State Assemblyman Mark Gjonaj, whose 80th Assembly District edges into Norwood, has become the latest candidate to jump into the race for the
City Council seat for the East Bronx.
Four others have already declared a run in the Democratic Primary for the 13th Council District seat, which covers a portion of Norwood, as well as Throggs Neck, City Island, Morris Park, Country Club, Allerton and Pelham Parkway. The seat is now held by Councilman Jimmy Vacca, who is term-limited.
The mudslinging has already begun, with one of Gjonaj’s opponents charging that a Gjonaj win could leave the Assembly District without representation in Albany.
Standing before some 200 supporters that included some of the Assembly district’s movers and shakers at the Chippewa Democratic Club in Westchester Square, the Democratic Party candidate touted a platform of economic development, preserving and improving quality of life, and answering the needs of an overburdened middle class in the district, home to some of the more socially conservative neighborhoods.
“The needs of this community have been overwhelmingly local issues,” Gjonaj said at his campaign kickoff event on Dec. 12. “Talking about real local issues, like Rodman’s Neck in City Island has overstayed its welcome, talking about issues where we need additional law enforcement, where we want to not only preserve our quality of life and our safety, but improve it and make it better.”
State Assembly members are paid significantly less than Council members -$79,500, plus per diem and travel expenses, and no member items. They are, however, allowed to hold outside jobs.The City Council recently voted itself a 32 percent pay raise, from $112,500 to $148,000. Council members also receive discretionary funds.
Gjonaj is allowed to keep his Assembly seat while running for the Council.
The 80th Assembly District stretches into the east Bronx neighborhoods of Morris Park and Pelham Parkway, where Gjonaj draws most of his support. He also maintains a strong presence in the Norwood area on the fringe of his assembly district. His C.A.R.E.S. bus, used for constituent services, was recently present at East 204th Street by Bainbridge Avenue. Meantime, Gjonaj has used his personal monies to either host or sponsor events around the neighborhood, garnering enough support to win a third term to the Assembly this year.
With Gjonaj entering the race, the possibility of an un-represented 80th Assembly District in 2018 does exist, said John Doyle, another challenger in the Democratic Primary for the council seat. Doyle argued that Governor Andrew Cuomo has not ordered a special election in cases where state legislators vacate a seat mid-term for a Council seat since 2013.
“If Mark Gjonaj wins this seat there’s a chance they’ll have no voice, the people that live in the 80th Assembly District,” Doyle told the Norwood News. “That’s a risk you shouldn’t ask them to take.”
Cuomo hasn’t fully ignored requests for special elections, but he doesn’t call them regularly.
Doyle, a communications director for the New York City Health & Hospitals Corp., was the second to enter the race. A grassroots advocate who’s worked in previous campaigns and as community affairs director for state Senator Jeff Klein (who’s backing Gjonaj), Doyle’s base lies within City Island.
“I want to bring a new form of representation to the district,” Doyle said. “I want to make sure people get a say in how their tax dollars are spent. I want to do town hall meetings in every community every year to promote direct accountability.”
The New York City Campaign Finance Board ranked Doyle as the lead recipient for small contributions for the 2017 election cycle. Thus far, Doyle has raised $33,835.93. Candidates who opt for the program receive 6-to-1 in matching funds, with certain contribution limits. Gjonaj, on the other hand, said he has no intention of utilizing public monies for his Council run, opting instead to use private contributions.
Monies aside, the two would still need support from the Bronx Democratic County Committee, whose backing would bring financial support and manpower for canvassing and get-out-the-vote events. Democratic County leader and Assemblyman Marcos Crespo was absent from the Gjonaj announcement, and did not return a call for comment. He reportedly has told associates he is not quite ready to make a decision, “waiting for the dust to settle,” before he throws his support to a candidate.
County support is not always a guarantee of winning. Despite Bronx Democratic Committee support, Assemblyman Keith Wright lost his candidacy for the 13th Congressional District to now Congressman-elect Adriano Espaillat. Even Gjonaj, who won against former Assemblywoman Naomi Rivera in a hotly-contested Assembly race did not have County support.
Meanwhile, Vacca is supporting Marjorie Velazquez, District Leader for the 82nd Assembly District and wife of his former chief of staff, Jeff Lynch.
“I’ve seen firsthand Marjorie’s energy and dedication to our community, and I know that she will be a strong voice for Bronx families,” Vacca said in a statement announcing his support. “Marjorie will be a forward-looking, effective advocate for our children and seniors in the City Council. I will be hitting the campaign trail in the coming months to talk with voters about Marjorie and do everything I can to support her candidacy.”
Grooming candidates is not new to Vacca. The most high-profile employee to come out of Vacca’s office is Councilman Ritchie Torres of the 15th Council District.
“I definitely like to build on Jimmy [Vacca’s] legacy,” said Velazquez. “This is a man who has dedicated most of his life to public service.”
Velazquez’ platform includes improvements to education, public housing and fixing what amounts to a “transit desert” in the East Bronx. The de Blasio administration is set to expand ferry service from the Bronx to Manhattan to help ease long commutes for locals.
“We have ferry service going to Soundview, why not extend it into our district?” Velazquez asked. “You can do it at Ferry Point Park. There are various areas in the district where you could totally put ferry service.”
Velazquez hopes to fix what she called a gender gap in the City Council, which now has 13 female legislators among its 51 members.
“The presidential election highlighted that there is a need for more women in leadership positions, not only in government, but also in different areas of their life,” Velazquez said.
Should she win, Velazquez will be the first Latina Council member representing the 13th Council District.
Other candidates include John Marano, a retired police officer and firefighter and former chair of Bronx Community Board 10, whose borders mainly overlap with the 13th Council District. Marano was unavailable to speak to the Norwood News. On his website, Marano underscored a platform that intends to improve the quality of life for residents. “We need more police officers assigned to our precincts, PSA (Housing) and Transit units. I will fight to hire more police officers, and bring them to our neighborhoods in the Bronx.”
Marano also pledged to improve conditions at buildings owned by the New York City Housing Authority, which he says needs to be further “inspected on a regular basis.” Poor conditions in the building, he says, “need to be corrected in a timely manner.”
The quality of life theme is a mantra for Alex Gomez, the first to declare a run to replace Vacca for the seat. A program director for Phipps Neighborhood House, a social services non-profit, Gomez sees the need for more jobs for summer youth, the ability for young people to learn a trade before graduating high school, and a universal childcare program akin to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Universal Pre-K program.
“[De Blasio] left a gap with the individuals in between the ages of one and four, who have to pay maybe 40 to 50 percent of their salary to find childcare that’s not affordable. And I think the city should provide some sort of a voucher system where people can get affordable childcare based on their salary, on a sliding scale that maybe goes back to the era of Franklin Delano Roosevelt where childcare centers were popping up left and right because of the war,” Gomez told the Norwood News. “But now we need these childcare facilities because we do have a large working community.”
He’s aware he’s the fringe candidate in a field largely dominated by insiders who’ve dipped in and out of BDCC’s orbit. A meeting with Crespo in April 2015 supported that view.
“He blatantly told me, ‘No, we don’t want an outsider. We want someone who has paid their dues to work themselves, and who has proven themselves. And we would support someone of our own group before we would someone outside the establishment.’ And that was his words to me.”
Additional reporting by Bob Kappstatter