Abigail Savitch-Lew

Candidate Diana Ayala and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito await election results on primary night, Tuesday September 12 2017.

While a winner has not yet been officially declared for the open seat in District 8, which will be vacated by termed-out council member and Speaker of the Council Melissa Mark-Viverito, Diana Ayala, Mark-Viverito’s deputy chief of staff, has declared victory with 43.64 percent of the vote.

Assemblyman Robert Rodriguez took 42.20 percent, with 97.62 percent of scanners reported as of about 1:00 a.m. on Wednesday.

Rodriguez had not conceded at press time. “This race is far too close to call right now, and it is premature for anyone to declare a victory. There are still ballots left to be counted, and we want to make sure each voter has their voice heard,” he said in a statement released after midnight. The Ayala camp says that even with all votes counted, they believe she still has a wide enough margin to win.

“I believe we have triumphed tonight and look forward to continuing as the Democratic nominee for the 8th District’s City Council seat,” said Ayala in a statement. “This was a hard-fought campaign built around a diverse group of community supporters and I am proud of what we have accomplished. However, I truly believe that it is incumbent upon all of us to ensure that each and every vote is counted and every individual’s voice is heard. I look forward to protecting the right of all individuals to vote and promise to serve as a vanguard in protection of our democratic process…”

Ayala, who worked as a senior services director and then in different capacities for Mark-Viverito, migrated from Puerto Rico as a child and had a difficult young adulthood—spending time in the shelter system and in public housing, becoming a teenage mother and losing her son’s father to gun violence. She raised about $89,000 in private funds as compared to Rodriguez’s $141,000.

Rodriguez, currently in his second term in the Assembly, is a native East Harlemite who served as chairman of Community Board 11 and as a member of the board of directors of the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone, and also works for a financial consulting firm.

There are many ways to interpret the outcome of this neck-to-neck race, which takes place in a district struggling with the threats of gentrification as well as continued poverty—as newcomer against political incumbent, or as the legacies of two political incumbents pitted against one another.

Killer suspense at watch parties

The race is one of two Council districts where the Democratic primary race dragged on for hours, holding both camps in unbearable anticipation. Diana Ayala and Mark-Viverito watched the results come in at Harley’s Smokeshack on 116th Street. They were surrounded by their supporters, including many men and women from Laborers’ Local 78, and by the end of the evening the tight bar had grown as crowded as the 4 train at rush hour. When early reports came in and Ayala was in the lead, there were hoots and applause.

Mark-Viverito also cheered as many of her colleagues, particularly the women she has served with as well as female candidates for open seats, showed a lead in the polls, including Debi Rose and Helen Rosenthal, Carlina Rivera and Laurie Cumbo. The potential loss of female leadership in the Council has been a major concern to Mark-Viverito, and many of Ayala’s supporters view her identity as a woman as one among other reasons she deserves the district’s support.

Things started to get more tense around 10 p.m. As other races seemed to be nearing completion, District 8 remained stuck in ambiguity: For a long while, the number of scanners reported remained mysteriously at 85 percent, with Ayala holding a roughly 2 percent lead over Rodriguez. Ayala, Mark-Viverito and other top campaign staff held numerous huddles on the street, looking concerned but refusing to tell the press what they were speaking about.

Meanwhile, Rodriguez’s team watched the results from an event room at Harlem Prep Charter School. “We’ve waited 12 years for the City Council seat to be available and I’ve certainly had an interest since ’09 when I first ran,” Rodriguez told City Limits at the beginning of the night. In 2009, Rodriguez ran against Mark-Viverito, who was just finishing her first term, and placed second with 25 percent of the vote.

But the mood never turned festive despite the speakers and DJ. The large, poorly lit room was not at capacity, and the TV kept freezing. With 85 percent of the ballots counted, an air of defeat settled in, though Rodriguez remained calm and would not admit loss. Those who had worked the campaign were visibly tense, pacing back and forth, hands on head.

“I feel anxious, tense, somber, nervous,” said district leader Edward Gibbs when 85 percent of the votes were counted, while Brian Benjamin, State Senator of the 30th district, tried to analyze Ayala’s lead. “She had the mayor with her, she had Ruben Diaz with her—the way they were both on the ballot at the same time, that’s not insignificant,” he said.

“Hopefully he wins tonight. It’s close. It’s tight, but you know we [are] praying,” said a longtime friend of Rodriguez, Norma Melendez.

“We’re just going to wait to see what the final numbers are and then certainly look at the paper ballots before we concede,” Rodriguez said. “You have to feel good about the race that you’ve run and now just kind of see where everything ends up…If anything that I’ve learned as an elected official, it’s you respect” the democratic process, Rodriguez said.

Neck to neck race in the public eye

The two candidates have been abreast for weeks.

There was Mayor Bill De Blasio’s endorsement of Ayala on Thursday, then Governor Andrew Cuomo’s endorsement of Rodriguez on Sunday—arguably making the race into a proxy way between the state’s two biggest Democratic power players.

There was, on Saturday, a press conference held by Ayala to denounce a piece of “negative mail” sent out by the Rodriguez camp that depicted her as a puppet of Mark-Viverito. As soon as they got word of it, New Yorkers for Robert Rodriguez sent out a statement calling her a hypocrite and noting she has sent out multiple negative mailers. One refers to him as the “politician from Wall Street.”

And that’s after the two candidates had already each clinched a number of valuable endorsements: Rodriguez claimed the Daily News and Scott Stringer, Ayala the Working Families Party and Make the Road NY. With some exceptions Ayala seemed to be lining up endorsements from the left of center, including the Progressive Caucus Alliance (the political branch of the council’s Progressive Caucus) while Rodriguez had more of the traditional blue-collar base, including the Patrolmen Benevolent Association.

