Bill Samuels has pledged $250,000 to help get Gustavo Rivera elected, though he's only ever met the man for 30 seconds, total.
Samuels, a businessman whose family has political roots and founded the plastics company Kordite (think Hefty Trash Bags), is on a mission to get State Senator Pedro Espada, Jr., voted out of office. His group, called the New Roosevelt Initiative, is an independent expenditure campaign trying to reform Albany, they say-one bad politician at a time.
The first on their list is Pedro Espada. A leaflet the group hands out to passersby outside of subways and in parks in Espada’s 33rd District argues a laundry list of the Senate Majority Leader’s misdeeds: the Cuomo lawsuit against him, his history of snubbing renters’ rights, his role in the Senate coup last summer.
“The damage that's been done by this man is astounding,” Samuels said, while handing out fliers in Crotona Park on a recent afternoon. “It's corrupted the process. It's made people cynical. It's tied up the legislature.”
Getting Espada out means getting someone else in. So Samuels and his New Roosevelts are throwing their weight behind Rivera, an adjunct politics professor and former political aide who’s one of three candidates challenging Espada in the September primary.
The New Roosevelts (modeled and named after FDR) endorsed Rivera earlier this month, working as an independent campaign group. That means they aren't confined by contribution limits-though none of their money can go directly to Rivera, and they aren't allowed to coordinate with him or his campaign. Which is why Samuels' only contact with the man he's endorsed was when he ran into him once on his way out of an event.
The $250,000 the group’s set aside won’t go to Rivera directly. It’ll instead be spent to hire organizers to knock on doors, hand out leaflets and talk to voters in the 33rd District, pushing one central message: Don’t vote for Pedro.
In making its endorsement, Samuels said the group had narrowed its decision down to Rivera and community activist Desiree Pilgrim-Hunter, who was also running at the time. Rivera seemed more articulate, well liked, and to have an overall better chance of winning.
“I think he will be an immediate statewide figure,” Samuels said. “He's extremely bright, and he'll be a positive image for the district.”
He admitted that he doesn’t know much about the other two candidates, lawyer Daniel Padernacht and Community Board manager Fernando Tirado. Pilgrim-Hunter, citing lack of funds, dropped out of the race in June, a move Samuels called “courageous.” He’s urged Tirado and Padernacht to follow suit-the fewer candidates running, the better the chance Rivera will win-though they’ve both submitted petitions to get on the ballot.
Samuels dropped out of his own political race last month. He was vying for the role of Lieutenant Governor but decided to dedicate himself to the New Roosevelts instead; he could make more of an impact from the outside.
“I'd rather be out here,” he said.
“Here,” is a bridge at dusk in Crotona Park, where Samuels and a handful of others are handing out anti-Espada leaflets to passersby, stopping them to ask if they've registered to vote this fall.
“Have you heard of Pedro Espada?” He probes one group of young women.
To this, he gets a few resounding “No’s,” a few blank stares, and one woman who, recognizing Espada from the newspaper headlines, asks, “Doesn’t he live in Mamaroneck?”
Their first challenge, Samuels says, is to get voters in the Bronx familiar with the name Gustavo Rivera.
“I usually only vote in the big elections,” said resident Dorothy Matthews, as she walked away from Samuels, flier in hand. “I don’t know what this guy is about.”
Samuels and his team are confident they’ll change the minds of people like Matthews.
“The reaction has been incredible,” said Jesse Towsen, one of Samuels’ organizers. “I think opinion has really shifted. People brush us off, or are angry, until they realize we’re actually anti-Espada.”