Councilman Fernando Cabrera sat in a circle of a dozen people in December 2013 parked on foldout chairs in a basement room of an apartment building on Morris Avenue in the Bronx. He leaned forward, part-preacher, part-grassroots political agitator, resting his elbows on his knees to free up his hands for talking.
He was facilitating a meeting of a brand-new political club, Community First Democrats, and talking about ways to encourage groups that don’t usually get Council funding to apply. Otherwise, the same organizations will just keep getting government money, Cabrera said, and the kind of participatory budgeting adopted in some Council districts would be no help in his own because the loudest voices would still be the ones to get heard. It’s simple, he said: “You’re not successful unless you have success.”
The timing of the talk about directing funding to unheralded organizations was curious: Cabrera had just made citywide headlines for allegedly demanding that the community benefits agreement for the Kingsbridge Armory redevelopment include a payment of $100,000 a year to a defunct non-profit with which he was associated— a claim he’s never denied. He withheld his support for the Armory deal, which was assembled after a two-decade saga to make new use of the vacant building, until the last minute.
It took until the early morning hours before the Council vote for Cabrera to fold under pressure from the Bronx delegation, sources say. He got a few concessions and was praised on the Council floor for getting the job done.
And then, instead of shrinking from public life, his political star began to rise. Late last year the NYPD launched an NYC Crime Map under a law Cabrera authored. In early 2014 he was named chairman of the Council’s juvenile justice committee. Then, late this spring came word that Cabrera would challenge State Sen. Gustavo Rivera—encouraged, according to published reports, by State Sen. Jeff Klein. Cabrera says that he would consider joining Klein’s Independent Democratic Conference.
It’s unclear if that candidacy will come to fruition: In a time-honored tradition of city politics, Cabrera’s petition signatures are under scrutiny, and he could be denied a place on the ballot if Rivera’s claims of fraud are substantiated in Bronx Supreme Court this afternoon.
But just a few months into the second of what could be three four-year terms in the Council, the pastor-politician does not need a victory to remain on the scene long after his Senate run. That means Bronx voters will get to see more of the peculiar combination of sensibilities—street-level politics mixed with Sunday sermons, thoughtful policymaking twinned with an unabashed tendency to blend official business with outside work—that was on display in the Morris Avenue basement.
Linked to Christian Right groups
Cabrera supported living-wage legislation and paid sick leave, has been a strong advocate for cameras in NYCHA developments and helped pass the ban on stop-and-frisk. But according to his sermons and statements, he is also staunchly opposed to gay marriage and abortion, and believes in prayer in public schools.
On the pulpit at his New Life Outreach International Church, which until recently was located on Morris Avenue in Norwood, he’s energetic but not warm and fuzzy. His church’s website recently advertised a sermon he’d give in June called “The End,” part of a series on the end times. Footage of his church’s missions includes an interview with a graying woman in a hunter’s hat welling up about being able to walk out of church without her cane.
In a YouTube video featuring the Alliance Defending Freedom logo at the end of an edited interview with Cabrera — in which he oddly claims that his job as pastor is harder than that of a Marine sergeant or a cop in an urban area — Cabrera makes it clear that he sees no problem with pushing a religious agenda in his role as an elected official.
“We lose the battle on the legislation level, in government, because we’re losing by default,” he says in the video, which seemed to be directed at clergy like himself. “We need to get our people to start running campaigns into these offices. We need to have a new generation of young people that are going to raise the banner for family values, for those things that have made our nation great and the values Alliance Defending Freedom has been fighting for.”
The values the Alliance Defending Freedom has been fighting for include a plan to “ultimately defund Planned Parenthood,” according to its web page. When it comes to gay rights, the website says redefining marriage is “ultimately part of a larger effort to redesign society,” to normalize homosexual behavior.
Cabrera is also associated with the American Family Association and The Family Research Council — speaking at a 2012 event organized by the two groups, the latter of which is considered a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center because of anti-gay speech from its leaders.
He got arrested in 2012 protesting a Bloomberg administration ban on religious institutions’ making use of public schools or public housing space after hours. Other leaders, like Mayor Bill de Blasio and Public Advocate Letitia James, also opposed that ban. Cabrera says his relationship with the Alliance Defending Freedom stems from the group’s support in that “right to worship” campaign.
‘Danger’ in stereotyping
Cabrera answered questions about his political identity between tightly scheduled morning services at the Kips Bay Boys and Girls Club on University Avenue the last Sunday in July. “I’ve been there for progressive issues that are social and fiscal. What happens in this business is people like to stereotype, and to brand people, and there’s dangers of that, because they only see one facet of you,” he said.
He’s running for office because, he says, “the community has asked for it. The public has put an outcry for me to run because they want leadership.”
He also boasts that he’s brought $40 million dollars into the district, that his constituents have “seen the change,” in the form of improvements to parks, security cameras and youth programs, and now wants to see him in Albany. He claims the incumbent, Rivera, hasn’t brought in a single dollar into the district, while other legislators have managed to despite the ban on member allocations in the State Senate.
He also says that the social issues he keeps getting asked about are not even up for votes in Albany now.
The roots of Cabrera’s challenge to Rivera lie in traditional Bronx politics. Rivera — still a favorite among progressives and enjoying some afterglow folk-hero status for taking out the now-convicted Pedro Espada Jr. in 2010— may have displeased Klein and Assemblyman Carl Heastie, leader of the Bronx Democrats, by not backing their candidates. Rivera supported Christine Quinn for mayor and James for Public Advocate instead of the Bronx organization’s choices, Bill Thompson and Daniel Squadron.
