Congressman José Serrano’s announcement that he will not run for re-election because he has Parkinson’s disease set off a wave of stories in the press about the candidates waiting in the wings to represent his 15th Congressional district.
One of the most glaring omissions in most of the coverage, however, was the prospect of women running for this seat in a district that is more than 50 percent women.
At a time when women’s rights are under siege across the nation, when a record-setting number of courageous and diverse women have ascended to office, and in a liberal city where too many leaders and organizations prefer to tweet about electing women over mobilizing for them on the ground, there are no women officially in this race. At least, not yet.
While it remains to be seen whether progressive women will not only step up, but also be supported in their bids, there are more nuanced conversations to be had about the players who have declared, and larger questions around the meaning of this seat for the crushing issues affecting Puerto Rico.
There are jitters among some about the possibility of losing of what’s long been considered a Latino seat. Latinos make up 65 percent of the district. Between Serrano and his predecessor Bob Garcia, this Congressional seat has been in specifically Puerto Rican hands for nearly 40 years.
In the course of that time, the demographics have changed in the district. Puerto Ricans still have a significant presence, but their numbers have decreased, while the Dominican population has increased. African Americans are at a very significant 28 percent, while other groups are in the low single digits. Immigrants span the Latino, Caribbean and African communities, among others, in the district.
Assemblyman Michael Blake, the son of Jamaican immigrants, has set his sights on this seat. Fresh off a run for Public Advocate, Blake comes to the table with national contacts that could be helpful, has raised significant bank, and his assembly district largely falls within the 15th*. So he has name recognition.
The possibility of several Latino candidates in the race splitting the vote would work to Blake’s advantage.
Currently, at least three others have publicly announced that they are in — Council Member Ruben Diaz Sr., Jonathan Ortiz, who is the director of Phipps Neighborhood Financial Empowerment Center, and Council Member Ritchie Torres. Several others have said they are considering a bid or are rumored to join the race. The names circulating are Puerto Rican and Dominican.
This won’t be a cakewalk for Blake, or any other competitor.
Diaz Sr. has carouselled through state and city office. His homophobia and anti choice positions are well known and only out-sized by an ego that wouldn’t fit into Yankee Stadium. Most recently, he equated reporting sexual harassment with being a “rat.” This was weeks after saying gays controlled the New York City Council.
But Diaz Sr. can lean into his base of conservative church congregations, which cut across neighborhoods and nationalities. He just opened the “Rev. Ruben Diaz Democratic Club” to register Latino voters. And there are clusters of workers, like livery drivers, that see him as an advocate.
Torres, now in his second term as Councilman, is trying to position himself as the voice of the “pragmatic progressive left.” As a black, LGBT, Puerto Rican who grew up in NYCHA housing, he lives and navigates a range of experiences. His Council district also lies within the 15th, another advantage.
Some find Torres appealing. But he’s also shifted to the point that it’s left a crowd of doubters of his authenticity. He joined and then left the Council’s Progressive Caucus, huddled with then-Independent Democratic Conference head Jeff Klein, and tried to have his flan and eat it too by issuing a “co-endorsement” of Zephyr Teachout and Leticia James in last year’s Attorney General’s race.
The other candidate who is campaigning as a progressive that could make his way to the front is Jonathan Ortiz, director of Phipps Neighborhood Finance Empowerment Center. He’s unknown to many now, but it’s still very early – the election is in 2020.
There’s far more to dissect and watch – like who the progressive left will channel resources to and who the Bronx Democratic machine will back. Pro statehood forces in Puerto Rico also have their eyes on this congressional seat, as a candidate who supports this political status for the island would help them in their current efforts in Washington. Serrano supports statehood. So does Rev. Diaz.
And then, of course, there is how district voters flow to the polls. The turnout has been historically low. For example, the number of prime Democratic voters (people who voted in the previous election) in the district’s 2016 primary was 10,461. But part of the context for this is Serrano’s popularity, or him as the given winner throughout decades. What may prompt an uptick is that we are in a presidential election cycle, which typically sparks higher turnouts, and with what will be a fierce face-off with the incumbent tyrant, Trump.
A Serrano endorsement — if he decides to weigh in — will also count. Serrano is a brand, so who he throws his name behind is certainly going to have an impact on some voters.
Whomever the candidates, voters will look to who will become their most effective advocate in Congress on multiple fronts that have beleaguered Bronxites for years. The Bronx has faced some of the most severe health-related challenges in the state, and its neighborhoods are also facing newer pressures.
“Right now, we are on the verge of being displaced,” says Welcome2theBronx blogger Ed García Conde. “I haven’t heard any of them [the candidates] really talk about gentrification.”
He pointed to developers flocking to the Boogie Down and the growing number of recent white residents who may see themselves as progressives but who others see as gentrifying the South Bronx. García Conde, who is also considering running, talked about the rising rent pressures on bodegueros trying to send their kids to college.
Ultimately, “this race is going to be about who you can mobilize,” García Conde said.
It’s a sentiment echoed by Congress Member Nydia Velázquez, citing her own first crowded primary that included several Latinos. “I always said that Latinos had matured enough politically to rally around the candidate they perceive to be the strongest one,” she said. By strongest, she means level of organization, the support marshaled and vision/message.
Other than gentrification pressures, none of the candidates so far appear to have elaborated on how they would advocate for Puerto Rico, an issue of long concern to Puerto Rican and other constituents of the 15th.
Throughout nearly three decades, Congress Members Velázquez, Serrano at times, and Luis Gutiérrez have been on double duty, working to advocate for local interests and go to bat for also those of the island. While their positions differ along the question of the island’s political status –Serrano is pro statehood,Velázquez once worked for the Commonwealth administration and is promoting self determination, and Gutierrez advocates for independence– the three had been able to work together on key battlefronts, such as the release of political prisoners, ending the U.S. Navy’s bombing exercises in Vieques, and influencing their colleagues on other issues in Congress.
In addition to their connection to the island as Puerto Ricans, that sense of responsibility stems from the fact that while the island has a representative in Congress, that person has no vote.
This advocacy for the homeland is a tradition – other legislators have defended the interests of nations that reflect their heritage. What is different here is that Puerto Rico is an economically subjugated colony of the United States, and that condition since 1898 is the reason why there is a Puerto Rican community to begin with in New York City.
Gutierrez opted not to run for re-election, and now so has Serrano. Congress Member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has used her wide visibility to highlight on occasion the challenges Puerto Rico has been forced to endure – including colonialism – and Rep. Darren Soto (D-Fl), a pro-statehood Puerto Rican, has raised his voice on the recovery, while Velázquez, who has seniority in the House, continues to be the most vocal and pressure for accountability. But that leaves Puerto Ricans at the same number – three Democratic congressional reps – at a moment when supporting the island has taken on an entirely new level of urgency.
And while allies in both the House and Senate, and beyond, can help, progressive Puerto Rican leadership at the front of that is critical. Because when the attention among the general public and media wane, after Puerto Rico’s treatment is used as a talking point against Trump and votes of its diaspora are clinched in elections, strong leaders who will stay the course must be in place.
The outcome in the 15th matters for the intensity of advocacy. “It will define the amount of energy and focus put into the issue of Puerto Rico,” Velazquez said. “And it will be demanded by Puerto Rican constituents in that district.”
Puerto Rico is not in one crisis, but in multiple, as experts like Baruch College Professor Hector Cordero-Guzmán have emphasized. The recovery from Hurricane Maria is mired in the economic depression preceding it, predatorial vulture funds demanding debt payments for an unaudited debt, an unelected fiscal control board pushing brutal austerity on public sectors there, and the dramatic outgoing migration that has been unfolding for years, with thousands of islanders settling in New York and elsewhere.
This is all taking place as President Trump continues to brazenly attack Puerto Ricans as undeserving of federal aid and use his agencies to delay or block disbursements.
What happens in Puerto Rico reverberates in New York City. Residents of the 15th should demand a clearly articulated and specific plan from the candidates about what action he or she will take once in Congress, and hold their next representative to that. The future of the island is dangerously at stake.
Erica González is the former director of public technology and senior adviser at the New York City Council. She is also a former executive editor of El Diario/La Prensa.
* Correction: The initial version of this article erroneously indicated that Blake was a former Assemblymember.