debate field

Zoom/City Limits

Candidates, panelists and sponsors gather for the May 14 debate.

A few minutes into Thursday night’s City Limits/Gotham Gazette/The Point Democratic primary debate for the 15th Congressional District, candidate Tomas Ramos framed the conversation this way:

“Everyone in this race pretty much has the same progressive policies that we will be presenting—except for one person who isn’t here. And we know who that person is,” he said. “The difference between us candidates that you will see is our character.”

Forty days from the Tuesday, June 23 primary, the debate featured eight of the 12 candidates on the primary ballot, all of whom are vying to replace Rep. Jose Serrano, who is retiring after 30 years in the House.

The debate, which was moderated by Gotham Gazette’s Ben Max, featured Assemblymember Michael Blake, former Serrano intern Frangell Basora, housing activist Samelys Lopez, former Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Black Lives Matter leader Chivona Newsome, youth services provider Tomas Ramos, and Councilmembers Ydanis Rodriguez and Ritchie Torres.

The missing person Ramos was referring to is Councilmember Ruben Diaz, Sr., a Pentecostal minister whose conservative politics—especially on gay rights and abortion—are as well known as his trademark cowboy hat. He did not respond to an invitation to the debate.

Ramos’s prediction largely provided correct: There were few glaring differences among the candidates on policy issues, although with such a crowded lineup and only two hours to play with, the debate was only able to touch on a handful of issues.

All eight candidates on Thursday’s debate stage are people of color, and three are women. Four are current or former public officials, while the others aren’t—and that proved to be one of the few points of differentiation that any of the candidates drew.

By name or by inference, political newcomers Lopez, Newsome and Ramos criticized the veteran pols in the race as being poorly suited to the task of delivering the kind of sweeping change that COVID-19 has made clear the Bronx needs. The non-electeds cited Torres’s acceptance of campaign donations from controversial hedge-fund manager Dan Loeb, Blake’s support for the Amazon deal and the fact that three in the field—Blake, Mark-Viverito and Rodriguez—ran and lost in last year’s special election for public advocate.

Newsome drew those distinctions most sharply. “I’m a revolutionary leader. So I don’t have the same politics as everyone,” she said. “We need a real candidate: someone who is not an intern for a politician or a career politician but someone who’s built something.”

However, one of the “career politicians,” Rodriguez, highlighted his activist chops, noting that he has been arrested multiple times for civil disobedience.

On the most important topic of the day and perhaps of this generation—how to respond to COVID-19—many candidates cited their own work gathering and distributing donations. There were few open disagreements on the deeper policy questions, although the differences in emphasis were interesting when candidates were asked to critique the federal response so far.

“I wish that at least in New York State [the response] would have been led more by science and not by the politicians,” Lopez said. As for the federal stimulus package, “It’s a travesty. I mean, the undocumented community has been left out. Essential workers have been left out. … We need to fight to make sure that everyone is included in the stimulus package.”

Ramos blamed President Trump’s sluggish response for the local toll, but also pointed to longstanding health vulnerabilities in the Bronx—which he implied current officials, including his opponents, should have done more to shield as the pandemic loomed. “The Bronx, as we all know, is the unhealthiest county in the state,” he said. “What was the representation advocating for those resources? Nobody did anything.”

Mark-Viverito called the response so far “just pathetic.” She highlighted the need for rent forgiveness and loan forbearance “There’s a lot that is missing from those [federal aid] packages,” she said, in particular mixed-status families and small businesses. The former speaker also pointed to deeper issues that were problematic before COVID-19 struck, like income polarization and racism. “Now, that inequality is front and center,” she said.

“It’s been an absolute war on the poor,” Newsome said, highlighting her call (which Blake and Mark-Viverito have also made) for a guaranteed national income; Newsome proposes $2,000 per person—regardless of citizenship status—per month for the duration of the pandemic and $1,200 thereafter. Like Ramos, she faulted local officials for not doing more to prepare for the potential of a devastating infectious disease, saying the 2015 Legionnaire’s outbreak in the Bronx should have been a warning. “Our current leadership knew what was happening.”

