Monique Johnson, Irene Estrada, Marjorie Velazquez, John Perez and Marilyn Soto are in the running for the soon-to-be open seat held by Councilmember Mark Gjonaj, who announced in February that he won’t be seeking reelection.
This story is part of a City Limits’ series on the 2021 City Council races in partnership with Gotham Gazette, City & State and the Queens Daily Eagle. To read more, visit our Council Countdown page.
In February, Councilmember Mark Gjonaj announced that he won’t be seeking reelection this year for his Council seat in district 13, which stretches across the east Bronx from Ferry Point and Throgs Neck in the south to Pelham Bay Park and Orchard Beach in the north, encompassing neighborhoods like Morris Park, Schuylerville and seaside City Island.
Gjonaj, who worked in real estate before being elected to the State Assembly in 2012, was the first Albanian-American to join the City Council when he won that office in 2017. He told City & State earlier this year that he decided not to run for reelection because New York City’s increasingly progressive political scene was “not favorable” to his more moderate views. “I have [to] re-evaluate my ability to continue delivering tangible progress for the people I serve,” he told the outlet at the time. “The current political climate is not favorable to a centrist ideology that my constituency, community and I embrace.”
Parts of district 13, including the eastern edge of Throggs Neck, did swing red in the 2020 presidential election. But the district also largely overlaps with New York State Senate District 34, which elected left-leaning progressive Alessandra Biaggi in 2018 when she defeated incumbent candidate and Gjonaj-ally Jeff Klein. 2010 Census data lists district 13 as 33 percent white, 23 percent Black, 13 percent Asian and Pacific Islander and 29 percent Hispanic; 69 percent of the district’s housing units were occupied by renters and 30 percent by owners.
During the last City Council election here, Gjonaj pulled in about 38 percent of votes in the September 2017 primary and nearly 47 percent of ballots in the general election, spending a record-setting $1.3 million in that year’s race.
Fundraising this year among the five Democratic candidates running to replace Gjonaj in the June primary has been much more modest. Just two of the names on the ballot have campaign finance filings on record with the city’s Campaign Finance Board so far, with second-time candidate Marjorie Velazquez leading the fundraising pack, having received $50,618 in contributions. She’ll face off against candidates Marilyn Soto, John Perez, Monique Johnson and Irene Estrada.
The ‘bridge builder’
“I never thought that I could run for office,” Velazquez, who first ran against Gjonaj for the district 13 seat in 2017, told City Limits in a recent phone interview. A former accountant by training and trade, the Throggs Neck resident and Bronx Community Board 10 member says she first jumped into politics and public service after suffering serious injuries in a workplace accident and a car crash in 2012, which left her frustrated in trying to navigate the medical and health insurance industries, and seeing the many ways “the system doesn’t work for us.”
During the 2017 primary, Velazquez came close to besting Gjonaj, earning 3,113 of votes to the incumbent’s 3,503. “We got really, really, really close,” Velazquez says. “I’m super grateful that we went through 2017 to see what is possible.”
Since that initial campaign, she says she’s been inspired by the wins of progressives like Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and Biaggi, and that her experience during mutual aid work throughout the pandemic has renewed her commitment to public service.
“It made me realize that there is someone to fight for. That folks still need representation that looks at folks that are not being looked at,” she says.
Velazquez’s campaign website expresses support for a millionaire’s tax on the wealthy, expanding public assistance to undocumented immigrant families, addressing food insecurity and imposing a moratorium on school closures. She tells City Limits that her top priority if elected would be COVID-19 recovery, and that she would use her accounting background to “take a good look at what makes sense in our communities.”
“Where have the dollars been invested and how can we actually amplify the needs of our communities?” she explains. She says she would also use participatory budgeting to let residents vote on a portion of budget spending within the district.
