Democratic Assemblyman Luis Sepúlveda of the Bronx, who is almost certain to win the April 24 vote to fill the State Senate seat made vacant when Ruben Diaz Sr. left his Albany post to return to the City Council, admits that the mechanism that will likely catapult him to higher office is a flawed one.
“To me as a candidate, I’ve been on the opposite side where special elections and selecting candidates without a formal primary have created problems for me,” said Sepúlveda, 54, in an interview last week. “But it’s what we have now, and I have to work within the rules of the party.”
Sepúlveda faces Republican Patrick Delices and Pamela Stewart-Martinez running on the Reform Party line in the race to represent the 32nd senatorial district, which covers Melrose, Claremont Village, East Tremont, Soundview and Parkchester. The winner will take office immediately, then face another election this fall for the two-year term that begins next January.
Sepúlveda has for three terms represented the 87th Assembly district, which represents the Parkchester, Castle Hill, West Farms and Van Nest neighborhoods. He says his biggest accomplishments have been in the areas of education and mental health. According to Sepúlveda, he was able to obtain $4 million in funding for schools in the district. He has also worked to fund Life is Precious, a program that tackles suicide among Latinas ages 11 to 19, for whom suicide is the second-leading cause of death. It’s a cause with a personal connection: When Sepúlveda was 10 years old, his mother committed suicide.
“Children usually start manifesting health issues at about 8 years old, but don’t get treatment for another 10 years,” said Sepúlveda. “You see a lot of these issues in communities of color.”
Sepúlveda supports many initiatives developed by Mayor de Blasio like Universal Pre-K and ThriveNYC, and says he has worked closely with de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, to fund mental health services in schools.
“Universal Pre-K, when you speak about it 10 years from now, that’s going to be transformative,” said Sepúlveda. “The data has indicated that kids who start early graduate at higher rates, are better prepared and they get better jobs.”
Independence and the Independent Dems
“I give him high grades,” Sepúlveda said when asked about the mayor’s performance. “There have been some self-inflicted wounds, but overall he should be considered a very good mayor.” Sepúlveda backed de Blasio in 2013—a bold move at the time in that he broke with the Bronx County Democratic organization, which supported former Comptroller William Thompson.(Sepúlveda was also the first elected official to endorse the mayor for re-election, doing so in late 2016 when de Blasio’s fundraising was still under federal investigation; the Assemblyman says he did so because he felt strongly there would never be an indictment.)
In 2015, Sepúlveda considered running against the party machine’s pick to replace Bronx DA Robert Johnson. And in the 2016 presidential election, Sepúlveda endorsed Bernie Sanders while the county supported Hilary Clinton.
Moves like those are believed to have irritated the Bronx Democratic apparatus and are why Sepúlveda is not considered a “county man.”
“I have trouble with labels and people being pigeonholed,” he said. “If it means that because I don’t go with the party 100 percent of the time that I’m not a party guy, then so be it.”
Not everyone is reassured by his willingness to chart his own path. Sepúlveda’s close ties with Sen. Jeff Klein and other members of the Independent Democratic Conference have generated speculation that he will either join the breakaway IDC or, if a unity deal to bring the IDC and regular Democrats back together holds, will back Klein to be the Democrats’ leader over Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the current head of the Democrats in the Senate.
Sepúlveda insists he will not join the IDC. Asked if he’d support Klein for leader, he told City Limits the only possible outcome is for Klein and Stewart-Cousins to serve as co-leaders, which is the arrangement envisioned in the unity deal.
An agenda, and a record
Sepúlveda says that the same work he has done as an Assemblymember for the 87th district can be transferred to his future work on behalf of the 32nd district because the overlapping areas face the same social problems.
“We need more funding for our schools, more affordable housing. We need more criminal justice reform,” said Sepúlveda. “So, the person who’s going to represent the district should be somebody who I believe has done a lot of the things we have done.”
Compared with the rest of the Bronx Assembly delegation, Sepúlveda in the current session pursued an ambitious legislative agenda but has seen a fairly low share of his ideas become law. He said this was because he targeted difficult issues on which it is harder to get action.