Rivera is also one of the few Democrats getting behind Oliver Koppell, who’s trying to unseat Klein in the State Senate. It’s possible that Klein allies encouraged Cabrera’s candidacy as a bargaining chip to get the State Democratic Committee to stick with Klein over Koppell.
Whatever the origins of their potential clash, Rivera says he’s taking Cabrera’s challenge seriously. But, he adds, “I know this is a district that believes in progressive ideas.”
Rivera notes there are gay couples among his constituents who are able to get married because of a law he helped pass and that the district’s 10458 ZIP code has one of the highest incidences of STD in the state. Cabrera, he says, opposes sex education in schools. Ensuring women’s reproductive health options and passing the 10-point women’s equality agenda are all on the table when the next legislative session begins in Albany, Rivera says.
Maintaining his religious roots
Cabrera says he moved from New York to Puerto Rico as a child and then to California when his twin brother was dying of asthma, where his brother was saved by the gentler air and Cabrera was saved by Jesus.
“It was on a retreat, and I had a life transforming moment that was more real than anything in my life,” he says.
After graduating from Liberty University, he became a protégé of Victor Torres, founder and pastor of New Life Outreach International, in Virginia. According to Cabrera’s resume, in 1986 he ran New Life for Youth, a rehab program founded by Torres.
Torres, Cabrera’s mentor, talks about being a Brooklyn gangbanger and drug addict before getting saved by the tough-love Teen Challenge program, which has been criticized for using coercive tactics and disguising the treatment as rehab. That program was started by David Wilkerson, the late pastor of the Times Square Church and Torres’s mentor.
Cabrera first ran for City Council in 2009 after being registered as in Westchester as a Republican until 2008, according to the Norwood News, and faced early allegations that he did not really live in the district. In 2009, he narrowly beat incumbent Maria Baez in the Democratic primary, and in the general ran on both Democrat and Working Families lines, winning with 7,526 of 8,593 total votes, according to the New York City Board of Elections. In 2013, he won back his seat with nearly 95 percent of the vote.
As he ascends the political ladder, Cabrera stays close to his religious lineage. Torres gave a guest sermon at Cabrera’s church as recently as last year — in fact, the day before the Armory vote. Cabrera still has unofficial ties to New Life for Youth, he says: “We send people from the streets who are asking for help.”
The same faces appear at the front of Cabrera’s church, in his office and on his campaigns. Anthony Springer, a church member and volunteer in his first campaign, now runs the Council office and was standing just outside the service on a recent Sunday, handling press in his white City Council collared shirt. Greg Faulkner, the longtime Community Board 7 chairman who is now Cabrera’s chief of staff, is also active in the church.
Until now, the toughest questions Cabrera has faced concerned not his ideology or theology, but whether he was obeying election and ethics rules.
Despite a photo spread published in the Norwood News to prove he lived in the Bronx back in 2009, he hasn’t bothered to remove a copy of his resumé from the website of Mercy College, where he teaches, listing both his City Council post and a Pelham address for a house that he still owns.
This summer, he got caught in the blatant foul of syphoning city Campaign Finance Board matching funds for his state Senate race. He will have to return $20,000 for what he calls a “misunderstanding.”
And it’s still unclear exactly what Community Action Unlimited—the organization to which he allegedly tried to direct Armory community benefits funding—is, except that it has to do with youth. The IRS doesn’t keep tax documents more than seven years, and the group’s status was revoked in May 2010.
A few weeks ago Cabrera’s church, located on 2757 Morris Ave. moved — temporarily, according to Cabrera — to a space more than a mile away, located inside Kips Bay Boys and Girls Club on University Avenue and right outside the district he’s running in. The councilman has directed $95,000 to Kips Bay Boys and Girls Club over the course of his career, including $10,000 in 2014. Cabrera says the church is paying $2,500 a month for the space. He says this helps Kips Bay, which is under financial strain, while also giving his parishioners a place to worship while the original location is demolished to be redeveloped as part of a joint venture with the adjoining property.
A different mission
As this story was being finalized, Cabrera’s petitions to get on the ballot against Rivera were being challenged for allegedly including 16 dead people. Whatever the outcome, it’s clear that Cabrera’s approach to petitioning was different from other candidates.
While most were scrambling to get the necessary 1,000* names in in mid-July, Cabrera was in Peru on a chiurch mission rather than door-knocking in the district from.
Cabrera later gave an interview to News 12 the Bronx, not about the election, but about the mission. Footage shows Cabrera pumping his fists as he helps a woman in dripping wet clothing emerge from a river in which she appears to have just been baptized, and then shows the Councilman baptizing another woman.
In an interview with CityLimits.org, Cabrera describes walking in a very muddy area where the river overflows and sometimes comes into people’s homes. A child who was 4 or 5, who had lost both his parents, was talking with one of Cabrera’s team members. Later on, when the child couldn’t find the man he had spoken to, the boy asked, “‘Where is the bald man who loves me?'” Cabrera recalls. “And at that moment, it’s amazing the impact that you can have.”
“I don’t stop living, I don’t stop being generous and contributing to society and this world because I have a race,” he says.
* Correction: An earlier version of the story said 5,000 signatures were needed to qualify.