Velazquez has earned the endorsement of Biaggi, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. and Congressman Ritchie Torres as well as the Working Families Party and 1199-SEIU. Her $50,618 in fundraising donations scored her $159,494 in public matching funds, and her campaign had $179,284 on hand as of press time.
“I’ve been doing this for no other reason than making sure that everyone has the dignity and respect that they deserve in the community,” Velazquez says, adding that her experience growing up as a middle child has made her an adept “bridge builder.”
“I know how to build bridges between groups because of that.”
‘Faith and politics’
Estrada has run for office before, previously campaigning for State Assembly in the 80th District and for Public Advocate in 2013. A retired parent coordinator, former member of Bronx Community Board 11 and the 49th Precinct Community Council, she currently serves as the Bronx Democratic Party’s female district leader in the 80th Assembly district and member of the Clergy Council at the 49th Precinct.
“I have been very involved with faith and politics,” Estrada told City Limits in a phone interview this week, saying she’s been active in her community since 1982, and that her own experiences as a chaplain and clergy leader helped her realize “that there is a calling to take care of the poor, take care of the needy and the seniors and the youth, and give them a hope of tomorrow.”
“Now I’m running for City Council because we need to make sure that we start filling in the gaps and have a leader that is accountable and responsible and not just for a people, but for all people,” Estrada said.
The candidate is outspoken in her support for the NYPD. Her two grown daughters are police officers, and Estrada herself says she helped run the NYPD’s youth program, the Explorers, for eight years. If elected, she says one of her main priorities would be repairing police and community relations.
“Our recent mayor and administration has caused so much division, so much pain into our communities, and all the work that we have done as community leaders and liaisons for community and policing—he threw all of that out the window,” she says, adding that the people in district 13 “respect police.” “We are a district that respects God, country and family.”
Her other priorities, she says, would be to focus on “healing from the pandemic,” including ensuring that neighborhood small businesses have the support they need to remain open. “They have felt they have been abandoned and ignored,” she said.
Estrada also pointed to what she described as an “overdevelopment of methadone clinics,” in the district; she joined one recent effort to to fight such a clinic from opening near P.S. 89. She also criticized Mayor de Blasio’s efforts to open new community-based shelters across the five boroughs, a process she feels hasn’t been conducted without enough community input.
“The mayor wants to go ahead and put shelters wherever he feels like it and the residents in our district don’t appreciate those shelters being close to residential areas or by schools,” she says. “We don’t say, ‘Don’t bring shelters into our community,’ because we know people need a place to live. But we want family shelters.”
If elected, Estrada says she would fight to keep school safety agents in the school under the NYPD umbrella, and would push to address conditions in NYCHA developments, for accessible transportation and to increase pay for essential workers, like home care attendants.
“I believe that during this season of uncertainty, I am the candidate who can bring unity, bring solutions, equal representation and prevent the disparity of services,” she says.
Someone to ‘work for the people’
Johnson says her record of public service is what sets her apart from other candidates vying for the district 13 seat. “I have been doing community work for the last 25-plus years, so I’m not new to this,” said Johnson, a Bronx Community Board 10 member who’s served as the president of the Throggs Neck Residents Council since 1992, advocating for the 3,500-plus residents at NYCHA’s Throggs Neck Houses. (Johnson’s work with the Residents Council made headlines in 2018 and 2019, when she spoke out against what she described as misconduct and inappropriate behavior on behalf of NYCHA staff at the complex; Johnson herself was later accused by the Department of Investigation of misusing NYCHA funds for tenant association expenses, allegations she denied at the time, saying they were lodged in retaliation for her speaking up against NYCHA staffers).
According to her campaign website, Johnson got into public service following a struggle in her youth with addiction and a two-year prison stint, after which she “discovered faith and chose to dedicate her life to giving back to the community that raised her.” She describes herself as a dedicated member of the Morningstar Full Gospel Assembly and points to her experiences building relationships with different communities, including the faith community and the NYPD.
