William Alatriste/NYC Council

Mark-Viverito was first elected in 2005 and became speaker in early 2014.

Tanisha Pilar DeJesus says when she tells East Harlem residents she’s challenging Melissa Mark-Viverito in the race for district leader, they often look confused. “Isn’t Speaker Mark-Viverito termed out?” they ask.

Then she explains: Yes, Mark-Viverito has been termed out of the City Council, but she’s still running in the September 12 primary to retain her post as district leader, a position she’s held since 2009 and for which there are no term limits.

Frequently, DeJesus has to explain what exactly is a district leader. Each constituent of the Democratic party gets two—one male and one female. Elected in the primary every other year, they serve as volunteer party officers responsible for advocating for the community’s needs to elected officials and as voting members of the borough’s party committee, which means they have the power to nominate judicial candidates, make party endorsements, elect the party’s chairman, and vote on candidates during special elections. They also appoint paid poll workers and encourage political engagement in the district.

In Staten Island, and the Bronx, there’s a pair of district leaders for each assembly district, while in Queens and Manhattan, each assembly district is split into multiple parts, with one male and one female district leader in each part. (In Brooklyn, there aren’t really district leaders—the role is instead combined with that of State Committee Members, though they are still sometimes colloquially referred to as district leaders.)*

Specifically, DeJesus is challenging Mark-Viverito for the post of Democratic female district leader in Assembly District 68 part C. Part C is about 50 blocks, oddly shaped, with the majority falling between East 93rd and East 108th Street and between Park and 5th Avenue.

Helping people understand local politics and become more politically engaged is one of the things DeJesus says would be her top priorities as district leader. “If they don’t even who know to go to for these certain issues, then this is why we are being displaced, gentrification, all these things are happening rapidly to our community because of the lack of education and because of the lack of someone standing up for them,” she says.

DeJesus is also running as one of Mark-Viverito’s strongest critics. An East Harlem native and a tenant paralegal for the Urban Justice Center, DeJesus argues that Mark-Viverito is failing to protect constituents from displacement.

Adi Talwar

Tanisha Pilar DeJesus, a critic of Melissa Mark-Viverito's role in the discussion about possibly rezoning East Harlem, is challenging the outgoing speaker in the race for district leader.

A post with unrecognized power

The district leader race gets little attention from the public or from the media, but Susan Lerner, executive director of the political watchdog group Common Cause, says the importance of the district leader is underestimated.

“From a party perspective, the district leader role is very important. It’s really part of the ladder up to party leadership,” Lerner says. She adds that in New York each political party “has a tremendous impact on how elections are run and who gets to run or not run for office and who gets the party nod.”

Speaking to the hidden importance of district leader races—at least as a playing field for party factionalism—is a rare case reported Wednesday by Gotham Gazette: An argument over the validity of two district leader candidates’ ballot petitions has reached the state’s highest court. Some speculate that it’s because the race is relevant to Democratic County Leader Keith Wright’s maintenance of power in the county.

Lerner criticizes what she says is a lack of competitive district leader races (meaning those with more than one person running), the fact that sometimes it’s people who also hold higher political offices that hold the district leader seat, and what she sees as a deficit of information about the party available online. She says these are symptoms of an “ossification” in the party—that the parties are more interested in protecting incumbents than they are in embracing new leadership and engaging new voters.

But Democratic party activists disagree, arguing that there are a number of competitive district leader races and that not that many elected officials also hold district leader seats. “I would argue that the longevity of some district leaders is a testament to how well they have kept in touch with the community,” says Barry Weinberg, executive director of Manhattan Democrats, who says groups like Common Cause. “think that if you can’t walk into a race and instantly get elected and have a viable chance as an outsider…then it’s stacked against you.”

DeJesus says that as a political newbie going up against a well-established elected official, running for district leader has been challenging because there’s not enough information available about all the detailed procedures for getting on the ballot.

Mark-Viverito is not the only elected official also serving as a district leader. Assemblyman Robert Rodriguez, who is currently making a bid to replace Mark-Viverito in the Council, is also a district leader, though he is not running to retain his position as district leader this September. The Manhattan Democratic Party’s online list of district leaders includes, in addition to Mark-Viverito, “Councilmember Inez Dickens” (now Assemblymember), and “Congressman Charles Rangel” (now retired), and “Senator Adriano Espaillat” (now U.S. Representative). The Brooklyn Democratic Party’s list includes political elected like Assemblymember Felix Ortiz, Councilmember Robert Cornegy and others.

A prominent incumbent

Mark-Viverito, who as speaker is the City Council’s most powerful member, is much celebrated throughout the city. She received City & State’s top ranking among Council members thanks to her 100 percent attendance, 22 bills introduced, and constituent response time of 15 hours. The Urban Justice Center, DeJesus’s employer, gave Mark-Viverito an A+ on its three last City Council Human Rights Report Cards (all from her prior term—2011, 2012 and 2013).

One of her first actions as speaker was to work with Mayor Bill De Blasio to expand paid sick leave. She came out in support of $15 an hour before other bigwigs, worked with De Blasio to ensure universal access to legal services for tenants in housing court, and in recent months has often stood to the left of mayor—arguing that undocumented immigrants convicted of violent felonies ought to have access to a legal defense fund to fight deportation, nudging the mayor to support the closure of Rikers, and defending the Puerto Rican parade’s choice to honor controversial activist Oscar Lopez Rivera.