In 2013, a three-year-old was shot in his right arm in West Farms, and this prompted Sepúlveda to create a bill to increase the penalties for individuals who discharge a weapon near daycares, schools, parks and areas where there are a lot of children. According to him, one reason this did not pass is an aversion in Albany to increasing criminal penalties likely to affect defendants of color.
Sepúlveda has worked on three bills that allow immigrants who qualify for the federal DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) status to have access to Medicare, the Excelsior scholarship program and driver’s licenses. Governor Andrew Cuomo addressed the Medicare and Excelsior proposals via the budget and executive order, Sepúlveda said, but the driver’s license bill was left out.
Bills introduced by Bronx Assemblymembers in the 2017-2018 session to date
|Member||Introduced||Passed by the Assembly||Became Law||Rate of passage||Rate of becoming law|
*Gjonaj left the Assembly in December to join the City Council.
Sepúlveda has also worked on the Child Victims Act, which would extend the age limit for a survivor of childhood sexual abuse to file a civil lawsuit from age 23 to 50 and to file criminal charges from 21 to 28. It would also allow a one-year lookback for people of any age to file suits alleging abuse.
According to media accounts, at a private meeting with Cuomo, Archbishop Timothy Dolan expressed opposition to the one-year component of the child victims bill, saying that it will be used to target the Catholic church. He said he supports another version of the bill that extends the age limit for a victim to file a civil lawsuit against an alleged abuser, but does not want to allow older sexual abuse cases to be brought back to court.
Sepúlveda, who is a Catholic, said in an emailed statement that he was shocked and disgusted by Dolan’s hypocrisy, saying the cardinal is protecting the Church’s finances instead of abuse victims.
“If the church had done the right thing in the first place, instead of years of covering up criminal acts and protecting its priests, it never would have come to this point,” said Sepúlveda.
Sepúlveda has also denounced the lack of funding and attention both FEMA and President Trump have given to Puerto Rico after it was hit by three storms last year.
“From its inception, Puerto Rico was created to be a second-class American colony,” said Sepúlveda. “I personally support independence, but I believe the destiny is up to the people of Puerto Rico.”
Caring, but not fuzzy
Sepúlveda, who has been a civil litigator for 26 years, also worked as chief of staff for then-Senator Diaz, known as perhaps the most conservative of the downstate Democrats in Albany. But Sepúlveda said their 25-year friendship has survived despite differences on abortion and gay rights in part because Diaz is a progressive on economic issues. He said they agreed on many things regarding Medicare, education, funding for senior centers, and affordable housing.
Sepúlveda added that Diaz’s constituent office is perhaps the most robust and active district office in the state. “We tracked the number of constituent requests he gets each day. It ranges from 60 to 70 a day,” said Sepúlveda. For his part, Diaz says his former aide is “a very workaholic person. Very caring. A person I would be honored to have replace me.”
One of his opponents in the race believes Sepúlveda has been ineffective. “If I thought he was doing a good job then I wouldn’t be running against him,” said Stewart-Martinez, president of the Bronx High School Federation, who also ran against Sepúlveda in the 2016 Assembly primary. “Housing, it’s a huge issue in the Bronx and it hasn’t being addressed by Sepúlveda. Housing and education go hand in hand.”
Gustavo Rivera, a progressive Democrat who represents the west Bronx, has never been close to Sepúlveda – the two notably did not endorse one another when each won his current post. But Rivera says he trusts Sepúlveda, even if he has not always agreed with him: “He is not warm and fuzzy. But he is a straight shooter and a strong advocate for his constituents. I think he will be a strong addition to our conference.”
Sepúlveda had $233,000 on hand as of his January campaign finance filing. Most of that war-chest was transferred over from his Assembly committee; he’s raised only about $34,000 since 2017 for the Senate run. So far this year, his top donors—who all wrote $2,500 checks—are attorney Hyong Son Hong, his partner Yoongik Yoon, Woodside resident Mirang Cho and food-industry operator Vincent Pacifico.