The Race is On in the West Bronx
By Lennin Reyes
It’s the peak of election season in the western Bronx. Incumbents and challengers are banding together to earn crucial votes in the September 13 primary.
Incumbent Brings Reinforcements
On a sweltering July afternoon, hundreds of Bronxites crowded into a hot campaign office at 2289 Jerome Avenue to see the unveiling of “Team Castro,” five individuals who are fighting for several seats within the 86th Assembly District on Thursday, September 13 (moved from Tuesday due to the anniversary of 9/11). Led by two-term assembly incumbent Nelson Castro (D-University Heights), the team includes Yudelka Tapia, a one-term female district leader incumbent, Steve Santana, who is running for male district leader, and Shannie Kirby and James Duarte, who are running for the district’s state committee.
While the assemblyman spends six months in Albany, district leaders and state committee members remain local, responding to the needs of constituents.
“We’ve attended meetings with police officers, tenant organizations, and the community boards to fight for our district’s services,” Santana and Tapia said.
State Senator Gustavo Rivera (D-Kingsbridge Heights), who represents most of the 86th AD, has endorsed the team. Castro says that now they are working to generate enthusiasm among constituents. “We cannot assume your support, we are asking for it,” the assemblyman said.
Challengers “Shake Trees”
While Team Castro was working the crowd on Jerome Avenue, assembly challenger Richard Soto was collaborating with Rivera’s Senate opponent, Manny Tavarez. “We are shaking trees here,” Soto says proudly in his and Tavarez’s campaign office in Mount Hope.
Soto is not a new face, as he previously ran for City Council and State Assembly. Rounding out the challenger’s team are Carlos Oliveras and Raisa Marcial, who are running for district leaders, and Maria Rosendo, Gloria McFarland and Maria Pichardo, running to become judicial delegates.
Both Soto and Tavarez have been working around the clock, making phone calls and doing voter petition and registration drives.
Soto says the key to victory in these races is getting people out to vote. “Let’s say someone goes to an incumbent’s office to get help. The elected official says, ‘I’m not going to help you.’ That person then mumbles in Spanish, ‘Yo no voy a votar!’ (I’m not going to vote.) What he does not realize is that a ‘no’ vote or not voting at all means a ‘yes’ vote for the incumbent, thus leading to re-election.”
The lack of turnover has been a longtime issue in a state that has one of the highest incumbent retention rates in the country. People like Soto and Tavarez hope to reduce that statistic. “The system we have is doing well, but is in need of replacement,” Soto said.
Fear of a Reprisal
The region has a history of low voter turnout during September primaries, which are tantamount to election in this heavily Democratic area. This, in turn, often leads to scandal-tarred incumbents winning the races.
The most recent example was the 2008 primary, where only 7,740 of 311,258 residents in Senate District 33 voted to replace disgraced incumbent Efrain Gonzalez (D-Fordham) with Pedro Espada Jr. (D-Bedford Park), who once served the South Bronx-based 32nd District in the 1990s. Espada’s tenure became notorious for fueling the 2009 Senate leadership crisis, when he threatened to switch to the Republican Party, for supporting laws that favored landlords over tenants, and for stealing money from his Soundview health clinic system.
Looking to the Future
After Gustavo Rivera defeated Espada in 2010, supporters of Rivera and Team Castro say that there’s a breath of fresh air in west Bronx politics. This, they say, is thanks in part to the collaborative efforts among them in tackling issues such as housing, health care, youth and senior services. Supporters Steven Nurse and Letitia Harper say they’ve seen a change in the community.
While Rivera and Castro highlight their collaborative achievements, including bringing $20.4 billion to Bronx schools to ensure that they have “enough pencils, computers and Bounty,” Soto and Tavarez feel cuts need to be prevented first. “Instead of bringing more money to things, let’s stop the cuts first,” they said. “Instead of building new stuff, let’s protect and renovate existing things.”
West Bronx residents hope to see more improvements, no matter which team wins next month’s primary. “I hope the winners help reduce the price of the MetroCard and citizenship fees,” Jose Marte said. “Because of the $600 fee, I can’t vote.”