One might think that remaining district leader, which is often seen as a stepping stone to a position like councilmember, wouldn’t be the biggest fish to fry for Mark-Viverito. The Speaker has not made it clear what position she will seek next, but her ambitions could be big: Since 2014 she has been collecting donations for a citywide, undeclared position. In May, she told City & State that she was particularly interested in helping to close Rikers and oppose Donald Trump, and hoped to “play a role in continuing to make sure that those things that I leave in place get done and fulfilled.”

Yet back in her district of East Harlem, there are some who are critical of her land use decisions and of her stance on a potential rezoning of East Harlem. In 2005, Mark-Viverito was one of the three local councilmembers who supported the controversial upzoning of 125th Street after the Council negotiated with the Bloomberg administration to secure additional community investments in affordable housing, local businesses and a local park. She recently supported the approval of AvalonBay’s partially affordable tower because it provided space for three new high school facilities and other community benefits.

Mark-Viverito has expressed qualms with the Department of City Planning’s proposed rezoning, but has supported the more modest upzoning envisioned within the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan, a comprehensive proposal she crafted with a team of stakeholders in 2015, which she notes is the minimum upzoning required to trigger the mandatory inclusionary housing policy that requires a portion of future housing to be rent-restricted. But some critics rezoning, including DeJesus, say even the rezoning proposed by the ENHP would only worsen real-estate speculation and exacerbate displacement.

DeJesus argues that Mark-Viverito is beholden to the real estate donations she’s received in increasing amounts in recent years. A City Limits study found that of the nearly $944,000 she’s raised in her last term as a councilmember running for an undeclared citywide office, about 28 percent of donations that came in at the maximum amount for a citywide office of $4,950, and 18 percent of total donations, were from individuals with a connection to the real-estate industry, including real-estate developers, agents, management companies, major construction firms, real-estate services corporations and real-estate investors, mortgage companies, major real-estate law firms, those who explicitly call their occupation “real estate”, employees at large architecture firms, and clearly related family members of real-estate industry figures.

DeJesus, for her part, says she has opened a committee to collect donations, but has not yet raised $1000. She’s heard that district leaders do not tend to raise much money and some don’t even open committees.

DeJesus also argues it’s time for Mark-Viverito to “pass the torch” and create room for new voices like herself. It’s not only that it’s costing DeJesus money and time to campaign against an incumbent; she says that John Ruiz, the incumbent male district leader and Mark-Viverito’s longtime ally, tried to throw DeJesus off the ballot by challenging her signatures. (The Board of Elections ruled his objections invalid, she says.)

“Melissa is proud of her long record of service to her district, both as Council Member and District Leader, including helping to invest in the next generation of political leadership and endorsing a woman of color, Diana Ayala, to succeed her in the Council,” said Robin Levine, a spokesperson for the speaker.

“La Problema”

Thirty-six-year-old DeJesus is a native East Harlemite—something she notes makes her different from Mark-Viverito, who grew up in Puerto Rico—and was raised by her grandmother in the affordable cooperative Franklin Plaza. She attended a mix of public and Catholic schools, and as a teenager her first job—”ironically,” she notes—was in the accounting department at the developer Forest City Ratner. Later she became involved in community work, employed at organizations that assisted clients with HIV/AIDS and individuals with disabilities, campaigning for 2013 Manhattan Borough President candidate Julie Menin, assisting with participatory budgeting in Brooklyn and serving as her grandmother’s caretaker.

She was first hired by the Urban Justice Center to serve as a public benefits advocate, where she held a clinic and advocated for clients at hearings and with agencies. She later became a UJC tenant rights paralegal, serving as a liaison between community organizations, tenants and Urban Justice Center’s lawyers. She also helps to staff a tenant hotline and works with several coalitions to research and advocate for tenant protections.

In 2015 she tried running for district leader but was knocked off the ballot. She says district leader is a natural extension of her current role as a community advocate, and that she’s not really interested in a career in political office—Public Advocate is the only other post she’d consider.

DeJesus has already slipped into the role of being “la problema,” as she terms it, calling agencies and elected officials to address matters that concern her and attending any hearing that has to do with the rezoning (at one such hearing in December, her testimony against the East Harlem rezoning lasted beyond the allowed time limit and city staff cut the sound to her mike, eliciting boos from the audience). Always effusive, the subject of gentrification makes DeJesus especially passionate. In an interview with City Limits she began to cry as she recalled the recent closing of a mom-and-pop store that she’d known since childhood.

“I’m tired of us just jumping to the cure without figuring out the cause,” she says of the idea that developers should be given the right to build higher in exchange for creating a portion of affordable housing. “You’re not going to cure the problem with adding more development, especially if you don’t understand what’s going on in the court. Fishbowl us for a month…people who are in court everyday going against judge,” she says, and she describes the closing of longtime neighborhood stores. “The city and the electeds, I feel, are giving them more power by not actually addressing this first.”

DeJesus says NYCHA repairs are another key issue she will champion. She’s skeptical about the necessity of extending the Second Avenue subway to East Harlem, and is concerned that the construction will exacerbate air pollution in the district. After seeing the way judges can impact the fates of tenants and other defendants, she’s also eager to play a role making judicial dominations. And in the event that some sort of rezoning passes? She says she’ll work to build a coalition of groups to fight against exploitative landlords and host Know-Your-Rights trainings.

“I want this role to be a big [on] organizing and education, where people feel empowered to now challenge what they don’t want. Because I don’t feel people feel empowered,” says DeJesus. “I’m a little bit for anarchy, not in a violent way, but let’s stand up for what is ours.”

*Correction: Previously stated that in Manhattan, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island, State Committee members was simply another name for district leader. In fact, they are separate positions.