As 2017 comes to a close, the 2017 municipal elections fade into memory. For some people who took part in those races, New Year’s Day marks the start of a term in office. For those who did not win on Primary or Election Day, January 1 could be a moment to consider what might have been–or, as is the case for Elvin Garcia, a moment to reflect on the lessons and treasures taken from a tough campaign. In July, student reporters from City Limits’ Youth Training Program in Public-Service Journalism teamed up with counterparts at the College Now journalism program to interview candidates in a few Bronx Council races. Garcia and the other 18th district candidates were the main focus of the day. That’s why Garcia chose City Limits as the place to share his takeaways from his individual roll in one of the year’s biggest stories.
The morning before the September 12th primary, I was at my elementary school, PS 47, greeting anyone that would make eye contact during the morning rush. A school administrator approached me to see what all the fuss was about. We immediately hit it off and went down memory lane. She cracked a smile as I told her about all my wonderful memories as a former student. She shook my hand and wished me luck. As the foot traffic on the corner of Beach Avenue and East 172nd street began to clear out, so did my mind.
I began to choke up as I reflected on my childhood, being one of poorest kids who went to this school, who relied on the school’s free summer meals program, and struggled to learn English alongside other children of immigrants. And here I was, many years later, running for City Council in the only neighborhood I had ever called home. Tears of pride and pain began to flood my eyes. I began to reflect on how far I’d come despite so many obstacles– and yet how sure I was that I would lose the race the following day.
Like many Dominicans across New York City, my family’s immigrant story began in Washington Heights in a rent-stabilized apartment my grandfather made his home in the late 70’s. Like my memories of that time, most of the rent-stabilized units in that building have faded away. My parents divorced in the late 80’s and my mother moved me and my sisters there for a brief period. That rent-stabilized apartment saved us from being homeless. We later settled in the Bronx, first in Fordham, then in Soundview, where I’ve lived since.
My mother, already raising two kids on her own, was not expecting a third child—or a gay one. I’ve always joked that “coming out” was my first campaign to win over hearts and minds. Coming out was in some ways harder for my family than it was for me. Over time, my family came to terms with respecting who I am – even if not all of them understand it. But coming out in the Bronx added another complex element to my identity. I was already too much of a “light-skinned” Dominican in a majority Puerto Rican and Black neighborhood: Now, “faggot” became another derogatory term used against me alongside “white boy.”
I graduated from Aviation High School with an aircraft mechanics license, but changed course to study architecture in college. The Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP) scholarship that allowed me to attend a top-tier university was being phased out by our university president. In my moment of protest for what I viewed as cutting the cord to upward mobility, I realized that opportunities are not guaranteed – that my own privilege in higher education compelled me to fight for others to have the same opportunities. I took my architecture degree to Friends of Brook Park, a lefty not-for-profit with a radical idea that Bronxites should also have access to the waterfront as Manhattan residents in Chelsea do. I would later work my way up through several political campaigns, positions in New York State government, and in 2014 became the Bronx Borough Director at the Mayor’s Community Affairs Unit for almost three years before resigning to pursue this once in a lifetime opportunity.
I ran for City Council to make this city work for working people. I wanted to expand, preserve, and protect the very policies that gave me and my family the fighting chance to thrive in this city. The primary election did not turn out the way I’d hoped. A crowded field of candidates never consolidated around a single insurgent to face off with the established candidate so that the votes for change – despite being a 58 percent majority—were split among the insurgent first-time candidates, allowing the established candidate to be elected into office with a plurality of the vote. Despite the disappointment of losing and the frustration that came with variables outside of my control, daily motivation and positive reinforcement came from the voters. I will never forget the people I met on the campaign trail. I was inspired by the stories of those that call this place home. Breast cancer survivors, Vietnam veterans, civil servants, single moms, sassy seniors, committed campaign volunteers and concerned citizens more solution driven about the issues than one might think.
Today, I have more concerns about New York City’s electoral process now than when I did before I ran. How the Bronx Board of Elections can legitimately justify actions like changing poll sites in Parkchester every single year, or moving centrally located poll sites in public housing campuses well outside their boundaries baffles me. We should all strive to make it easier for New Yorkers to vote, not take steps to make it harder. The senior citizen on a walker, who in 2016 voted one block away from her building, should not have had to walk six city blocks to vote in 2017.
I hope the New Year will promote a healthy and constructive conversation on how the City’s Board of Election should operate independently with non-partisan appointments. Council Member Ben Kallos’ recent victory in making online voter registration easier for New Yorkers is an encouraging step in the right direction. Count on me to support efforts to push for broader voting and election reforms in the months and years to come.
I want to congratulate the victor in this race, former Senator Ruben Diaz Sr., who in the weeks after the primary has privately been working to provide supportive services to the gay Bronx teen that fatally stabbed a classmate who had been bullying him. This is a surely a profound evolution of the same man who more than a decade ago singled out the Harvey Milk School – the safe haven high school for LGBTQ teens in the city – with a frivolous law suit. A year ago, I would have probably resorted to petty political punditry and called this a flip flop of some sorts. But I’m a wiser man today and I am choosing to view Sen. Diaz’s action as a sincere sign of progress for greater tolerance. I hope soon-to-be Councilmember Diaz and Councilmember Danny Dromm, one of the strongest supporters of my campaign, can work together on strengthening the Department of Education’s anti-bullying policy so we can prevent further tragedies like the one we had this year.
As I look back on my run for City Council, I want to especially thank all of the volunteers and supporters in the Bronx and across the city that built the foundation of our campaign. The Bronx is home to New York City’s most resilient residents, and our team was no different. It was an honor to have you all in my corner.
Another special thank you goes out to the thoughtful young people of the City Limits Youth Training Program in Public-Service Journalism and the Lehman College Now journalism program. Your questions at the candidate screening were thoughtful and timely. I hope you will continue to inspire others the same way you inspired me. It’s important for young people to know that you don’t need permission to step up and make a difference. And running for office is one way, but not the only way. Whatever path you choose, stay true to your core values and build the courage to take risks. Even in losing, you gain greater wisdom.
Elvin Garcia was a Democratic candidate for the District 18 City Council seat in the Bronx in 2017. He previously was the Bronx borough director for Mayor Bill de Blasio, a community representative for New York Assemblyman Marcos Crespo, a community affairs representative for New York Sen. J. Gustavo Rivera, and a field organizer for President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign.