Is the Bronx as Progressive as De Blasio Says?

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New Bronx Councilmember Ritchie Torres embraces Melissa Mark-Viverito, whose district lies mostly in the Bronx, after her election as speaker. They are the only members of the Progressive Caucus with districts that cover Bronx territory.

Photo by: William Alatriste (Official NYC Council Photo)

New Bronx Councilmember Ritchie Torres embraces Melissa Mark-Viverito, whose district lies mostly in the Bronx, after her election as speaker. They are the only members of the Progressive Caucus with districts that cover Bronx territory.

Speaking at the Bronx Centennial kickoff event at Borough Hall on January 9, Mayor Bill de Blasio first established his street cred with a hand gesture meaning “stay Bronx strong” and a reference to knocking on doors in the Mill Brook Houses in Mott Haven.

Then he said “… the Bronx is synonymous to me — and Mr. President, I will not be political, I would never do that — but the Bronx is synonymous to me with progressive values,” inviting the audience to “clap for that.”

And clap the more than 350-person audience did. But while “progressive” has become the mayor’s buzzword, its application to Bronx politics is uneven at best—a fact that may complicate the mayor’s ability to execute his agenda, once the clapping stops.

Split over the speaker

Of course, near de Blasio sat the noted progressive and newly elected Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who now has a majority Bronx district after rezoning. Her election as the second most powerful person in the city has created what the Progressive Caucus hopes will be a power block that can work alongside de Blasio to push a more left-wing agenda.

But she won with no help from the Bronx delegation, which with one exception supported her opponent, Dan Garodnick, up until the final moments.

The openly gay, 25-year-old Ritchie Torres, who won in a crowded race for the 15th district, was Mark-Viverito’ sole supporter — and it has cost him some political capital, at least temporarily, with his Bronx colleagues. The backlash is due in part to the fact that Torres worked as chief-of-staff for Councilman Jimmy Vacca and enjoyed his generous support in a crowded race, yet did not support Vacca’s bid for speaker.

Also on the stage as de Blasio spoke was Councilman Fernando Cabrera, who switched party affiliation from Republican to Democrat before he ran for office in 2009. Cabrera, who is also a pastor, was listed as a featured participant on a flyer for a more than month-long rally and prayer session outside a Bronx abortion clinic in February 2012.

Most recently, he made news when he opposed until the last minute a proposal to develop the Kingsbridge Armory—despite the project including a community benefits agreement championed by progressives nationwide—after the deal failed to pay millions of dollars to a defunct organization associated with Cabrera’s church (he also cited concerns about traffic).

Greg Faulkner, Cabrera’s chief of staff, says the councilman’s positions have always lined up with a progressive agenda. He supported legislation reigning in the NYPD’s use of stop and frisk, Faulkner says, supported paid sick leave, helped organize for the living wage bill and has been fighting for a tenant bill of rights.

“He’s been supportive of a lot of the key progressive legislation,” Faulkner says.

It’s true that the Bronx delegation was instrumental in pushing living wage legislation two years ago after a fight erupted in 2009 over turning the Kingsbridge Armory into a mall with huge public subsidies and no wage requirements— a Bloomberg-supported plan the Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. pushed back against.

But it’s also true that the Bronx is home to policies that have rankled de Blasio and other progressives, including an approximately $130 million subsidy to Fresh Direct to move its warehouse to the borough.

Albany record is mixed

And the Bronx is also home to not one, but two senate Democrats who formed alliances with Republicans after being elected.

While a state senator, the now-convicted Pedro Espada Jr. became a Republican and then leveraged his defection to become senate Democrat leader, using his power to block key progressive housing legislation while pocketing significant contributions from real estate interests.

State Sen. Jeff Klein, whose district includes parts of the Bronx and Westchester, formed the Independent Democratic Conference, a group of breakaway democrats, in 2011. He is now co-president of the Senate in a power-sharing agreement with Republicans.

Last year, he was instrumental in pushing through legislation approving gay marriage and increasing gun control, but also blocked a vote on a campaign finance reform package championed by state Democrats and good government groups.

The IDC also introduced legislation to compete with a package of 10-point women’s rights package championed by Gov. Cuomo and which omitted abortion legislation that would bring New York State into alignment with Roe v. Wade. Klein then introduced the abortion legislation as a hostile amendment to another bill, and another Bronx Democrat—the vocally anti-abortion State Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr.—cast one of two Democratic votes against the measure, which lost by a single vote.

Klein failed to bring a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing to the Senate floor and the Environmental Advocates of New York gave him the “oil slick” award last year for what they called “lack of commitment to public health and environmental protection.”

In an interview, State Sen. Gustavo Rivera defined progressive as “changing policy to better address the needs that are the less fortunate” and criticized the Klein-backed minimum wage deal because it phases in an increase to a non-indexed $9 per hour over three years, has no cost of living adjustment, does not include tipped workers and gives an incentive to companies that hire young people at minimum wage.

But Eric Soufer, a spokesman for Klein, wrote in an email that Klein has a “record any Democrat would be proud to have.” He pointed specifically to gun control legislation, the hike in the minimum hourly wage to $9 (which he said is exactly what President Barack Obama called for in his 2013 State of the Union address) and to extending low middle class tax rates and incentivizing hiring of unemployed veterans.

The IDC’s “Affordable NY” plan, which includes an investment $750 million in middle income housing, paid family sick leave and an increase in day care subsidies, has been endorsed the AFL-CIO and RWDSU, he noted. Klein has also said he’ll back de Blasio’s plan to tax high-earning New Yorkers to pay for early childhood education and middle-grade after-school programs.

Bronx voters: The blue, the few

But perhaps de Blasio, was talking more about the Bronx electorate than its politicians when he used the p-word.

“When you look year after year in this city, where some of the most powerful progressive voices come from it’s the Bronx,” the mayor said. “You happen to peruse election results as some of us have been known to do from time to time, you look at the extraordinary message you get from the Bronx in terms of the kind of values that we need to make this city more fair and equitable for all. The Bronx sends that message regularly, and it’s unmistaken.”

The Bronx is no-doubt solidly Democratic. In the presidential election in 2012, 91.2 percent of Bronxites who voted cast ballots for Obama — giving the president a higher percentage than any other county in the country. The Bronx led the country in leaning Democratic in 2000 also. That year, 86.3 percent voted for Gore.

According to a NY 1 story, the Republican Party (whose Bronx chairman was admitted to accepting a bribe for his help rigging the mayoral primary process) only has 6 percent of Bronx voters.

But most-Democratic doesn’t necessarily mean most liberal. The Bronx Democratic Party, along with Queens and Brooklyn , only backed de Blasio after Bill Thompson, who they first endorsed, conceded.

Apart from being blue, the real unmistakable message the Bronx sends year after year is a muted one. Historically, the borough has the worst voter turnout of any borough in the city, which has an abysmal rate overall.

According to Torres, if there’s one reason the “natural marriage” between progressivism and the Bronx has never been fully consummated, it’s how few people come out to vote. While Torres assigns some of the blame to the county organization, he also attributes the low turnout to a “combination of political disengagement and socioeconomic disenchantment.”

Corruption, and its aftermath

Some of that disenchantment could be a reaction to headlines that frequently proclaim some of the borough’s politicians as corrupt. Before Espada took office only to lose it amid criminal charges, his seat was held by Efrain Gonzalez, who was also convicted of corruption. Last year, Bronx City Councilman Larry Seabrook was sentenced to five years for misappropriating funds. A decade ago, Klein’s predecessor Guy Vellela pleaded guilty to a bribery charge and was jailed.

Part of Torres’ district was represented by former Assemblyman Eric Stevenson and another part by former Assemblyman Nelson Castro. Stevenson was just found guilty of taking envelopes filled with cash from an adult home developer. Castro was representing his district while spying on his colleagues, after being secretly found guilty of perjury in 2009.

It’s true that these corruption scandals can pave the way for more progressive officials. The backlash from the Espada days resulted in the election of the much- more-progressive Rivera, who notes that when progressives do find their way onto the Bronx ballot, they often win. And Torres’ election coupled with Mark-Viverito’s speakership will amplify two distinctly progressive Bronx voices.

Progressives, yes. Power, maybe.

But Bronx progressives may not have the mandate that de Blasio would have us believe. Mark-Viverito won the primary with a mere 35.2 percent of the vote in her Bronx/East Harlem district (though her seat was redistricted, turning District 10 into a majority Bronx bloc) and Torres had 36.1 percent against a crowded field. (Incidentally, Cabrera, Vacca and Torres were this week each handed leadership positions by the new speaker.)

Meanwhile, the Bronx has only two members in the Progressive Caucus (although membership in the group may not perfectly align with what most people think of as progressive; according to a New York Times article, progressive caucus member Councilman Jumaane Williams is against both gay marriage and abortion).

Still with de Blasio as mayor, Letitia James as Public Advocate and Mark-Viverito as Speaker, Bronx progressives have reason to be more hopeful than they’ve been — though they may want to hold their applause.

“I see a natural marriage between the Bronx and the progressive caucus because … the agenda of the progressive caucus would have the greatest impact in the Bronx.” Torres said.

Rivera is cautiously optimistic.

“I think it’s moving in the right direction,” he said.