In an election season where corruption is a background color, the 79th assembly district presents a particularly dark shade. Two of the past three representatives of the district—which covers Crotona, Tremont, Melrose and parts of Belmont and Morrisania—have been convicted on ethics charges.
Six people—the largest field in next Tuesday’s primary for any legislative seat in the Bronx—are seeking the Democratic nomination to replace Eric Stevenson, forced from office by a conviction earlier this year. Voters will choose among George Alvarez, Michael Blake, Lanita Jones, Marsha Michael, Frederick Ricks and Raul Rodriguez.
The primary race is notable for the amount of money that’s been raised and expended, mainly by Blake. The Obama administration veteran who has outspent Marsha Michael, the choice of the Bronx Democratic organization, by more than four to one.
It’s also interesting to hear how the hopefuls address the question framed by the district’s recent past: How can a candidate convince voters that he or she won’t be the next legislator to be led from power in handcuffs?
“They feel extremely disenfranchised,” Michael says of voters she’s spoken with. Because of this, when it comes to getting people out to vote this year, “You’re really fighting an uphill battle.”
Calls for education equity, term limits, and more
Neither Ricks, a comedian and actor (his credits include a small role in the 2000 remake of “Shaft”), nor Jones could be reached for an interview. Neither has filed any campaign finance disclosures with the New York State Board of Elections.
Alvarez, a political consultant, says high unemployment is the biggest problem in the district. Over the course of the race, he’s been shocked to see the extent of economic need in parts of the community he didn’t previously visit. “It surprising because I haven’t been exposed to all the poverty in the district,” he says. “Every time you knock on doors in the projects, you wish to have the power of God to change things. It’s sad.”
A resident of the area for 15 years, Alvarez stresses the need for education equity—more funding, greater teacher training and intensified teacher accountability in the area’s schools. “The money’s not coming here because we are the poorest district,” he contends. “The money is flowing by ZIP code.”
Alvarez, who has raised $41,000 for the race, says most of his policy platform won’t emerge until after he is elected. “The first thing I’ll do as an elected official is an assessment. That’s the bottom line of my plan,” he contends. “We need to understand what is happening.”
Rodriguez, a parent coordinator at a public middle school, has raised only $4,400 but touts his endorsement by District Council 37 Local 372, of which he is a member. (Local 372 did not return a phone call seeking comment on their pick). He also stresses the fact that he was born and raised in the community, and argues that his familiarity with its problems lead him to take a bottom-up approach to finding new policy answers.
“We’ve been having the same issues about public safety, housing, jobs, education—we’ve been facing the same issues for 45 years,” Rodriguez says. “We’re asking them, how do we fix it?” he adds, referring to voters. “We don’t tell them.” What he’s heard is that residents “want to get back to the basics” when it comes to dealing with crime, like re-establishing tenant patrols. But the new spin on that old idea is that the patrols would have to involve not just older adults, but youth as well.
Rodriguez rejects the push for a $10-an-hour statewide minimum wage as inadequate. The only way to true living wages, he says, is through organized labor. And the way to strengthen unions is by stopping the practice of outsourcing public work. Rodriquez also supports term limits for state legislators.
Lessons from Obama
Blake was born in the Bronx and attended DeWitt Clinton High School before going to Northwestern University. He joined President Obama’s 2008 campaign, then worked as an outreach official at the White House, before helping lead the get-out-the-vote effort for the Obama re-election campaign.
Now a candidate for the first time, Blake is on the ballot in the 79th after beating back a court challenge to his residency. But rivals still seize on his DC credentials and prodigious fundraising—only about a fifth of his $231,000 in contributions came from donors in New York State—as indications that he’s an outsider hunting for a political launch-pad.
Blake dismisses that idea. His outside work and connections, he says, “actually should excite people that there’s someone who has a national network who can help them.”
1199 SEIU, the Progressive Power Coalition of New York Communities of Change, Make The Road, VOCAL-NY Action Fund and the New York League of Conservation Voters are among the groups who believe Blake can help them and have endorsed him.
Jobs are the top concern Blake hears about from voters, and he points to his post-White House work on Green for All, a national project promoting green jobs for communities of color—noting that the issue isn’t just getting someone a job, but making sure it’s a post that offers decent wages and a chance to advance.
