After 35 years in office, the Foster Dynasty will come to an end in 2013. Eight candidates are vying to succeed Councilmember Helen Foster, who has been in office since 2002 and faces term limits, to represent her district covering Claremont, Morrisania, East Concourse, Morris Heights, Highbridge and Melrose. Wendell Foster, Helen’s father, held the same 16th district seat from 1978 through 2001.
Assemblymember Vanessa Gibson is seen as the frontrunner because of her political experience, numerous endorsements–which include both of the Fosters–and campaign finance edge. She has raised $78,774, which is over $42,000 more than any other candidate.
“You have to have someone who understands how this process works,” Gibson tells the Bronx Bureau. “There is not a time for on-the-job training. There is too much at stake.”
While Gibson would have never faced term limits in the state Assembly, she said she decided to leave that post because she feels she could make a greater impact on her community in the City Council. If elected, Gibson will be representing many of the same constituents, as 60 percent of the 77th District is included in District 16.
“I want to take advantage of more opportunities for engagement and more funding for my constituents,” she says
Questions about a dynasty
Given Gibson’s endorsements from both Fosters, many candidates have expressed concerns that electing her would be no different than electing another Foster.
“It’s been the same family controlling politics. They are supporting Vanessa Gibson so it is basically the same,” says candidate Carlos Sierra, president of the Education Council for the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). “This community needs change and this is the time.”
Some of the concerns about continuing influence by the Foster family have to do with how the incumbent used her discretionary funding. Naaimat Muhammed,, a former staffer for Helen Foster who is now running for the seat, says: “Whoever [Helen] mentors will follow the same page. We can’t keep funding the same programs and have the same relationships. We need the money pot to be spread to more people so they can capitalize on opportunities.”
Muhammed says she wants to focus on evaluating the long-standing programs in the district.
“We need to have measurement tools to identify whether or not these programs are benefitting the district,” she adds. “The district and the dynamic are changing and with that we will need new programs to address the needs our community. We need to make sure the older organizations, which have been funded for many years, are functioning well and we can learn from these programs to better fund new ones.”
Muhammed served as a community outreach liaison for Helen Foster for three years. However, this past January, she was fired from her position, which she believes was a result of her decision to run for office.
“Vanessa’s announcement to run for the seat came around the same time as I was fired,” she says. “I knew I would have to resign, but I was not expecting to be fired. I have a right to run for office if I feel that it is a natural progression in my career.”
Muhammed’s campaign, however, was almost ended when she was disqualified from the ballot by the Board of Elections due to an error on the cover sheet of her petition. However, she recently won an appeal to be put back on.
Foster’s campaign did not return numerous calls seeking comment.
While Gibson says she is grateful to have the Foster’s support, she adds she wants to be judged on her own work.
“My last name is not Foster,” she says. “All I can tell residents is to look at the work that I have done. I want people to look at me for who I am.”
In her four years in office, Gibson sponsored 70 pieces of legislation . Her two biggest accomplishments, in her opinion, were a bill that increased Primary Care Development Corporation’s (PCDC) finances so they could support more health centers, and securing funding for the construction of the New Settlement Community Campus, which will have room for 1,100 students from pre-K to 12 grade.
Gibson is one of five candidates in the district race to receive public matching funds from the New York City campaign finance board, where her list of donors reads like a roster of the political establishment, starting with maximum contributions from SEIU 1199, the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, Speaker hopefuls Daniel Garodnick and James Vacca and the United Federation of Teachers. She’s also received money from the real-estate PAC Taxpayers for an Affordable New York. And she’s one of the 17 candidates getting backing from Jobs for New York, a PAC backed by the real-estate lobby and construction unions; the $124,000 spent in support of Gibson is the second most Jobs for New York has spent on a candidate.
District 16 encompasses large swathes of three Bronx community boards, all of which have majority Latino populations with poverty rates above 40 percent. The district is one of the poorest in the city. In interviews with the candidates, the three issues that they identified as most pressing were affordable housing, economic development and education.
