Diverse Field Runs to Replace Council Majority Leader

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The 15th District includes Crotona, Belmont, Fordham Heights, Tremont, Van Nest and a portion of Bronxwood, and leads the city in rates of poverty, unemployment, gun violence, obesity and asthma.

Photo by: Jim Henderson

The 15th District includes Crotona, Belmont, Fordham Heights, Tremont, Van Nest and a portion of Bronxwood, and leads the city in rates of poverty, unemployment, gun violence, obesity and asthma.

An original field of nine has whittled to six in the race to replace Council Majority Leader and three-term incumbent Joel Rivera in the 15th District, which includes Crotona, Belmont, Fordham Heights, Tremont, Van Nest and a portion of Bronxwood. The area leads the city in rates of poverty, unemployment, gun violence, obesity and asthma.

“This is the first competitive race that the district has seen at the City Council level in more than a decade,” says Raquel Batista, one of the hopefuls. “One of the things that’s been a lesson for me is the importance of having open and competitive races.”

But while incumbent Joel Rivera—son of Assemblyman, and former Bronx Democratic chairman, Jose Rivera and brother of former Assemblywoman Naomi Rivera—will not be on the ballot, his name will be. Another Joel Rivera, who bears no relation to the councilman, is among the six hopefuls. Joining him and Batista in the race are Albert Alvarez, Rev. Joel Bauza, Cynthia Thompkins and Ritchie Torres.

There’s little disagreement among the candidates on their district priorities and mutually progressive policy proposals. One thing the candidates have disagreed on is who among them belongs in the race.

Four of the candidates—Batista, Bauza, Thompkins and Torres—risked losing a spot on the ballot due to challenges to their petitions. Faulty information, like wrong addresses, can prevent a candidate from reaching the minimum of 450 signatures to run. All four made the cut, but a fifth candidate, Kenny Agosto (among his past roles, he was the megaphone man who accompanied Fernando Ferrer down many a sidewalk in the former beep’s 2005 mayoral campaign) did not, forcing him off the ballot. William Rivera and Yudelka Tapia have also come and gone from the race.

Some candidates face attacks

The same day as the Board of Elections hearing, Torres faced questions about his residence in a supportive housing complex for the formerly ill and mentally homeless. Torres, who is the housing director for Councilman Jimmy Vacca and has secured Borough President Ruben Diaz’s endorsement, denied that he used political leverage to obtain housing.

“It’s hard to pin a 25-year-old who came out of nowhere as an insider,” says Torres, whose campaign raised more than $105,000 and, with city financing, had $114,000 on hand, according to campaign finance records available at press time. “My opponents have been around much longer than I’ve been, so I would argue that the rest of them have been insiders.”

He says that his low income qualified him, but candidate Rivera insists that Torres would have needed other qualifications, such as mental health issues.

“Not that that disqualifies him [from the race], but it’s about transparency,” says Rivera. “If he was able to overcome that [his mental illness], he should own that and not try to be deceitful.”

Rivera himself was attacked early in the campaign for running in District 15 instead of District 16, where he lives and has devoted most of his work (through Servicing Our Youth, his nonprofit youth program for civic education), because he could win votes for sharing the same name as the current councilman. His campaign has since added a middle initial (R) to avoid confusion. Rivera said that had he run in District 16, he would have contested a historically black seat, which would have caused racial tensions among his clients.

Instead, he said he chose District 15 because he identifies with its 65 percent Latino population and is currently looking to move there. Rivera’s campaign has raised $42,000 from supporters and has a total of $65,000 on hand.

On the airwaves

Torres and Rivera indulged in a squabble in a recent debate on BronxTalk, each questioning the degree to which the other could identify with the district’s poor.

“The challenges are too serious to waste on nonsense,” says Torres. Most unions and public officials have endorsed him, he says, because he can speak seriously on the topics and has endured similar economic struggles. His platform features a plan to build middle-income jobs for youth while expanding vocational programs. He said he would also continue the work he did under Vacca to hold landlords accountable.

Most media coverage of the race has highlighted Torres, who stands out as the youngest candidate at 25 and as one of two openly gay candidates, along with Thompkins—a district first. Several candidates said that his media exposure shows favoritism.

Torres says both his youth and his identification with the LGBT movement have affected his agenda.

“I do worry about the wave of social conservatism in the Bronx,” he says. “I want to build a progressive infrastructure that supports the election of progressive officials and that counterbalances those forces.”

A range of policy proposals

Bauza, who opposes gay marriage, said on BronxTalk that his religious background would not interfere with policy decisions. His platform, which is the only one to feature health care and programs for those with special needs, is less well-publicized—he was absent from the debate at the Bronx Library Center on July 22—and attempts to reach him for comment were unsuccessful. He has about $44,000 to spend on the remainder of the race.

Though Thompkins, who has been a police officer and criminal defense lawyer, is the most vocal of the candidates on gay rights, her talking points center on police protection of civil liberties. Thompkins built most of her experience outside the Bronx, in Pennsylvania and Hawaii.

The rest of her platform falls under the tagline “poverty to prosperity.” She said that she offers a multifaceted approach, informed by citizens, but would specifically champion supporting small businesses and green businesses. Thompkins, with only $27,000 left in the bank, lags badly in the money race.

Batista is also running as an outsider. Her position as executive director of the Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights makes her better known outside the borough, but she does have experience with deportation law, citizenship services and language access programs in the Bronx.

“The campaign is always going to look different from a person who comes in from the outside, who has a grassroots perspective, that needs to build a camp from the ground up,” says Batista.

She stresses immigrant and women’s rights along with stronger public schools and healthy food—citing her background as a Dominican and as a mother who just gave birth a month ago —but her most developed proposal is in housing.

Batista, with $85,000 to spend, has several ideas: She said she would support organizations already doing housing work, hold landlords accountable for repairs and threats to tenants, design loans for smaller landlords and bring home rule to the city. Early in her career, she was an organizer with the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, which has a strong focus on housing organizing.

The Rivera factor(s)

Rivera also referred to his grassroots experience as a qualification. In response to each issue addressed in the BronxTalk debate, Rivera pointed to programs he led at his nonprofit. In the City Council, Rivera said he would work to increase funding for such projects, improve low graduation rates and teach civic engagement.

He also disagreed with Bauza’s separation of religious work and politics and said he would instead advance church causes such as renting school space. Long involved in politics and now serving as vice chair of the Bronx Democratic Committee, Rivera said that he would look to trim bureaucracy where he could.

Councilman Joel Rivera is backing Alvarez, his chief-of-staff. Alvarez said on BronxTalk that he supports what his boss has accomplished and would welcome community meetings to respond to residents’ concerns and demands. He said he would focus on the same list of progressive issues and would ensure that groups already advancing the Bronx would have the resources that they need.

These particular issues are not addressed on his website. Alvarez distinguished himself as the only lifelong resident of the district. He has only $15,000 to spend. Bronx Bureau was unable to reach him.