Serious Questions Greet Speaker Candidates in Bronx

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Annabel Palma, James Vacca and Melissa Mark-Viverito are three speaker candidates whose districts include the Bronx.

Photo by: William Alatriste (Official NYC Council Photo)

Annabel Palma, James Vacca and Melissa Mark-Viverito are three speaker candidates whose districts include the Bronx.

The questions were serious. The candidates were eager. And the crowd was dense and vocal.

Crammed inside an auditorium at the New Settlement Community Center on Jerome Avenue in the Bronx last night, about 150 people gathered to watch six City Council speaker hopefuls vie for their support.

Though voters will not elect the Council speaker—who is chosen by the 51 members of the council—the crowd showed energetic, at times even disruptive enthusiasm.

The questions themselves had a distinctly Bronx flavor (three of the candidates have districts that at least include portions of the Bronx), and the forum marked a change in the political climate, with potential speakers competing for progressive credentials.

Each hopeful—Bronx councilmembers Jimmy Vacca and Anabella Palma, Queen’s Mark Weprin and Manhattan’s Melissa Mark-Viverito (who splits her district between East Harlem and Mott Haven) Dan Garodnick and Inez Dickens—was given one minute to discuss their viewpoints on issues including whether projects like Fresh Direct in the South Bronx should be a model for future development.

“We’ve got to tie any sort of investment in these development projects directly to community benefits,” Mark-Viverito said.

They were also asked how they would change the Community Board appointment process to prevent political payback by councilmembers when selecting and dumping members.

Those questions caused quite a stir in the audience, with some jeering at the words Fresh Direct and plenty of audience feedback on the issue of community boards.

“Those are presents for good people,” one heckler yelled. Mark-Viverito’s answer was repeatedly interrupted by a woman who disputed her claim, which was similar to answers provided by the rest of the candidates, that she does not engage in political retribution through community board appointments.

Nobody provided solid solutions for how to solve the problem, though Garodnick and Dickens discussed the use of a more neutral process involving screening panels in Manhattan.

Also especially relevant for the Bronx audience was a question on how panelists would prevent the large number of evictions that plague the borough and how they would deal with drug problems—also a major problem on the mainland—without criminalizing its victims.

When it came to the discretionary funding called “member items,” and whether the speaker should continue to dole them out, the panel was split. Vacca, Dickens and Palma did not support doing away with practice, while Mark-Viverito, Weprin and Garodnick all supported the change.
Weprin said new reforms—which have been embraced by a majority of councilmembers—would help restore the public’s faith in the system.

“When the public stops believing in their representatives, we’ve got a problem,” he said.

But Vacca got the loudest applause with his insistence that while some reforms are necessary, “If you’re a crook, you’re a crook!”

Each Bronx councilmember had a distinctive style.

Palma presented herself as a woman of the people, who has personally dealt with many of the same issues high on the agenda for Bronxites—family members of hers have fallen victim to gun violence and HIV. Vacca’s rousing oratory elicited more than one praiseful outburst from the crowd. And Mark-Viverito’s poise suggested that she have no trouble from a stylistic perspective with stepping into the role of speaker.

The forum was sponsored by BOOM Health, Bronx Defenders, Bronx Health Reach, CASA, Center for Popular Democracy, Community Voices Heard, La Fuente, New York Civic Engagement Table, Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, New Economy Project, New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, NYHRE, Sisters and Brothers United, Street Vendor Project, Sustainable South Bronx, Tenants PAC, Transportation Alternatives, TWU Local 100, Urban Youth Collaborative, and VOCAL-NY. Councilmembers Fernando Cabrera and Andy King, as well as City Council member-elect Ritchie Torres were also sponsors.

“I thought it was a really important night for the Bronx,” said moderator Gary Axelbank, who hosts BronxTalk on BronxNet television.

Axelbank, who has hosted many debates and forums in the borough, said he was encouraged by the showing and believed many of the attendees were average Bronxites who responded when he posted the event on neighborhood-oriented Facebook pages.

He said he had to scrap some of the more Bronx-specific questions that had been suggested because they were so local that councilmembers from other boroughs could not be expected to know much about them.

But the sense of energetic participation on the part of Bronxites was genuine, he said.

“It’s their perception that the council speaker position can have an effect,” Axelbank said.

After the event, Weprin noted the seriousness of the questions compared to the previous Speaker series event in Queens. “It was definitely a more vocal crowd,” he added.

Bronxite Camile Reese said she learned of the forum from a flyer in her senior center and came out to learn more about the political process. Resse noted that as somebody who is particularly concerned with youth issues, she was encouraged to find that “a lot of the people’s concerns are my concerns also.”

Axelbank said his one disappointment was there was little to no suggestion of new legislation. However, he said the forum was the greatest showing of democracy that Bronx has had yet, while noting that “there was a real irony” since Bronxites won’t vote the next speaker in.