Early on Tuesday morning, it was still difficult to tell who would win. Rodriguez and Ayala volunteers claimed opposite corners of the 110th Street 6 stop intersection.

“It’s a little bit of a turf war,” said one cheerful Rodriguez volunteer, adding that he thought the competition was healthy. “That’s what democracy is all about.”

At 8:00 a.m. at Esperanza Preparatory Academy, two people told City Limits they’d picked Ayala. One said she appreciated all that Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito had done for the district; she was particularly pleased with the approach that Mark-Viverito and Ayala’s office took to affordable housing, tenant protections, and public housing.

“We need more women in the City Council,” said Carmen Garcia, another voter, who added that Ayala had followed through on a request to improve the lighting in Jefferson Houses, where some of her friends lived. As for Rodriguez, who she knew, “I love him to death but let him stay in the Assembly,” she said.

At Central Park East High School, however, we found more supporters of Rodriguez. A volunteer and staff member for Rodriguez, Yesania Rivera, touted his work to secure funding for NYCHA, support seniors and for an initiative she described to empower every student with an Ipad. While Earl Tucker wouldn’t say who he was voting for, he offered praise for Rodriguez’s work to negotiate funding for the 2nd Avenue subway’s extension into East Harlem, adding that the district was in need of less ad-hoc urban planning and more infrastructure investments. And we ran into Male District Leader candidate Kelmy Rodriquez, who said he was supporting Rodriguez because he was a native East Harlemite, because Rodriguez had secured funding for public housing and to extend the 2nd Avenue subway in the Assembly, and because given the risks of gentrification in the district, “we need someone who is experienced.”

(The Council race was not the only contest between the factions. Rodriquez ran in partnership with Female District Leader candidate Pilar DeJesus to challenge incumbent district leaders John Ruiz and Mark-Viverito, but the incumbents prevailed. Mark-Viverito said at the watch party that by remaining district leader she would continue to have a role improving the district and could support Ayala’s work.)

City Limits also went to the other half of the district—the South Bronx—to see which way those constituents were leaning. The five constituents who agreed to share their vote said they were going for Ayala.

Midday at P.S. 168 in Mott Haven, it was mostly elderly and female constituents coming to the polls, with some saying they supported Ayala for identity reasons.

“She started from the bottom, from nothing and now is at the top,” said Rosa Ruiz, a senior, while 42-year-old Alexandra Figueroe said, “She knows what it’s like to be a mom and how hard it is.”

Susana Diaz, a Department of Homeless Services employee, was throwing her weight behind the candidate backed by her union, DC37. Kareem McKeiver, a security guard, who also backed Ayala, said more generally, “Everybody says they want change, it starts here.”

“I know that they’re doing a lot with gentrification in the area so I voted for Diana Ayala to preserve affordable housing,” said Tiffany Weston, a voter at the polling site at Mitchell Community Center. She added that she had only just learned about Ayala from a pamphlet handed to her outside the subway station.

In the end, the race brought out a low number of constituents; turnout here was the lowest of all the Manhattan City Council districts, with about 8,500 votes.

Voters priorities

Other voters who wouldn’t share their choice said they were brought to the polls because they were concerned about securing resources for job training, employment, or the handicapped, or were worried about continued poverty and poor schools in the district. One South Bronx voter said whoever was elected needed to get rid of the rats, fix streets, and get rid of the scaffolding at her building.

When it comes down to policy views, there doesn’t seem to be too much variation between the two candidates: the real differences are more a matter of approach and experience. Interestingly, Rodriguez as Assemblymember, and Ayala as Mark-Viverito’s right-hand woman, both have a long relationship with the neighborhood—and therefore can be blamed for ongoing neighborhood problems as well celebrated for recent improvements.

While the controversial neighborhood rezoning initiative in East Harlem is certainly at the forefront of some constituents’ minds, both Ayala and Rodriguez have similar positions on it: They’ve criticized the city’s rezoning proposal and praised the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan. Only a third candidate in the primary, Tamika Mapp, has expressed total opposition to it. Mapp took 9.59 percent of the vote, while a four candidate, Israel Martinez, took 4.35 percent. (Daby Carreras, a Republican candidate, is also against it.)

Ray Tirado, a labor union worker who is an outspoken critic of the city’s rezoning plan and a member of Community Voices Heard told City Limits at Ayala’s watch party that Ayala and Mark-Viverito had helped him retain his rent-stabilized apartment when an exploitative landlord tried to displace him. As for the rezoning, he ultimately feels it is “inevitable” and the question is “how can we get the best out of this?” He notes that he usually advocates for more extremely low-income units than Mark-Viverito, but understands her desire to provide housing also for people of more moderate means.

Diana declares victory

At about 11:20 pm, Mark-Viverito stood up on a chair and introduced Ayala as the new councilmember. Watch below for an excerpt of Mark-Viverito’s congratulatory speech and see Ayala talk about the behind-the-scene role played by herself and other women and express her gratitude Mark-Viverito for encouraging her to become a leader. “We won against an incumbent, people!” Ayala exclaimed later on.

Meanwhile at the Harlem Prep Charter School, Rodriguez did not want to take any more questions, and offered a statement through his spokeswomen Callie Klotz that the vote was too close to call.

He got on the mic at the watch party, reiterated the sentiment of the statement, and said it had been a long day and everyone should go and get some rest.