When Yudelka Tapia, a Bronx City Council candidate, held a press conference two weekends ago in front of a Westchester house owned by her opponent, Fernando Cabrera, it touched off a controversy in the blogosphere and in local political circles.
Tapia and commentators on the Bronx News Network blog compared Cabrera, who has distinguished himself among a crowded field of 14th District Council candidates by garnering a string of endorsements, to Pedro Espada, Jr., the state Seopnator who claims to live in Bedford Park, but is under investigation by the Bronx District Attorney for living outside of his district in Mamaroneck.
Tapia suggested Cabrera was breaking state laws, but Cabrera says he moved into the district last summer, which would make his run legal.
A registered Republican up until last August and a graduate of an ultra-conservative Christian university, Cabrera’s allegiance to Democratic principles is also being questioned.
Critics say Cabrera, like Espada, is an opportunist looking to unseat a vulnerable incumbent — Maria Baez, who is running for a third term and facing four opponents, including Cabrera.
One anonymous blog commentator said, “So let me get this straight, he moves into the Bronx a year ago and two months later declares his candidacy, and at the same time switches from Republican (after 10 years) to Democrat. Seems to me he only did all this to run [for] City Council.”
“As a lifelong resident of this community, I take political affiliations and residency seriously when thinking about who should represent me,” said Yorman Nunez, another candidate in the 14th District, in an e-mail. “I am tired of electeds that are implanted or bought and paid for. The people of this district deserve genuine representation.”
In a visit last Wednesday to the Sedgwick Avenue co-op where Cabrera says he lives full-time with his wife and teenage son, the pastor and Mercy College professor went out of his way to silence his critics.
Cabrera said he was born and raised in the Bronx until moving to California, where he finished high school. His presence in the 14th District, which includes parts of Kingsbridge Heights, Fordham, University Heights and Mount Hope, is not a façade, he said.
“There’s a saying that goes ‘you should know them by their fruits,’” Cabrera said. “My fruits speak very loudly.”
In 1989, Cabrera and his wife started New Life Outreach International Church on Valentine Avenue. Through his ministry at the church, now on Morris Avenue, Cabera says he’s worked to help those in his community, as well as abroad.
“When you look at where I’ve been and the work I’ve done, you’ll know where I am going,” he said.
Cabrera said he moved to Pelham to give his kids a better education and that the plan was to move back once his son, Josh, who now attends Columbia University, finished high school. His daughter, son-in-law and grandson now live in his Pelham home.
As for a visit to that house, Cabrera said it would be up to his daughter. “It’s hard enough having my daughter be a pastor’s kid her whole life and being in the public eye,” he said. “The very little privacy I can give, I will.”
At the Sedgwick apartment, Cabrera opened his fridge to show frozen tamales that his Mexican wife had made, and gave a tour of the living space where there was a playpen for when his grandson visits, and his son’s bruised drum set.
Cabrera tried his best to distance himself from Espada who jumped across the aisle a month ago, paralyzing the state senate. Last fall, he said he, along with most other Bronx Democrats, supported Espada’s opponent, the incumbent Efrain Gonzalez who recently pleaded guilty to funneling state money into his own pockets.
As a former Republican, Cabrera said President Barack Obama inspired him to reanalyze his values, which he found aligned more with the Democrats.
Cabrera said he didn’t really give much thought as to why he became a Republican in the first place. “I was a teenager and I just chose a party,” he said. “I just chose one! I was not politically savvy; they just gave me a card and I voted.”
Cabrera said that growing up in his family as a self-proclaimed “Domirican-American” (his mother is Puerto Rican and his father is Dominican), politics was the farthest thing from his mind. “It’s not like at 18 I had an agenda,” he said.
“I have never given money to the Republican Party, I was never in a Young Republicans group or anything like that, and I have never even been to a Republican function,” Cabrera said.
Cabrera also earned a master’s degree from Liberty University, one of the country’s most conservative universities. It was founded by the Reverend Jerry Falwell, a staunch Republican and conservative commentator who co-founded the Moral Majority.
The decision to enroll at Liberty wasn’t based on politics or on religion, Cabrera said, but because the school offered a two-year non-traditional program. All classes were taken on-line. “I was working and I was a pastor raising my kids,” he said. “It was the most affordable non-traditional program, so I chose it.”