Jarrett Murphy

State Sen. Ruben Diaz, Sr., meets with student reporters on July 20.

Ruben Diaz, Sr. is aiming to return to his roots on Primary Day, hoping to win the District 18 Council seat he gave up in 2003 when elected to the State Senate. But Diaz, an ordained minister, indicated in a recent interview that he now has a different take on how his personal views intersect with his public role.

Diaz, whose son is the Bronx borough president, founded and leads the Christian Community Neighborhood Church on Longfellow Avenue and the New York Hispanic Clergy Organization, which is comprised of 150 local evangelical ministers. He was nearly forced from the city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board years ago for suggesting that the Gay Games would encourage homosexuality and spread HIV and left soon after that incident*. In 2003, he sued the city to shut down a high school for gay and transgender students. More recently, he led vigils against gay marriage. His lesbian granddaughter has led counter-protests to his own.

Interviewed by student reporters from City Limits and the College Now program at Lehman College on July 20, Diaz was asked about his positions on abortion rights and gay marriage, and how his religious beliefs affected his approach to public policy. He answered:

I am a pastor. I am a preacher. I am a minister. I am an elected official. … I am the church. I am the state. Separation and church and state? I cannot separate myself from myself. Because I am the state and I am the church. So when you say separate the church and the state, I cannot do that. Gay marriage is a law. The Supreme Court decided that gay marriage was the law of the nation. The Supreme Court decided that abortion was the law of the nation. So those two issues the City Council has nothing to do with them anymore. The only one can do that is the Supreme Court. The City Council, the state, can do nothing about those issues. … The law of the nation have to be respected. If you don’t like it — I don’t like — it has to be respected. But it doesn’t mean I am for it. No I’m not. I’m not.

Diaz was asked how LGBT people in his district should feel about his positions. “Ask anybody — gay, straight, black, Hispanic, tall, short—go ask anybody who’s come to my office and has not been treated with respect. One thing has nothing to do with the other,” he said. Diaz noted that his lawyer is gay, and that he socializes with him and his partner. “You don’t believe in this, you don’t believe in that, but you respect the people. And you provide the service you are supposed to provide and you make sure they get the same service as everyone else.”

Dorothee Benz, chief communications officer at Lambda Legal, a non-profit organization advocating of the LGBTQ community, disputes the notion that a Councilmember’s views on that community were irrelevant to policy decisions likely to arise at City Hall.

“City Councilmembers have an active and important role to play in ensuring the civil rights of LGBTQ people – and all people – are respected and enforced and the needs of our communities are addressed by the city,” she says. “From emergency shelter beds for LGBTQ youth to funding for the HIV/AIDS Services Administration to the NYPD’s response to hate crimes and countless other ways that city government daily shapes the lives of New Yorkers, our elected representatives make decisions that impact the lives of queer and trans people.”

Hear the interview with Sen. Diaz
A big ballot

Diaz is one of a crowded field in the September 12 primary seeking to succeed the term-limited Annabel Palma, whose district covers Soundview, Castle Hill, Parkchester, Clason Point and Harding Park. Michael Beltzer, Amanda Farias, Elvin Garcia and William Moore also petitioned to run (the Board of Election finalizes the ballot this week). Republican, Conservative and Green party members have petitioned for the general-election race.

Beltzer, a member of Community Board 9, and Garcia, until recently the mayor’s liaison to the Bronx, expressed several of the same views when they met with the student reporters. They both support introducing participatory budgeting into the district. They both support the Small Business Jobs Survival Act.

And each has a backstory they say shapes their desire for public service.

In Beltzer’s deeper background is struggle with drug addiction—his own, and his parents’—as well as a stint without a home. More recently, he’s worked in the comptroller’s office and as a merchant representative for the Bronx Chamber of Commerce, served on the community board and precinct council, been a Friend of Soundview Park and helped to restore an orchestra program at his daughter’s school. It’s work that helped him develop connections.

But he also learned about tradeoffs. The money that was shifted to restore the orchestra program, “That money had to come from somewhere. Schools are often forced to make those decisions of resource allocation.” So schools move money around, or depend on grants. “I don’t like that because its like a smorgasbord. I don’t always know what she’s getting. As a parent it’s frustrating. The fact that they don’t get real gym classes is problematic.”

