When Desiree Pilgrim-Hunter announced her candidacy for the New York State Senate last Saturday, she did so to an undersized media scrum — at least, by New York City standards.
She spoke towards a television camera and a small gaggle of reporters and political gadflies. Across the street, the Bronx Library Center's plate-glass facade mutely reflected the gathering and the apartment buildings that backstopped the scene. Behind her, a crowd of about 50 people cheered and held up signs.
The signs said things like "Honest Leadership Now!" and "Community First!"
Pilgrim-Hunter, a Bronx community activist on the board of the Northwest Bronx Community Clergy Coalition, might have had a bigger reception if she had waited a week.
On Tuesday, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo announced a lawsuit against Pilgrim-Hunter's opponent — incumbent Pedro Espada Jr. — that alleges the politician has been siphoning money from a nonprofit health care network he runs, bilking the enterprise for $14 million over five years to bolster his political aspirations and even to pay for $20,000 in sushi sent to his house in Mamaroneck, N.Y. The next day, the FBI raided the nonprofit's offices.
Espada has said the charges are politically motivated and designed to make it easier for Pilgrim-Hunter to win, as well as revenge for what he calls his push for reform—and what some Democrats called a naked power grab—last summer, when Espada briefly left the Democratic caucus and plunged the legislature's upper body into a power vacuum.
But Pilgrim-Hunter argues that Espada's problems are of his own making. After all, Cuomo's suit is just the latest allegation of wrongdoing (Espada denies them all) against the senator, who has a reputation as a pro-landlord legislator despite representing a district awash in rent-stabilized housing.
"Events of the past 12 months, though at times like something out of a bad dream, are all too real," Pilgrim-Hunter said on Saturday, reading from a script she had carried with her to a small podium. "We can change the dysfunction in Albany only by changing the people we send there to speak on our behalf," she said.
Pilgrim-Hunter certainly would be a change. The last two people to represent the 33rd State Senate district, Espada and Efrain Gonzalez Jr., were both born in Coamo, Puerto Rico. Gonzalez was indicted in 2006 for allegedly routing taxpayer money to his own pocket, pleaded guilty in May 2009 to two counts charging conspiracies to misappropriate public monies and two charging mail fraud, then tried to withdraw that plea. A judge denied his motion to withdraw the plea on April 8, court documents show.
Espada defeated Gonzalez in the 2008 primary in the 33rd district, which covers a chunk of the central and northwest Bronx, including Tremont, Fordham, Bedford Park, Norwood and Kingsbridge.
Pilgrim-Hunter was born in England to Guyanese parents, and lived in Nigeria before moving to New York. She admits that she was without immigration status in the U.S. for a time. Pilgrim-Hunter has lived in the Bronx for over 25 years and is the president of the Fordham Hill co-op board; beyond that, and her rise to notoriety for her role in a high-stakes land use battle that ended last year, she has no other political experience.
Espada is a political veteran who previously served in the state Senate representing the Soundview section of the Bronx, and also served in the City Council.
Pilgrim-Hunter will work the ethics angle in her campaign. She will likely continue to dig Espada for allegedly living in Mamaroneck and not a condo he owns in Bedford Park. But the issue in the 33rd state Senate race most likely to draw endorsements, attention and campaign cash is affordable housing and tenant protections.
Espada's campaign coffers are bolstered by donations from the Real Estate Board of New York, Affordable Housing PAC — a political action group funded by landlords and developers — and Taxpayers for an Affordable New York PAC, whose financiers include developers Larry Silverstein and Jack Rudin. In his most recent campaign finance filing, over $58,000 of $143,000 in reported income came from real estate interests.
Espada has said that he is a defender of public housing and that real estate interests do not influence his decisions. In taking positions that landlords like, he has claimed to be looking out for tenants' interests. For instance, he dismissed a repeal of vacancy decontrol — a rule that allows landlords to take rent-controlled apartments to market rate when a tenant leaves and rent reaches $2,000 — as counterproductive because it would create a disincentive for landlords to manage rent-controlled apartments.
Espada touted a recent bill he sponsored as a "rent freeze" for low- and moderate-income tenants. But the bill would fund that freeze — rolling low- and moderate-income tenants into a program similar to the city-run Senior Citizens' Rent Income Exemption program — by allowing landlords to pay back what they saved on a certain tax abatement for rent-controlled properties, and thus wash their hands of the rent-regulation requirements that came attached to that abatement. Those requirements were what tenants used in a lawsuit that prevented Tishman Speyer, another Espada campaign contributor, from deregulating units at Stuyvesant Town.
Espada couldn't be reached through a spokesman on Thursday to comment for this article.
"Pedro Espada is a major obstacle to progressive legislation passing the Senate," says Marc Greenberg, executive director of the Interfaith Assembly on Homelessness and Housing. "He's the housing committee chair and he's been very disruptive to anything happening."
Pilgrim-Hunter has pledged her support for the repeal of vacancy decontrol.
To win in September's primary, Pilgrim-Hunter will have to attract the support of labor and progressive groups. She'll also need, at the very least, for the county Democratic organization to stay out of the fight in order for her to have a shot at winning.
To face Espada in Democratic primary elections this fall, Pilgrim-Hunter will have to collect enough signatures from Democratic voters in the district on petitions circulated in June and July, and still have the right number of valid signatures after any are challenged in court. After the petitions are in, a host of high-powered election lawyers go to court on behalf of candidates, the county party, and other political players, in order to try and knock rivals off the ballot.
Reached Tuesday, Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, the county Democratic chairman — its number-two position — said Espada's recent lawsuit will make for tougher going for the incumbent. Pilgrim-Hunter has a shot, he said.
"I've met with her, I was impressed by her," said Dinowitz. "I'm not committed to supporting any particular person right now. [But] she certainly appears to be a credible candidate."
Much of her credibility comes from her role in the land use fight over the Kingsbridge Armory, a historic, 500,000-square-foot city-owned building that has been largely unused for over a decade.
The Bloomberg administration had hoped to hand the Armory over to a private developer to turn into a mall. A grocery store in the mall likely would have created competition for a unionized chain, Morton Williams, with a nearby flagship store. The Community-Clergy Coalition, united with church and labor groups, opposed the project because it went against the interests of their union allies in the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Workers Union, and because they said it would not provide living-wage jobs.
In December, the City Council killed the Armory mall plan over Mayor Bloomberg's objections. Pilgrim-Hunter emerged as a key spokeswoman for the coalition working to kill the Armory plan, and was a part of the Armory debate from the beginning.
"We used to go to the EDC when it was drawing up the request for proposals for the project," explained Ava Farkas, who was then a community organizer with Community-Clergy Coalition. Farkas now works for RWDSU, which is expected to endorse Pilgrim-Hunter soon. "It was an intimidating crowd. These were politicians, people from the deputy mayor's office ... people that have these degrees and think they know what's best."
Pilgrim-Hunter "brought the community's voice into those discussions," Farkas added. "She was not afraid to take anybody on."
Local lawyer Dan Padernacht, a member of Community Board 8 covering Riverdale, Kingsbridge, and Marble Hill, told City Limits that he was in the process of starting a campaign committee and filing the right paperwork with the state. Carlos Gonzalez, a state Senate staffer and son of former Sen. Gonzalez, could also be in the race, the New York Times reported Wednesday.
Activists like Hunter have thrown their hat into other political rings in recent years, with mixed results, especially when challenging incumbents. Last fall, longtime Brooklyn organizer Mark Winston Griffith failed to unseat City Councilman Al Vann, but community development advocate Brad Lander managed to win an open Council seat elsewhere in Brooklyn.