albert Alvarez, Raquel Batista, Joel Bauza, Joel Ray Rivera, Cynthia Thompkins and Ritchie Torres. Alphabetical order, just to be fair.

2) Joel Rivera. After three terms and 12 years in office, Rivera, the son of longtime Bronx pol and former party boss Jose Rivera, is leaving politics to focus his attention on the second career he recently launched as a Bronx real estate agent. (@BronxPad) There were rumors Joel might take his dad’s 78th District Assembly seat and that still could happen. Last year, there were three Rivera family members (Joel, Jose and Naomi, who was ousted in the primary last year by Mark Gjonaj) representing the Bronx. By January, it will just be Jose.

Joel, who rose to the rank of majority leader while in the Council, is backing his right-hand man and chief of staff, Albert Alvarez. During Rivera’s time in the Council, Alvarez was often his stand-in at community meetings and other functions. Alvarez was heavily involved in all aspects of running a Council office. He knows how to do the job. He’s running as the most experienced candidate and definitely knows the ins and outs of City Hall better than any of the other candidates.

The problem is that Rivera’s record is kind of thin. Nobody would say he was a bad Council member and people like him — and he did show tremendous leadership during the Armory battle over living wage in 2009 — but there isn’t any major legislation or particular issue where he distinguished himself.

When asked to point to Rivera’s accomplishments during the BronxTalk debate, Alvarez mentioned the mobile mammography units that Rivera brings into the district and an e-reader pilot program that Rivera funded, which Alvarez said was highly successful.

3) “The Distinguished Gentleman.” Remember the movie starring Eddie Murphy as a con man who happened to have the same name as a dead Congressman and ended up getting elected on name recognition alone? Well, that’s not exactly what’s happening here, but the other Joel Rivera — Joel Ray Rivera — has taken some heat for allegedly deliberately trying to confuse voters into thinking the old Joel Rivera is just coming back for another term. His original campaign posters and literature used the name “Joel Rivera” without using a photo.

In interviews, Rivera says it wasn’t a deliberate attempt at misleading and that he hired out the campaign materials and the wording was what the company came back with. Councilman Rivera has been openly critical of his namesake in television and other media interviews, saying it’s misleading voters and not standing on your own record.

Joel R. Rivera says he didn’t really think it was that big of a deal, but has since added the “R” or “Ray” whenever possible and that he’s happy to stand on his record, which he believes shows a more activist bent than his counterparts.

To be fair, there are probably a hundred Joel Riveras in the Bronx. The problem is that Joel Ray Rivera, who doesn’t live in the district (he lives in the 16th District, a seat that is also open) and didn’t even open up a campaign office that is actually in the district, looks like an opportunist who is blatantly trying to take advantage of the situation and mislead voters. He says he’s not. You be the judge.

4) Jobs for New York PAC. This hot button Political Action Committee, which is spearheaded by the Real Estate Board of New York (one of the most powerful landlord lobbies in the city) is dumping millions into dozens of City Council elections, including the 15th District. They are all-in with Ritchie Torres and especially worried about Joel R. Rivera. So far, the group has spent $258,176 on pro-Torres efforts (mostly mailings) and $110,655 on anti-Rivera literature. It appears the group is willing to do the dirty work some candidates shy away from. One poster Tweeted out by Councilman Joel Rivera showed Joel R. Rivera with links to prominent Republicans like George W. Bush and Mitt Romney. (Rivera is running as Democrat, but he also has the Republican and Conservative lines. He’ll be on the ballot in November, regardless.)

It’s important to note that candidates have no control over this spending, thanks to the Citizen’s United Supreme Court decision. Candidates can’t coordinate with the PACs and they can’t stop them from doing whatever it is they’re doing. (Although some have more publicly disavowed them, like Hakeem Jeffries last year in a congressional race in Brooklyn.) Torres, who says he as progressive about housing issues and tenant rights as any of the candidates and is backed by the ultra-liberal and pro-tenant Working Families Party, says the money won’t make him beholden to the real estate lobby if he’s elected.

Still, the money is going to be a huge factor in the race.

5) Homosexuality. There’s an interesting social dynamic at play in this race. Two of the candidates — Torres and Thompkins — are openly gay (and another, Kenny Agosto, didn’t make it on the ballot). Two of the other candidates — Joel R. Rivera and the Rev. Joel Bauza — come from socially conservative Christian backgrounds. Rivera’s father, Rev. Raymond Rivera, is a well-known church leader and labor activist who heads the Latino Pastoral Action Center. Rivera is also backed by Bronx Councilman Fernando Cabrera (who is tight with the elder Rivera as are many activist groups where clergy are involved) a socially conservative pastor who was a registered Republican before running for office in the Bronx in 2009.

