For nearly an hour, Norwood Assemblyman Mark Gjonaj bore the brunt of criticism by his fellow Democratic rivals in the latest debate for the 13th Council District seat, one of the more active political races in the Bronx election cycle this year.
The candidates lobbed much of the mud at Gjonaj, pegging him as an established politician with heavy financial backing from the real estate sector. Even so, Gjonaj, the presumed frontrunner, stood stoic as he was needled by the candidates, which include community activist John Doyle, community activist and businessman Egidio Sementelli, and district leader for the 82nd Assembly District and Community Board 10 treasurer Majorie Velazquez.
“There’s two ways to run these campaigns—one on negativity, divisiveness, and one on the very positive, deliver the message and show the people of the 13th Council District what we’re going to be doing,” Gjonaj said. “My opponents obviously choosing the first step.”
The Gjonaj pile-on stood among the dominant themes of the Aug. 14 debate moderated by BronxNet TV host Gary Axelbank, which also touched on issues of public education and small business needs.
In a Bronx where development has swept across the borough, the issue of overdevelopment also took center stage. The trend prompted Doyle to declare that “zoning is on the ballot Sept. 12,” the day of the Democratic Primary. He pitted Gjonaj, who has a real estate background, among politicos who’ve warmed up to developers at the public’s expense.
Gjonaj countered that he “can’t be bought” by developers, citing his introduction of the Tenant Rent Increase Exemption program bill that waives future rent increases on families making less than $50,000. “I am not going to be bought by any developer, or any special interest group. That’s my promise,” Gjonaj said. “And I haven’t been able to be bought in the past and I assure you that I’ll always work in the best interest of the people.”
But Sementelli and Velazquez pointed to a $500 donation by Michael D’Alessio, a developer at the center of a controversial homeless shelter proposed at 2800 Bruckner Blvd., currently an office building. The proposal drew a siege of lawmakers, including Gjonaj, who acknowledged to accepting the donation he said was later used to buy refreshments for a meeting focusing on resolutions.
Turning to issues of small business, the candidates were united on the preservation of mom and pop businesses across the district. Sementelli charged that Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) add more of a financial burden to small businesses who face a six percent tax hike that covers private sanitation services and marketing initiatives. “I don’t want to increase bread, I don’t want to increase the milk for our seniors. Six percent is an additional tax that small business owners should not be required to pay,” Sementelli said.
Velazquez, whose mother-in-law had once owned a business near the Baychester Mall before it closed, seeks to preserve businesses through education via the New York City Small Business Services, which assists small businesses in thriving while levying fines for violations. “[W]e also need SBS to come in to help us small businesses know where they may be fined prior to getting their fines, prior to their violations because they’re not on the same standard as these big box shops. With these big box shops those fines are nothing,” Velazquez said.
The 13th Council District covers the neighborhoods of Morris Park, Throggs Neck, Van Nest, Allerton, and Pelham Parkway. It slightly overlaps with Gjonaj’s 80th Assembly District, covering Norwood, Allerton, Pelham Parkway, Morris Park, Van Nest, and Pelham Parkway. The seat is currently held by Councilman Jimmy Vacca, who is term-limited.
The council district also covers City Island, a major stronghold for Doyle, a resident in the neighborhood. But Doyle was quick to point out his involvement outside the community.
“I’m on the board of the 45th Precinct Council, I helped co-start the East Bronx Traffic Coalition, which dealt with things like the Baychester Shopping Mall. I was the only candidate who went down to City Hall to testify against that project, not quite a City Island thing,” Doyle said.
The district also stands as the most Republican, according to a review of the electoral map for the 2016 Presidential campaign, which saw more votes for Republican President Donald Trump than any other Bronx district. Its concentration of Republicans in the district has produced a candidate in John Cerini, a businessman in Throggs Neck.
Whichever Democrat wins the primary will likely face Cerini in the November General Election.
On issues of public education, candidates stuck by Democratic principles, calling for improvements to the public education system by increasing funding for teachers. The trio of candidates once again took aim at Gjonaj for not advocating strongly in bringing in more funds to the district.
Gjonaj accused the candidates of not understanding the government process, adding the state has pumped billions of dollars into the public education system year over year.
Toward the end, Gjonaj rebutted his candidates, admonishing them for running what he dubbed a negative campaign.
“I continue to get the love up here; you gotta have a thick skin for these venues,” Gjonaj said jokingly. “There’s two ways to run a campaign. I’ll take the high road.”