Housing seen as out of reach
In a district plagued by some of the highest median rent burdens in the city, all of the candidates that were interviewed raised concerns about housing.
“61 percent of families in my district are rent burdened,” says candidate Naaimat Muhammed, Carlos Sierra , Daryl Johnson, president of the Morris Avenue Tenants Coalition. “They are faced with decisions every month between buying food and paying the rent. It’s a crisis. It’s something that needed to be addressed yesterday.”
Johnson says one of his top concerns is providing additional housing support resources. As a result, his campaign has created the Bronx Citizens Affordable Housing Resource Center to help residents with issues ranging from looking for an affordable apartment to addressing maintenance problems.
Another candidate, Carlton Berkley, co-founder of Brothers and Sisters Who Care, says that the use of Area Median Income in determining eligibility for affordable housing is unfair.
“The Area Median Income is based on the entire metro region so it doesn’t take into consideration the true minority incomes,” he says. “Affordable housing should be determined by the person’s income.”
For her part, Gibson says there’s a need to find housing for many different types of residents.
“There will always be a need for housing,” she says. “We need housing for seniors, we need housing for the youth who are aging out for the foster care system, for homeless families, for victims of domestic violence and for disabled veterans.”
A role for experts
With the district’s unemployment rate above 19 percent and the majority of the households making less than $18,689, candidates agree that economic development must be addressed.
One of the hopefuls, Pedro Alvarez, a tax preparer, says giving small businesses access to credit would create more jobs in the community. He says he has developed a close relationship with small businesses through his tax work.
“Small businesses comprise 95 percent of the business in the neighborhood,” he contends. “They don’t have a system of funding. Giving them access to funding will open up more jobs for the people.”
Berkley also recognizes the value of small businesses and wants to address the culture of excessive fining.
“Small businesses are unfairly targeted with fines and most of them don’t understand what they did wrong,” he says. “I will sit down with [small business owners] to find out what is really going on and then I will bring in people to rectify the situation.”
Berkley stresses the importance of surrounding himself with economic experts, as he does not have a specific economic development plan.
“Once I get in office, I will surround myself with economic experts and we will come up with a plan and implement it,” he says. “I’m not an expert in every field so I will always have my door open to listen.”
Goals for schools
District 16 also has the lowest percentage of students performing at grade level in both reading and math. Sierra believes Mayor Bloomberg’s strategy of closing public schools is only making the situation worse. Rather, he supports building more schools and improving the current ones.
“Anyone that is not doing what they are supposed to be doing should not be in our schools,” he says. “I know what it means to not have access to a good, sound education. I represent one of the success stories of the district. I dropped out of high school, but I eventually went back to school and got my bachelors and now I’m in the community giving back.”
Alvarez, who has served as the chairman of the Board of Trustees at the Family Life Charter School for the past 14 years, says everyone must be accountable and responsible to improve education. Last year, the school received a 96 percent on its progress report.
“We leave everything to the system to educate our children and that’s not fair,” he says. At the same time, he believes school reform can have a broad reach. “By improving the education system, we are going to change the rest of the situation in the district.”
One area where he sees a lot of room for improvement is with students who are learning English as their second language. “We need a system that can address the issues that second-language learners have,” he says. “We have many children that come from other countries and speak a different language (than English) at home.”
An unorthodox candidate
Walter Newsome, the founder of “The Bronx Sharks,” a basketball mentoring organization, is also running, but has taken an unconventional approach. Newsome will not call himself a politician. He does not seek political endorsements. He does not even attend the political debates.
“I’m not playing politics because I am out here helping people,” he says. “These politicians see our community and how it is deteriorating, but they will boast on stats and say things are getting better. But, what the voters need to do is seize the opportunity to take control of the community.”
Thus, his platform focuses on social responsibly.
“We have to act for the betterment of the entire community in lieu of acting to the betterment of yourself,” he says. “We have to work together to ensure we have a New Bronx.”
While Newsome is not currently on the ballot for the primary due to errors with his cover sheets, he has filed an appeal and believes he will be put back on. Bronx Bureau was unable to reach the final candidate, Bola Omotosho, for comment