Bauza, the pastor of Calvary Church, is supported by State Senator Rev. Ruben Diaz Sr., who became the face of the anti-gay marriage movement two years ago.

At the BronxTalk debate, the topic was discussed, with Thompkins saying, generally, that some Christian churches, use hateful language against gay people that leads to violence against the LGBT community.

In response, Bauza downplayed his conservativism and encouraged people to come to his church and see how inclusive it is. He said some of his members are gay. Rivera, on the other hand, jumped on the opportunity to show his Christian credentials, saying he tries to live like Christ and help out “the least of us.”

Thompkins and Torres aren’t exactly waving around rainbow flags at campaign events, but they’re openness as leading, widely-supported gay candidates is unprecedented in Bronx politics. If elected, each would be the Bronx’s first gay representative.

6) Jimmy Vacca. Simply put, there would be no Ritchie Torres in this race if not for the east Bronx Councilman. He helped Torres raise money, which has allowed him to put together the most sophisticated campaign operation in the race. According to research by the Norwood News’ Natasha Rodriguez, according to filing reports in mid-August, 49 percent of Torres’ contributions came from donors who have also given to Vacca. His standing and excellent reputation as a Councilman has also helped Torres secure some of the many endorsements he’s received.

Torres, however, says it’s important to note that he believes he’s earned every endorsement on merit and through the screening process most unions and other political groups use for endorsements. But he’ll admit Vacca’s reputation is something he’s proud of, having worked for his office  since he was 18 years old, first as a community liaison and now as his housing director.

Torres points out he is also being supported by those who don’t support Vacca. He says look at his support from the WFP, which is not supporting Vacca’s re-election campaign, and Streets PAC, a pro-mass transit/biking group that is vehemently anti-Vacca.

The truth is Torres is a precociously smart 25-year-old who is very serious about working in government. He has an interesting story: Raised by a single mom in Throgs Neck public housing; dropped out of NYU, because he says he couldn’t afford it; got a job with Vacca who met him during high school when little Ritchie became district manager for a day, back when Vacca was a DM; has a fraternal twin brother; is openly gay; lives in low-income housing along with a former homeless population; and does policy briefs for fun.

7) Fernando Cabrera. Cabrera is the council member in the 14th District, which neighbors the 15th and shares many of its demographics and challenges. He’s backing Rivera. During his first successful campaign (ousting Maria Baez), Cabrera created an aggressive, savvy political campaign operation, mostly from members of his church who supported his candidacy. If Cabrera uses some of that operation to help Rivera, it could be a factor down the stretch.

8) The Bronx Democratic County Committee. That screeching sound you hear is the Bronx Dems running away from this race like it was on fire. They want no part in it. Too volatile, too unpredictable.

9) Baby Carmen. Raquel Batist gave birth to Baby Carmen on Aug. 14, just in time to take her on the stretch run of the campaign trail. As the campaign has progressed, Batista has promoted her gender whenever possible, saying she’s the candidate who will fight for women’s rights — like reproductive rights, another issue that butts up against social conservative values.

Brief history on Batista: Batista’s been in and out of the district her whole life and was born and raised here. She has the most claim to this turf outside of Alvarez. She’s well educated (Manhattan College, CUNY Law international and constitutional rights), well connected, sharp on her issues and has some solid leadership experience, having headed the Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights.

The big story about Batista, of course, was her pregnancy. She has embraced it, hyping it in press releases and going about her business, never missing a beat. I’ve been chastised for seeming insensitive for saying she made it through a two-hour forum without breaking a sweat at almost nine months pregnant. And this was probably warranted. (But I couldn’t help but note it — having lived with a nine-month-pregnant woman myself — that’s an impressive feat. We couldn’t even get through a movie together.)

There’s no question, Batista’s giving a great effort – she opened up her campaign office early in Fordham Heights — and is showing that you can be pregnant and run for office. She’s in it, going into the final weekend. If she could have chosen to not be pregnant for this race — it’s gotta be taxing being that pregnant and she lost at least a couple of weeks of voter contact time — I’m sure she probably would have. But that’s how life goes and she’s going for it. Baby Carmen now in tow.

10) District Raised. It’s true, Albert Alvarez is the only candidate who was born, raised and still works in the district. Everyone else is an outsider to him. Don’t count him out. Alvarez just got an infusion of money from the campaign finance board, finally opened a campaign office and people know him.