“I am a servant and my job is to serve my community. That is what I do. That is my life,” Johnson says. “You want someone who is going to work for the people. You want someone who has a heart for the people. It’s not about popularity—it’s about servanthood.”
If elected, the candidate says her priorities would include public safety—“With the temperature now, with the climax between the police department and the community, that would definitely be my number one priority”—as well as housing, health and education.
This would include “making sure that all our children are back in school,” as well as working to bring more resources to schools in her district, from test prep to afterschool programs. “We’ve got to make sure every child is or has the opportunity to be able to effectively prepare for these specialized schools,” Johnson says.
Her campaign website calls for increasing access to youth programs that steer children away from violence and addiction, expanding social services for seniors and for better sanitation services in the district.
Johnson has collected nearly $6,000 in donations, according to campaign finance filings, and had $5,522 on hand as of press time.
“I started in this race very late, because it wasn’t until the current councilman decided that he wasn’t going to run—that is when I picked up the torch,” Johnson says. “I started out very late in the race but I’ve been consistent and I’ve been persistent. It’s been a lot of hard work. It speaks to my character.”
‘Somebody who’s going to get the job done’
Perez says voters should choose him because of the leadership skills he amassed during his career in the U.S. Army.
“What sets me apart is the obvious—I’m an 18-year combat veteran,” says Perez, who retired from armed service in 2015. “I’m still in that military mindset; accomplishment of the mission is the priority…You want somebody who’s going to get the job done.”
Perez has thrown his hat in the political arena before: He ran for City Council in 2016, vying to fill the South Bronx seat in the 17th Council district that had been vacated at the time by Councilwoman Maria del Carmen Arroyo (Rafael Salamanca ultimately won that special election race). Perez later ran to represent State Senate District 32, earning the support of the district’s controversial predecessor (and now City Councilmember) Ruben Diaz, Sr., but lost that race to Luis Sepulveda.
“Leadership is not defined by a zip code,” Perez told City Limits when asked about his prior bids for office. He says he has “strong roots throughout the Bronx, especially in the South Bronx” but that the 13th Council District has “always been my home.”
“The 13th is where I feel welcomed as a patriot. As a veteran, when you drive down Tremont Avenue and you see the flags during the whole summer, it gives you a sense of pride. It tells you a lot,” he says.
If elected, Perez says his top priority would be education. He wants to start “the first military high school academy” in the 13th district, a charter school that he says would focus on college readiness. While students would not be expected to join any branches of services after graduating, the school would teach the structure and discipline the military is known for, he says.
He would also push to expand the number of vocational training programs in the district, so that local residents can have access to the jobs that come with new local development and construction. “You’re making them marketable—get a job, get a trade, learn brick and mortar, you can take that anywhere,” he said.
He says his drive to improve local schools is driven by his experience as a single dad raising his 11-year-old daughter in district 13.
“I have a burning passion to see my daughter succeed just as much as I want your child in this district to succeed. If I make this street safe for my daughter, it’s making it safe for your child as well,” he said. “If I want to improve the situation in the schools, it’s because I have experience. I’m going through it now in real time.”
‘Rebuilding our communities’
Soto doesn’t have much of a web presence. When reached by phone, she told City Limits she’s a lifelong Bronx resident and retired assistant principal (state records list her as having worked at Grace H. Dodge Career and Technical High School) who launched her campaign to increase the number of women running for office.
“There are not too many women involved, especially minority women. I decided to try and run,” Soto says. She adds that her priority would be “rebuilding the city, rebuilding our communities, rebuilding family life.” This would include addressing unemployment with job training and job placement programs.
“A lot of people are depressed. They don’t have jobs. They don’t know how they’re going to pay rent,” she added.
Soto had a unifying message for the other four candidates she’ll face off against on the ballot in June.
“I can’t say I’m better than any of the rest. We’re all out to help the community and the people and to rebuild lives,” she said. “We’re in this together. We still have to remain together.”