Elvin Garcia

Garcia says his time in the mayor’s office was good training for life as an elected representative. “I had this Blackberry that would buzz every 10 minutes,” he said. “The emails I would get would be insane. I would report to the JFK gas explosion at midnight. That press conference, I was there with the mayor. I was there with the mayor when we had the ebola and Legionnaires issues. I’ve been on 24/7. I already know what it feels like to work at the pace of New York City government.”

But Garcia says he has also been formed by his earlier experience, as an English Language Learner who made it to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. “I got this amazing scholarship, the Higher Education Opportunities Scholarship, that unfortunately was phased our while I was an undergrad. So, here I was, a kid from the Bronx, of modest means, at a top tier university learning at that age that opportunities are not guaranteed and you have to fight for them every day. And those who you think are fighting for them are sometimes the ones closing the door.

Farias could not attend the youth journalism interview because of a conflict, and Moore did not respond to our invitation. A former Council aide heavily involved with the Women’s Caucus and participatory budgeting, Farias has characterized her candidacy as a grassroots challenge to the Bronx establishment. Moore, an aide to several city officials in the past, challenged Palma in the 2013 primary and lost with about 30 percent of the vote.

Hear the interview with Michael Beltzer
Different takes on crime

Beltzer opposes the NextGeneration NYCHA plan to lease land to private developers (“It’s really just selling off public land for private good without getting enough back”) and he is an advocate for comprehensive community planning. “If the City Councilperson is just going and dealing with one block and lot—one development—at a time, you’re not really able to extract the value you need for all your capital needs let’s say.” But planning comprehensively, he says, gives local leaders a chance to really advocate for what their area needs.

Asked about air quality, Beltzer said action must be taken to reduce the impact of truck traffic on the district, which is transected by three major highways. But he believes indoor air quality is perhaps a bigger issue, and one in which families have some agency. “We have to encourage people to clean their homes a little more.”

Public safety is, he says, the top concern in the district, and Beltzer calls for more officers to be added to the NYPD’s community policing program. While he says he’d work as a Councilmember to ensure surveillance technology was not trampling on civil liberties, Beltzer says he has become a supporter of installing more cameras. He told of having planted flowers recently outside a NYCHA development in the district. A man was shot dead there a few days later. He continued:

Had there been cameras there, that probably wouldn’t have happened. So, like, this is very real to me. I saw a little girl step in the blood. That’s kind of what drives me. At nighttime there are bad elements in our community that don’t really care about quality of life, or that don’t see a different life for themselves, but we don’t just give them free reign. … The cameras aren’t going to solve everything. But too many people in the community want the cameras. … [W]e need to have this technology to deter some of these things, and when things happen, so we can find the people who are perpetrating the crime in our community. If you’re committing crime, wanton crime without any regard for human life, you don’t belong inside our community.

Garcia emphasized the need for a more diverse police force, and especially for more care in de-escalating encounters with emotionally disturbed people. He supports decriminalizing low-level drug possession and using education to deter kids from substance abuse. Garcia said he helped negotiate a solution to an impasse between cops and the organizers of a local basketball tournament that the police and parked sought to prohibit after what Garcia called “a slap boxing” incident was misinterpreted as a violent episode. “It would have been a real loss for kids,” he recalled. “I literally sat I in a meeting with the police, with the Parks department, with the organizer of the tournament. It’s about creating dialogue.”

A product of a technical high school (where he learned to be an airplane mechanic), Garcia says more vocational education is the key to improving graduation rates. “We should be teaching our kids skillsets to get into the workforce, not just getting a diploma for those who want to be college bound. This way, regardless of what you choose, no one falls through the cracks.

Without mentioning the tension his former boss, Mayor de Blasio, has experienced with many low-income communities over his rezoning and housing plans, Garcia said that “affordable housing” subsidies should be keyed to local income levels, not the region-wide Area Median Income on which they are now based. And he addressed the G word:

Gentrification is unfortunately an issue that is spreading all across New York City. One of the things that’s happening now in the Bronx is that crime is so low that people want to invest in the Bronx. Which is good: We should have a diverse economy in the Bronx. We should have different kinds of options for people to find work. But the people who lived here already, who literally scrubbed graffiti off the walls, who literally worked with the police to reduce crime, that were PTA presidents to improve schools, those people shouldn’t be priced out. … We welcome investments in the community as long as it has community input and community benefit.

