Pedro Espada (left) addresses the New York State Senate. His challenger Gustavo Rivera (right) speaks at a press conference.

Photo by: Jon Reznick/New York State Senate

Pedro Espada (left) addresses the New York State Senate. His challenger Gustavo Rivera (right) speaks at a press conference.

Gustavo Rivera grinned wide as the Reverend Al Sharpton concluded a press conference endorsing him earlier this month. Sitting side-by-side in a conference room on the 14th floor of the talk radio station where Sharpton hosts a show, WWRL, Sharpton praised Rivera, digging up stories that bestowed vintage and legitimacy upon the 30-something candidate for a state Senate seat in the north central Bronx. He linked Rivera to President Obama. “I remember in 2004 when I ran for president and we wanted to reform the Democratic Party and we wanted to change the party leadership. Gustavo was part of the young people that worked the floor to bring about new leadership. That led to new leadership at the next cycle, with Barack Obama taking over the party and becoming eventually the President of the United States,” Sharpton said.

Rivera’s political connections and loyalty to the Democratic Party are one of the central themes of his campaign, perhaps because many consider the incumbent he is challenging the antithesis of that. Democratic State Senator Pedro Espada, the 33rd district’s incumbent, briefly defected to the Republican Party in June 2009, helping to temporarily shift the Senate’s balance of power to Republican control. In addition, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo filed a lawsuit against Espada in April, accusing him and his aides and family members of looting $14 million from the chain of health clinics that he launched.

Espada’s political misfortune and Rivera’s strategy of branding himself as a loyal and well-connected Democrat have helped Rivera marshal substantial support. “It was a disgraceful ploy for political power,” Rivera said of Espada’s party switch. “It was not about the community. It was not about getting better resources for the community he represents. It was about him getting political power and that’s what his actions demonstrate.”

Yet despite the coalescence of an anti-Espada movement around Rivera, Rivera says the race is not just about dislodging Espada. He says it’s about bringing to the community much needed resources such as jobs and housing. “It is real easy to say anybody but Espada, but I believe that our standards have to be much higher than that,” he said. “The point of all this work was to make sure we have people in office who would actually be responsive to the people they represent.”

Espada did not respond to multiple requests for an interview. But on the Brian Lehrer Show, he said the allegations against him have been designed to punish him for switching parties and only serve to distraction attention from the community’s needs. “The day has come where we have to have a balanced conversation about what kind of policies we’re going to set forth in housing and many other areas,” Espada told Lehrer. “We’re at a point in time where you can play political games and get nowhere or you can deal with substance and really good policies and actually uplift our economy and actually uplift the daily lives of people. That’s what I’m about.”