11) Pittsburgh. Cynthia Thompkins was a police officer in the Steel City for 20 years, retiring, before moving to Hawaii and starting a business and then moving to New York to pursue her law degree. Thompkins, who now works for the Legal Aid Soceity, only moved to the Bronx in 2009, but she’s immersed herself in community work. She heads the 46th Precinct Community Council, which she says is one of the most active and responsive councils in the borough — many of them are basically cheerleaders for the NYPD — so if she’s right, that’s something. Perhaps because of her background, Thompkins has been cautious about her comments on stop-and-frisk. While others in the race have condemned the practice, she’s maintained that there needs to be a “balanced approach” that doesn’t do away with the tactic completely.

Thompkins has a southern cadence to her speech patterns, which she says comes from her Atlanta side of the family. It’s effective, like a preacher is, and I’ve heard her referred to several times as “folksy.” She’s been a big proponent of green jobs and uses the tagline, “poverty to prosperity,” as her slogan.

12) Unions. The unions have almost all gotten behind Torres, including those with powerful political operations like the United Federation of Teachers and 1199 SEIU, which is another huge advantage for Torres when it comes to getting out the vote.

The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), which often works with Rivera’s dad’s Latino Pastoral Action Center, is backing Rivera, who, of course, is also at all of those rallies as well.

(On a semi-related note: Rivera’s big issue in all of the debates and forums is that he shows up to all the rallies and tenant meetings in the district, while none of the other candidates show up. The other candidates have called him out, saying he’s just making things up. There’s no definitive answer here, but I’m betting Rivera’s been at a rally that the other candidates haven’t. I also have no evidence that any of the candidates ever didn’t show up to something when asked to or when Rivera didn’t organize it himself and didn’t them. It’s a baseless claim on Rivera’s part. Rivera’s also been openly talking about how Torres received special treatment to win an apartment at the Post Graduate Mental Health Center, where he lives as a low income resident. There’s also been questions about Torres’ mental health that are also completely baseless. If there were a smoking gun here, we would have seen it by now. There’s no story here. Sorry I even brought it up. Let’s move on.)

13) Political Support. Torres is the big winner here. He says he’s most happy about the endorsements of State Senator Gustavo Rivera and Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., two liberals he thinks are doing good things for the Bronx. Assemblyman Mark Gjonaj and Council members Melissa Mark-Viveritio and Brad Lander are also endorsing Torres.

Rivera, as we mentioned, is backed by Cabrera and his well-connected dad, the Rev. Ray Rivera. (Joel Ray Rivera, by the way, is a George Washington University grad, is married with five children, has been employed in some government fashion for most of his adult life and now works for the comptroller’s office. Rivera also started the Servicing Our Youth program, which tries to educate people about government politics and civic engagement. Check out this video to learn more, but from what I gather, he’s basically out there teaching civics classes.)

Albert Alvarez has the support of his boss, Joel Rivera and Joel’s father Jose, who constantly reminds you that  Alvarez is “the only one from the district who lives in the district.” (Batista may beg to differ on Jose’s point, but seriously, Alvarez has been here the WHOLE TIME.) Alvarez is also supported by Kenny Agosto, who was in the running until his petition signatures didn’t hold up against a challenge. That’s another person who will help Alvarez get votes.

14) Housing Work. Each of the candidates has promised to promote a pro-tenant agenda in the Council. Each has their own background and experience and you should look into all of them (we would, but this is getting close to 3,000 words and we need to call it quits soon).

Batista started her career off as a tenant organizer for the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition right in the district and has the support of some current members of the  area’s premier grassroots, activist organization, including former executive director Mary Dailey.

Meanwhile, Torres’ campaign manager, Juan Antigua, is a former coalition organizer and former coalition president Ronn Jordan is also backing Torres.

15) The Winner: Election Night!

The money and support point toward Torres, but Alvarez is well-known throughout the district because of his position and birthing and has been supporting local groups there for a dozen years — that could go a long way. There’s also the “other Joel Rivera” factor and that name recognition is enormous. Batista could take the female vote. Thompkins could sway the law-and-order crowd. And Bauza could win over conservative Christians. Whatever happens, it’s going to be a fun election night.

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4 thoughts on “Bronx Breakdown: Making Sense of the 15th Council District Race

  1. Lynn

    Thompkins never had a chance. Like south bronx is going to vote in an ex cop with a history of civilian complants.

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