Public safety also worries people, he says. “There are continuing concerns on gun violence,” including a recent uptick in shootings that Blake says can’t be blamed on the reduction of stop-and-frisk or any other single factor. While Blake believes improved police-community relations are critical, he emphasizes economic development and education rather than law enforcement as the answer to the crime problem: “You pick up a check, you pick up a book, you probably don’t pick up a gun,” he says.
None of those concerns—jobs, crime, schools—are new, and none have totally escaped the attention of state and local government in the past, Blake acknowledges. A legislator’s duty is as much about steering existing resources to the district and making sure people there have a way to access them as it is about creating new programs, he says.
It’s also, he says, about implementing some of the lessons he learned from working in the White House as Obama’s presidency gave way to the realities of partisan conflict and tactical mistakes. One: “You have to keep building coalitions.” Another: “Make sure you tell the story of how your policies are actually helping.”
Less money, but more troops?
The last time there was a primary in the 79th district—in 2006, similar to this year in that there was an uncompetitive gubernatorial race at the top of the ticket— only 5,600 voters turned out. With six names on the ballot this year, the winner could conceivably prevail with fewer than 2,000 votes. Whether turnout this year will match or exceed what was seen eight years ago is one of the unknowns as Primary Day approaches.
(The primary winner will face Republican/Conservative Selsia Evans in the November general election; Michael is also on the November ballot on the Working Families line).
If organizational support makes a difference in such a race, it will favor Michael, a lawyer who clerks for a criminal court judge. She touts the backing of Public Advocate Letitia James, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr., 32BJ, DC37, the New York State AFL-CIO, Teamsters and Transit Workers, as well as the Bronx Democratic organization.
Michael says voters’ concerns aren’t just about the corruption conviction that vacated the 79th district seat; there’s also a sense that the office wasn’t very visible in the past. Her first order of business, she says, will be to have a presence in the district that voters feel.
“You have to rebuild confidence,” she says. Then you can go about making sure you have a seat at the table when, say, jobs are discussed.”
Getting a fair share of jobs and school funding are top priorities, but Michael speaks most forcefully about the need to provide more assistance to people facing eviction. Most tenants, she notes, “have no resources to help them with that beast, housing court.” She adds: “That whole model has to change.”
Were it not for Blake’s presence in the race, Michael’s $67,000 in fundraising would be a hefty haul for an assembly campaign. Among her biggest donors is the Correction Officers Benevolent Association—the target of much criticism in the wake of news reports and federal investigations concerning brutality in city jails.
Asked whether she’s comfortable with COBA’s support given the bad press the union has received, Michael says she’s “not families with what role [COBA] played” in the issues on Rikers Island.
“Being a court attorney on the criminal side, there’s room for a lot of reform,” she adds.
A question of trust
Much of campaign 2014 is playing out in the shadow of scandal. Elsewhere in the city, two state senators are seeking re-election while under indictment, while candidates vie for the seat vacated by the convicted William Boyland, Jr., as Gov. Andrew Cuomo fends off questions about whether his shut-down of the Moreland Commission—launched to enforce ethics rules—was itself unethical.
But the 79th Assembly district has a longer history of trouble. One-time Assemblywoman Gloria Davis resigned in 2003 when she was convicted of bribery after more than two decades in the 79th district seat. Stevenson was elected in 2010 but forced from office after his own corruption conviction. (Between those two reps, Michael Benjamin held the seat. An iconoclast with no ethical taint, he left voluntarily and now blogs at a site called corruptioncrusher.com.)
Against such history, candidates must address how they’ll avoid the ethical pitfalls that tripped up Davis and Stevenson.
Alvarez points to the independence he enjoys as a dark-horse candidate with only a few grand in the bank. What’s more, he says, “Before I give an explanation to the police, I’d have to give it to my family. And I’m more afraid of my family than the police. I have kids and the legacy I don’t want to leave them is that their father went to jail for corruption.”
Rodriguez sounds a similar note. “I have four daughters and a wife. So I have five women in my life. I will not embarrass them.
For Blake, the troubles the district has suffered are the rationale for running. “When you look at what has happened here, where two of the last three were kicked out for corruption, where you have incredibly low turnout, why would I not do this?”
As for Michael, when a voter raises the tainted history of the seat , she says the first step is to “acknowledge what they feel.”
“Then you try to show them how you will be different.” Key to this, she says, is “feeling the same pain that they do.” Reassurances aside, Michael notes that in the end, “there has to be some level of trust.”
After all, someone must fill the seat. Voters will end up giving someone a chance.