Rodriguez focused on the under-representation of Latinos on the city’s recovery task force, noting that of 154 members only 14 percent are Latino and only four are Dominicans. He also proposed that the next federal aid bill include rent money to cover six months of what residential and commercial tenants owe.

Blake, who said he’s lost a friend who was a Verizon worker to the virus, said “There was a pandemic of poverty and institutional racism before the coronavirus pandemic hit,” and was the only candidate to highlight the shortcomings of the online learning that was imposed on public-school children since the shutdown. He also highlighted concerns about policing of social distancing. “The city must change the mask law so that people are not being attacked for no reason other than that they are black or brown.”

Basora said that “COVID-19 is targeting the Bronx,” both in terms of deaths and over-policing. Referring to the stimulus so far, he said. “$1,200 is not enough. Housing is a crisis that is waiting to happen. Our small businesses have been abandoned, tragically.”

Torres critiqued the Trump administration, comparing the U.S. response unfavorably to South Korea’s. The federal stimulus so far, he noted, had, “No hazard pay for essential workers, or housing support for renters on the verge of eviction.”

“It’s been a disaster,” he said.

The evening’s questions came from a panel of City Limits’ Spanish-language reporter and editor Daniel Parra, Hunts Point Express/Mott Haven Herald reporter Parker Quinlan and Sierra Straker of Activists Coming To Inform Our Neighborhood (ACTION), The Point’s youth organizing program.

The discussion was informed by the Bronx People’s Platform, a policy agenda developed by a coalition of local organizations. A second event featuring 15th district candidates in a community-led forum sponsored by the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition will occur on Tuesday, June 9 at 6 p.m. (Follow @northwestbronx for details.)

The 15th district is the only Congressional district located solely in the Bronx. West of the Bronx River, it covers virtually everything south of Fordham Road. Between the Bronx River and Westchester Creek, it covers everything south of the Cross Bronx expressway. While there are Congressional primaries on June 23 for 12 of the 13 seats representing New York City, the contest in the 15th is the only one for an open seat, and has drawn the largest field.

Also on the ballot are Mark Escoffrey-Bey, Julio Pabon and Marlene Tapper, who did not qualify for the debate because none had reported fundraising to the Federal Election Commission by debate day.

Tapper provided a statement to City Limits: “Today, we are living in unprecedented times, which requires a strong leader who will sustain our populace, lower the mortality rate while improving the quality of life. Every New Yorker deserves a safe and affordable place to live in a neighborhood providing opportunities to advance. My substantial experience with contracts, as a financial advisor, legal and political consultant, and collective bargaining experience draws on significant negotiating expertise.”

So did Pabon:

“My vision for NY15 is self-determination of our residents through economic empowerment and removal of the shackles of the criminal (in)justice system, specifically by 1) collaborating with “Occupy NYCHA” to transfer ownership of NYCHA units to residents (builds financial equity and creates local jobs, including green jobs), 2) implementing a federal Marshall Plan to bring investments to our and other economically marginalized areas (eg Flint, Camden), 3) as co-founder of Discovery for Justice which successfully removed the Blindfold Law, making sure it is enforced, and 4) modifying the Jones Act which negatively affects not just residents of Puerto Rico but also Bronx residents as it creates competition for limited resources. My vision/plan is not based on raising money (the ‘rationale’ for not inviting to the City Limits debate) but rather the consciousness of our constituents. As a people, we cannot depend on the same government/career politicians who oppress us, and instead must achieve self-determination. Unlike any other candidate, I have lived in NY15 for over 60-years (through the fires and drug wars) and know that politicians are only loyal to their jobs and their political party. Thus, if you are tired of the same rhetoric, join the revolution.”

The winner in June faces a general election in November, but a primary win virtually guarantees a trip to Washington, given that Democrats outnumber Republicans 20 to one in the district.