Eight years ago Fernando Cabrera managed to knock off an incumbent City Councilmember whose claim to fame was a remarkably high rate of absence from the City Council. But Cabrera’s own absence was the storyline at a forum on Tuesday night at ended up showcasing two of the men seeking to oust him.
Members of the Northwest Bronx Community Clergy Coalition, which the forum ahead of the September 12 Democratic primary in the 14th district, say Cabrera initially agreed to attend the event if it were rescheduled to accommodate him, but after the date was shifted to meet that request, he pulled out.
The organizers briefly paid ironic tribute to him by displaying a framed photo of the Councilmember at his empty spot on the dais. Randy Abreu, a lawyer who recently served in the Obama administration, and Felix Perdomo, a school teacher, showed up in person. (Justin Sanchez, the fourth candidate in the race, who has left the Democratic contest but still plans to run on a third-party line, had a place set for him but also did not attend.)
In an email to City Limits*, Cabrera’s office said he cancelled his appearance because he learned that National Night Out events at the four precincts that cover parts of his district were taking place the same evening. Calling the Night Out “an important annual community safety event in which I have participated for a number of years,” Cabrera said in a statement, “I will participate in other future debates and look forward to presenting my record to you.”
Whatever his reasons for cancelling, Cabrera likely anticipated a tough crowd at an NWBCCC event. A one-time Republican who has espoused anti-gay views in the past, in 2013, he tried to stall the Kingsbridge Armory deal—where the Coalition had negotiated a pioneering community benefits agreement—to push to his own bid for a $100,000 payment to a defunct nonprofit associated with his church. In the ongoing fight between the Cabrera and State Sen. Gustavo Rivera for dominance, members of the nonpartisan Coalition are clearly more aligned with Rivera’s progressive vision.
Washington experience emphasized
Last night’s forum focused on affordable housing, renewable energy, bad landlords and perceived flaws in the city’s proposed Jerome Avenue rezoning, and Abreu was well suited to the format, his statements often greeted by cheers almost as soon as he started speaking. “I’m going to make it my mission during my first year in Council to make those slumlords’ lives a living hell,” he said in response to a question about property owners who escape punishment despite violating the housing code. “I don’t think they ever expected someone like me to be back in my community.”
Abreu, who grew up a few blocks from the forum site at Monroe College on Jerome Avenue, mentioned that decision to return from Washington to the neighborhood more than once. “Even though I had opportunities to move on and do something else, I wanted to come home. We only have a few years until this gentrification gets the best of us,” he said. “We need to make sure this economy works for us. We need a leader, a fighter, someone who knows what it’s like to grow up here.” Abreu highlighted his work for the Obama administration, although that experience was not extensive: He was a fellow at the Federal Communications Commission for five months and then with the Energy Department for six months last year.
Perdomo was more subdued, but made a more overt effort to distinguish himself from Abreu. He alluded several times during the forum to other candidates taking money from developers, but when prodded by the crowd or asked afterward to name which candidates had accepted such money, he refused to name names.
Cabrera has received some donations from real-estate interests. Almost half of Abreu’s money comes from outside New York City, but he does not appear to have received any significant donations from development figures.
The fact is, there is not a lot of money in the race: Cabrera reports $75,000 raised and Abreu nearly $49,000 and change. Perdomo has raised around $37,000 but most of that was in the form of a loan.
The rezoning and beyond
The Jerome Avenue rezoning—one of the neighborhood rezonings the de Blasio administration has proposed as part of its housing plan—covers a portion of the 14th district, although most of the proposal’s footprint lies in Councilmember Vanessa Gibson’s territory. It’s not entirely clear when the proposal will move through the city’s Uniform Land-Use Review Procedure but when it does, the Councilmembers in whose district it falls will have the biggest voices in the Council’s decision.
