Ed. Note: This is the third and final in a series of articles about 33rd District State Senator Gustavo Rivera, who was thrust into the spotlight after defeating the controversial Pedro Espada, Jr. last fall. Rivera represents the entire Norwood News coverage area.
Gustavo Rivera, a state senator for all of nine months, is comfortably in his element. Sitting at the head of a table in a cramped, windowless room deep inside the belly of The Family Health Center on East 193rd Street and Decatur Avenue, Rivera is asking questions and cracking jokes.
“Five different flavors of pork rinds,” Rivera offers as the conversation turns to nutritional options at local bodegas.
Later, he asks about the Center’s Friday food demonstrations and asks if they can help him be a better cook. “I burn water,” he says, and everyone in the room — a conglomeration of public relations specialists, reporters, photographers and Center staffers — laughs. He’s a hit. If politics doesn’t work out for the 33rd district representative, he could make a run at “Last Comic Standing.” (Plus, the multi-talented, 34-year-old Puerto Rican native can sing. Check him out on youtube.)
The Bronx CAN
But for now, Rivera’s more interested in becoming “The Biggest Loser.” The health initiative he launched with the help of the borough president’s office, Montefiore Medical Center and St. Barnabas Hospital — called the Bronx CAN (Changing Attitudes Now) Health Initiative — is based partly on the model of the popular reality television series where obese people compete to see who can lose the most weight. Rivera wants Bronxites to live healthier lives and set healthy goals, like losing weight.
He dedicated his summer to the initiative and, at the same time, his own health. In June, Rivera publically weighed himself in at an NFL-lineman-like 299 pounds and vowed to lose 20 pounds by the end of October. He also vowed not to employ any gimmicky diets or hire a personal trainer.
“I wanted to do it in a way that’s sustainable,” says Rivera.
That means doing everything in moderation and making healthier choices, he says. Smaller portions, less fat, less sugar, more exercise. That’s why he’s doing weekly community walks (look, you don’t need a gym to be fit!) and making appearances at local farmer’s markets (look, right here in your neighborhood, there are alternatives to pork rinds!).
With a month to go, he’s six pounds from his goal. Soon he’ll be more linebacker than lineman.
Rivera didn’t come into office this past January expecting to be the most active and outspoken health advocating elected official in the Bronx. It just made sense, much like his decision to run for office last year after spending a decade running campaigns for other politicians.
For one, he’s the only Bronx representative on the senate health committee. Secondly, according to a recent report, the Bronx is the unhealthiest of all New York’s 62 counties. Something needed to be done, he said. And now, Rivera calmly answers questions about his morning workout routine (mostly cardio, some circuit training, four or five days a week) and what he eats for breakfast (egg and veggie wrap).
A Quick Study
In his first year in office, Rivera is obviously still learning. But his previous experience in Albany (as chief of staff for Andrea Stewart-Cousins and the Democratic Conference, among other jobs) and academia (by all accounts, he possess strong study habits and an earnest curiosity) have helped.
Liz Krueger, a senate colleague from Manhattan who helped recruit Rivera into running last year against Pedro Espada, speaks glowingly about the rookie’s precociousness on the senate floor.
“I have colleagues in the senate who have been there for years who are not as comfortable speaking about bills on the floor [as Rivera is],” Krueger said in a phone interview. “The etiquette and the language isn’t easy. Gustavo has shifted gears so quickly and gracefully.”
As a lawmaker, Rivera started his career off with a symbolic nod to his predecessor, controversial lightning rod Pedro Espada — introducing a bill that would require legislators to disclose all outside income. (Espada, who founded a network of nonprofit healthcare centers, was cagey about disclosing his compensation outside of politics. He is now under indictment for embezzling funds from his network and is scheduled to stand trial early next year.) Much of the language from that bill was folded into a larger ethics reform package put together by Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo that became law last spring.
Rivera sponsored six other pieces of legislation relating to everything from labor (allowing substitute teachers to receive unemployment benefits during the summer) to public safety (calling for the creation of a database of private security cameras to aid police investigations) to healthcare (granting equal access to specialty care for low-income patients at university hospitals).
One of those six, a law that would allow charitable organizations to post bail for indigent defendants who can’t afford it, passed both chambers late in the session and is now awaiting Cuomo’s signature, the final step in the lawmaking process.
Rivera concedes that Democrats, who control the assembly but not the senate, fell short on some of its goals, including the strengthening of rent regulations (current regulations were extended, not strengthened) and revenue generation (Rivera wanted the millionaire’s tax extended, but instead, it ended).
District ‘In Good Hands’
Colleagues are consistently positive about Rivera, but fellow Bronx state senator, Ruben Diaz, Sr., said he blamed all Democrats, Rivera included, for voting in a budget that cut into education, healthcare and senior services. (Rivera says he voted no on two of the nine budget bills, including the revenue generation bill and the education funding bill.)
Back in the Bronx, Rivera was criticized for failing to promptly set up a district office. Someone even started a Gustavo Watch blog, counting the days he was without a Bronx home base. Rivera blamed the senate bureaucracy for the delay and set up mobile hours at locations throughout the district. He finally secured an office on the Grand Concourse, just south of Fordham Road, in May.
Haile Rivera, a University Heights resident who worked on Espada’s campaign last fall and, like Gustavo Rivera (no relation), worked on Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign in Florida, said his representative fell short on housing reform and isn’t sure what he accomplished during his first year.
“Aside from the CAN Initiative, the exercise, meet-me-at-the-park thing, not sure what he’s done,” Haile Rivera said. He admitted it was “sad” and the he “liked the guy,” but said he thought his state senator should be focused on helping people find jobs before helping them live healthier lives.
Still, many see a bright future for Rivera.
“This district is in good hands,” said Assemblyman Jose Rivera (again, no relation), whose district is contained in Gustavo Rivera’s district.
The two Riveras, who share a common first name (Gustavo goes by his middle name), also shared a town hall meeting during the summer in Kingsbridge Heights, part of a series of town hall meetings Gustavo Rivera initiated in various parts of his district.
The best thing about Gustavo, Jose Rivera says, is that “he’s a listener. He listens to people.”
And, of course, there’s his singing voice. “The people love it,” Jose Rivera says.