On a recent day in the Morris Park neighborhood, a few residents were effusive in their praise of one particular candidate running for their district’s City Council: Assemblyman Mark Gjonaj.
Morris Park forms part of District 13. It’s currently represented by Councilmember James Vacca, a Democrat, whose term expires this year. Mark Gjonaj, John Doyle, Marjorie Velazquez and Edigio Sementilli are the candidates vying for Vacca’s position who will stand off in the Democratic primary on September 12.
Gjonaj’s campaign fundraising and spending, which out-distance most candidates in the city, have drawn a lot of attention. But if the crowd in Morris Park was any indication, Gjonaj brings another asset to the table: People say they simply like him.
For these residents, Gjonaj’s tangible involvement in the community was a boon. “The reason I support Mark Gjonaj is that he’s accessible. When I need his attention, he doesn’t let me down,” said Eliezer Rodriguez, 56, a real estate agent.
It’s not only his physical presence that comforted these residents, but, more to the point, his active helpfulness. “He helps everyone that goes to him, as much as he can,” said Marianna Gjushi, 43, the owner of a florist business. “It doesn’t matter who they are.”
In particular, the residents mentioned the assistance he’s provided to recently arrived immigrants. Ardian Kacaj, 42, is the owner of a bar in the area. Kacaj himself is an Albanian immigrant, and speaks fondly of Gjonaj’s support.
One of the instances he cited involved an Albanian man who had won the green card lottery. The man arrived in Morris Park with his family and slept in the park for three nights. “Who helped him? Mark helped him. He found a job for him.”
At a recent Eid celebration at P.S. 83, a public school in Morris Park, Bronx Borough President Rubén Díaz Jr. was present, and expressed his own support of Gjonaj. “I know Mark. I work with Mark as a legislator, where he has proven to me that he has the know-how. He can advocate in a forceful way to bring in everything from education dollars to transportation infrastructure,” he said.
“He has a big heart. He cares. He has proven that. I fully expect for him to win.”
At that same event, Bob Bieder was handing out flyers for Doyle. Bieder, a Doyle supporter and president of the 45th Precinct community council, said it’d be unwise to read too deeply into these shows of support, adding that many people are secret Doyle backers.
Bieder suspected that voters might not be vocal about their support for other candidates because Gjonaj, as Assemblyman, donates funds to several of the community organizations. “I can tell you for a fact that many of those community organizations are John Doyle supporters. Not out loud.”
Doyle and others in the race have raised questions about the amount of Gjonaj’s funding that comes from outside the city and the Assemblyman’s ties to the real-estate industry, where he has deep history and ongoing business interests.
But it seemed the other candidates were apparently not on the radars of these particular Morris Park residents. “I don’t even know the other candidates,” said Kacaj, adding that he would not even look into their platforms. “Not even one Albanian would do that.”
Gjushi echoed the sentiment. “It doesn’t matter who they are,” she said of the other nominees. “What I do know is that Mark is better.”
But Bieder also stressed the fact that District 13 is large in area, and that Morris Park is only a small part of that district. “John Doyle has got 100-percent support in City Island. He’s got very strong support in Country Club, Pelham Bay, Throgs Neck, Edgewater Park and Silver Beach, ” he said.
Bieder’s company, Westchester Square Plumbing Supplies, has been operating within the district for 94 years, and he’s also the chair of the Youth and Education Committee for Community Board 10. “When we go out knocking on doors and we talk to people, they recognize there are people supporting John who are a big part of the community.”
“May the best man win,” said Gjushi,. But her choice – Gjonaj – was clear. “He’s just a great freaking guy.”