September 20, 2013 at 1:40 PM
By Alex Kratz
As midnight approached outside of Ritchie Torres’ campaign headquarters in Belmont, a half dozen political soldiers basked in the dim, orange light, happily drinking, smoking and trading war stories. After an exhaustive Democratic primary campaign in the Bronx’s 15th District that ended in success last Tuesday night, there was nothing left to do but relax and enjoy the moment.
More than an hour earlier, with the results heavily tilting toward Torres, the 25-year-old former housing director for east Bronx Councilman Jimmy Vacca and his team declared victory in one of the wildest Bronx City Council races in recent memory.
While some of his campaign staffers and supporters, celebrated — all of them giddy, some of them drowsy — Torres bustled around the room like he just drank a Red Bull, displaying the “youthful energy” he says will help him serve the Belmont, Fordham-Bedford, Tremont, West Farms and Crotona areas he will represent once the formality of the general election is out of the way in November. (Democrats out-number Republicans 11-1 in the Bronx, making the primary the de facto election night.)
In the wake of his win over five opponents, including the current Councilman Joel Rivera’s chief of staff, Albert Alvarez, another candidate named Joel Rivera, and a woman who gave birth on the campaign trail, Torres paused and reflected.
“It feels like an honor,” Torres said. “I feel like one of the big problems in the Bronx is that we’ve seen politicians treat elected office as if it’s a property right. I won’t do that. I’m on the path to becoming this district’s representative in City Hall and I will treat that responsibility as the central vocation of my life.”
Sitting in his wheelchair outside the campaign office, supporter Ronn Jordan, a longtime grassroots activist with the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition who has butted heads with the Bronx’s most powerful politicians over the years, said Torres would breathe fresh air into the borough’s political scene.
“He’s the future of Bronx politics,” Jordan said. “He’ll be a champion for justice like we’ve never seen before.”
Torres, who is the first openly gay candidate to win a high-profile Bronx political race, was one of three Democratic candidates who are poised to take over Bronx Council seats being vacated by term-limited members.
In the 11th District, which includes Norwood, Bedford Park, Riverdale, and parts of Kingsbridge Heights, Woodlawn and Wakefield, party favorite Andrew Cohen breezed to victory over businessman and activist Cliff Stanton by a 2-to-1 margin.
In the 16th District, which includes Highbridge, Morrisania, Mt. Eden and Melrose, former assembly member Vanessa Gibson easily defeated her six opponents.
Meanwhile, Council incumbents Fernando Cabrera, Andy King, Melissa Mark-Viverito, Annabel Palma and Maria del Carmen Arroyo all withstood primary challenges.
Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. easily held off a late charge from businessman Mark Escoffrey-Bey.
On Monday, a week after the primary, Diaz’s pick in the Democratic mayoral race, Bill Thompson, who finished second on primary day, conceded to first place finisher Bill de Blasio. With de Blasio tallying just over 40 percent of the vote, which is the threshold for an outright victory, Thompson had said he would wait to see if a recount in his favor would force a run-off between the top two candidates.
But on Monday, after mounting pressure from fellow Democrats, Thompson said he would step away from the race and throw his support behind de Blasio. Later on Monday, Diaz followed suit and endorsed de Blasio, who is the current public advocate for the city. De Blasio will face off against former MTA Chairman Joe Lhota, who won the Republican primary.
In the 86th Assembly District, which includes University Heights, Morris Heights and Mt. Hope, Victor Pichardo, a DeWitt Clinton High School grad who most recently worked for State Senator Gustavo Rivera, emerged from the primary with a narrow lead of about 1 percentage point (72 votes) over Hector Ramirez. Two other candidates, Yudelka Tapia and Haile Rivera, were both within six percentage points of Pichardo.
Pichardo’s opponents claimed massive irregularities in the voting process in the district, including at least one broken machine that only had one working lever for an 86th Assembly District candidate — Pichardo. They were also upset that Pichardo’s mother was assigned to and worked at the PS 33 polling site on Jerome Avenue, which is one of the district’s busiest sites.
Ramirez, Rivera and their supporters held a rally last Friday to protest the allegedly shoddy results and place blame on the Board of Elections and the Bronx Democratic Party, which has influence at the BOE and supported Pichardo.
“This community deserves clean and fair elections,” Haile Rivera said in a statement. “I firmly believe there’s enough evidence to conclude that Pichardo’s campaign, including his former boss State Senator Gustavo Rivera and the Bronx Democratic Party, went above and beyond the law to make sure their candidate wins.”
As of press time on Tuesday, the Board of Elections was still in the middle of doing a manual recount of all the 86th Assembly ballots. A full recount isn’t expected to be completed until later this week.
The 11th and 15th Council District races were also touched by controversy.
In the run-up to primary day, both races were heavily influenced by the enormous spending of the Jobs for New York Political Action Committee (PAC), which is spearheaded by the real estate lobby and had spent nearly $7 million on city elections as of Aug. 30, the last reporting deadline. The winners in both of those districts — Cohen and Torres — benefitted from its spending.
Jobs for New York had spent $175,412 on pro-Cohen efforts and $46,176 against Stanton in the 11th District race. In total, the money nearly doubled the sum both candidates spent on the race themselves.
In the 15th District, Jobs for New York used $267,212 on behalf of Torres and $110,655 in attacks against his closest rival, Joel R. Rivera.
Cohen and Torres were widely endorsed by unions and other Bronx elected officials and say they will be progressive on housing issues in their districts. Both say they will not be influenced as Council members by the real estate lobby.
Back in Belmont, Torres said the PAC money didn’t win the race for him. “I truly believe, no amount of mailings made the difference,” he said. “It comes down to hard work and we knocked on doors every single night to bring our message to the voters.”
Inside the campaign office, Janice Walcott, the president of the Allerton Coops, a major housing complex in the district, was barely keeping her eyes open and her ride was leaving. On her way out, she had a few nice words for her candidate, calling him “a great guy.”
“I’m tired,” she said, when asked how it felt to win. “But I’m high.”
She added, “Now I’m gonna hold his feet to the fire.”