Abreu said of the rezoning: “I will stand and stop, call for the stop, of the Jerome Avenue plan right now at least until our community is engaged so that we are part of reshaping the Jerome rezoning, we are part of the process. I want to make sure there’s local hiring included in all of this this. I’ve already said I want to put the certificate of harassment in place because our landlords are up to no good. And let’s talk about it. We’ve got to put the ‘affordable’ back in affordable housing this is a joke.”
Perdomo also expressed deep doubts about the current plan. “I was there at the hearing and it was nothing. It was a set up. The city has to go back to the table with everybody in this community.” On the specific issue of local hiring for development generated by the rezoning, Perdomo indicated that a mandate to hire locally would only be part of the solution. “We have to do training of our workers for jobs. They have to have the skills so they can perform better,” he said.
Other issues that came up include:
- Civic engagement: Abreu, who noted the very low turnout in Bronx elections but hastened to add that “it’s not our fault ” said that election rules were a “state issue” but vowed to launch “community task forces” once he’s elected to get residents engaged in helping him address issues. Perdomo called for weekend voting and stressed the need for voter education: “As a Councilmember I will ensure that everybody has a right to know the functions of city government.”
- Tenant rights: Perdomo struck a similar theme on the topic of tenants’ rights, promising to circulate flyer to inform tenants of the tools they have against negligent or belligerent landlords. “Because a lot of people don’t know their rights in this community,” he said. “It’s hard when you don’t know your rights.” Abreu called for the implementation of the certificate of no harassment policy and also said he’d push for more housing attorneys in the area because right now, there aren’t enough, and “That means we’re playing defense. But we have to play offense, because they are up to no good.”
- Public housing: Abreu dismissed the notion that NYCHA lacks the money to do basic repairs and denounced the NextGen NYCHA plan to develop new housing on public-housing land. Instead, he wants that land used for community centers and training facilities. “We could grow the Bronx for the Bronx,” he said. “Let’s make sure community property is used for our community.” Perdomo suggested NYCHA divert money from its marketing budget to repair. “If we get the budget and go through it line by line, we can get the money,” he said.
- Schools: Abreu backed efforts to improve cultural awareness by teachers and within the state-approved curriculum. Perdomo called for schools that had been closed by the Bloomberg administration to be reopened.
- Healthcare: Neither candidate offered detailed ideas for how to solve the fiscal crisis gripping the city’s public hospitals, although both pledged to work hard to keep them open. Perdomo said New Yorkers needed to be made more aware of the public healthcare system so they use it and boost revenues. Abreu suggested a community-owned ambulatory care system, one of several points at which he advocated for local enterprises to address social needs.
- Energy: Abreu called for the use of “smart meters” to better regulate the use of boilers, and suggested Bronxites be employed in making and installing them.
- Small businesses: Perdomo called for the funding of lawyers to protect commercial tenants. Abreu said he wanted to chair the small business committee on the Council and called for passage of the Small Business Jobs Survival Act.
In 2009, Cabrera defeated incumbent Maria Baez, who often missed Council meetings because of medical issues. Cora Robertson, a local resident for 17 years, says Cabrera’s missing the meeting wouldn’t affect her vote—because he’s already lost it. “He is absentee. He is never where he is supposed to be or where he is needed so I wasn’t going to vote for him anyway.” At her troubled building on Grand Concourse, where some residents have been without gas for a year, Robertson says, “When we had out rent strikes and stuff, [Cabrera] never shows up.”
Of those candidates who did show up Tuesday night, Meshac Pimentel still had questions. “I felt that the candidates didn’t have much, I feel, research on what it is that can actually solve the issues. A lot of it sounds like old tactics being brought around again.”
Pimentel says the issue that concerns him most is mental health and homelessness. “I think it’s been somewhat ignored or not dealt with properly.”
Robertson says the rezoning is the biggest worry for her. The answers to the rezoning question were informative, she says, “but it’s not enough because we live in this neighborhood and we know what that rezoning is about.”
“They need to come out into the neighborhood and start asking us questions before they take it back to the board,” she said.
*City Limits received this statement on August 3 and updated the story.