Hear the interview with Elvin Garcia
Their stances on shelters

As a low-income community, District 18 is a neighborhood where the homelessness crisis exists on two dimensions. On one hand, many local residents end up in the shelter system thanks to rising rents and evictions: According to the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness, it ranks 11th out of the 51 districts for the share of public-school students who are homeless. On the other it hosts a fair amount of the city’s shelter infrastructure, with 18 family shelters.

Michael Beltzer

“Like any other district, I think that the 18th CD will see itself inundated with homeless shelters and the homeowners don’t want the shelter in their area but we have to find housing and shelters for 60,000 families,” Diaz said. Beltzer said the area has “done more than our fair share,” relating how he’d worked to stop a planned 200-bed shelter in the community but supported supportive housing. He says the mayor’s logic of wanting to keep homeless people close to their roots sounds good on paper, but might reflect what homeless families themselves want. “You can’t just sit there and say, ‘This is how we’re going to solve it,’ without listening to the community first.”

Garcia, asked about the issue via email, replied that steps like expanding the Right to Counsel would be key to reducing shelter demand. “When we must shelter our neighbors from the streets, we must do it with compassion and fairness to everyone involved. Some community boards in the city are over-saturated (by in-district homeless population) with shelters, others have dodged the responsibility entirely.” He pledged to “work to ensure all safety and holistic needs are met to address needs of both those in shelter and the community-at-large.”

Farias, who has the Women’s Equality Party line, said in a statement “I am in support of housing the homeless and keeping them in the communities where they currently reside, work, get healthcare or go to school,” but added: “It’s important to be thoughtful about where we place these shelters, and that we do not saturate a handful of communities with them.” She stressed the need for more aggressive efforts to create and preserve permanent housing. Moore, also running on the Reform Party line, did not submit a statement.

A sort of homecoming

With four times as much money on hand today as anyone else in the race and heaps of name recognition, Diaz is likely the frontrunner in the race – although, since there’s not usually polling in Council races and turnout is expected to be dismal, it’s hard to say that with authority. But if you want a narrative to understand this race, it’s about an experienced politician looking for a final role and younger faces, moving up the ladder in a different direction, hoping for their first office.

Diaz was efficient in his answers about most policy questions. He said he was waiting to hear more about the mayor’s plan to close Rikers, and admitted he didn’t know much about climate change. He was passionate in his support for charter schools. And he volunteered what to him is the biggest issue facing the district. “What is my worry, what is my problem, and what is it I am trying to prevent? Harlem. Harlem has become many new buildings, many new houses however the natives, the people who used to live there, they’re not there.” He says he has facilitated the construction of a lot of affordable housing in the district. Of the 16 bills he’s written that have become law he admits his favorite are those that created housing that bears his name, like Ruben Diaz Plaza and Ruben Diaz Village.

It is clear no policy goal or idea drives Diaz to shift from state to local office, because he says so. Asked about the move, he mentioned the surgery he’d had last year. “The trip to Albany is becoming kind of unbearable. Not impossible, but it’s not—I’m 74 years old. I will not retire from politics. I love politics. So I cannot, I would not retire. And I think that with all the plans that’s coming to the area, and all the things that I know as a senator that was instrumental in approving, I would like to come to see them home and see them go through and be sure.”

“So, selfish? I don’t know. Maybe.”

But, he shrugged, he wasn’t going to lie to us about it.

Correction: The original version of this article said Diaz had resigned from the CCRB. In fact, he left the board voluntarily, though his position was eroded by the controversy over his statements.

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This article is a product of the City Limits Youth Training Program in Public Service Journalism, which is sponsored by the Pinkerton Foundation. Additional reporting by Terrence Freeman, Valeria Hernandez, Maquan Keith, Lianis Rodriguez and Janiya Taylor. Read other coverage by this group here.