Helen Hines is running for a third time against Rafael Salamanca, who enjoys hefty advantages.

NYC Council, Hines for Council, NYCGIS

Having joined the Council via special election in 2016, Rafael Salamanca is seeking a second full term representing the South Bronx’s 17th district. He is being challenged for the third time by Helen Hines, a former union official and Council staffer.

Council Countdown is a partnership of City Limits, City & State, Gotham Gazette and the Queens Daily Eagle, offering coverage of the 2021 New York City Council races.

Here’s an understatement: Rafael Salamanca, an incumbent who chairs one of the most powerful New York City Council committees, is considered a possible next Council speaker and has a 143:1 cash advantage over his opponent appears to have the edge in his June primary contest against Helen Hines.

As long shots go, however, Hines is relatively well known, having twice sought the 17th District Council seat—which represents Concourse Village, Crotona Park East, East Tremont, Hunts Point, Longwood, Melrose, Morrisania, Port Morris and West Farms.

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Salamanca, a former community board district manager, has been in office for just over five years but has already won five elections. He came to power in a 2016 special election when Maria del Carmen Arroyo resigned, then prevailed in a primary and general election later in 2016, and again in a primary and general election in 2017.

While he cruised in the general elections (he nabbed 99.86 percent of the vote in 2016), the primaries have been slightly more competitive. He beat Hines 62 percent to 38 percent in 2016 and 72 percent to 27 percent the following year. Neither race generated more than 10 percent voter turnout.

Hines was most recently chief of staff to Councilmember Andrew King, who represented a different area of the Bronx and was expelled from the Council for corruption last year. Prior to that, she worked as an organizer and political operative for the 1199 SEIU union for 27 years.

“I’m well-rooted in the district. I know what the struggles are,” she tells City Limits. “The majority of the women in the district are single parents; I am a single parent. My heart goes out to the children that are struggling and the schools that are struggling and not prepared in the way that I would like to see them. Being able to get iPads and laptops for in-home schooling has been very difficult and I don’t understand why.”

Hines says she began running for the seat this cycle thinking that Salamanca was running for borough president. Now she’s in a much tougher race. “That doesn’t bother me because I believe the best person wins and we both have an opportunity,” she says. “I can only say that people should understand that he was in this seat for three years and understand what he did for them for the three years. If he was successful and he was at their beck and call then I would have a difficult time. If he was not, it’s not going to be a fight, but it can be done.”

Hines says her first priority is better equipping district students to succeed in schools, with laptops and better nutrition. She also believes that efforts to familiarize the community with the NYPD officers patrolling it will help address crime and concerns about over-policing. Hines is concerned that rents for the affordable housing in the area is still out of reach of many who live there. “The thresholds are so high and so they would never ever meet the requirements,” she says. “Why are we setting them up for failure?”

In addition to his work overseeing land use, Salamanca has proposed 74 bills during his time on the Council, and 20 have become law. The most significant measure was Intro. 1211, which requires the city to set aside 15 percent of units for the homeless in any new subsidized housing development with more than 40 apartments.

“Look, I’ve been having fun in the Council. This is one of the greatest jobs I’ve ever had. The ability to bring in funding to the district has been very rewarding for me—to be able to know pockets of my community that have been ignored for decades, and being able to go to those pockets that have been ignored and address quality-of-life issues, whether that’s bringing capital or operating dollars, is extremely rewarding,” he says.

Salamanca also points to his ability to bring 100 percent affordable housing to the district—in fact, he says that’s the only housing for which he’s agreed to land-use actions—including projects with support from local nonprofits. “The Department of Housing Preservation and Development, they already know what I’m going to ask for. Every developer knows: no market rate. Everything has to be 100 percent affordable.”

During the COVID-19 crisis, Salamanca says, he was shocked to learn the extent of food insecurity in his district. During his second full term, he hopes to address that by creating food hubs for fresh produce throughout the territory and working with the abundant resources of the Hunts Point food distribution center.

“This pandemic opened up my eyes on a whole different level,” he says. “My next term, my focus is going to be how can we improve food security.”

According to the most recent figures available from the Campaign Finance Board, Hines has $2,919 on hand compared with Salamanca’s $471,590—a total that makes him the best-funded Council candidate in the city by a margin of a quarter of a million dollars.

Salamanca credits his brief run for borough president for his hefty bank account, and notes that he will have to return some money to donors because of the lower contribution limits for Council races. At least $100,000 of his money came from the real-estate sector, and only about $70,000 of his overall haul came from the Bronx.

“Throughout my time, even as a district manager, I built a lot of relationships with individuals and we became friends and I’m happy that they believe in me,” he says. He says his Bronx neighbors don’t have the resources to support candidates. “I represent a very low-income community and I really have a hard time asking my neighbors for $10. I really feel bad abut it.” As for the real-estate support, he says, “Just to be clear, you can see how I voted and how I stood up to this administration. I’ve always stood up for my community, against gentrification and against bad developers.”

Along with Alicka Ampry-Samuel, Adrienne Adams, Justin Brannan, Francisco Moya, Keith Powers and Carlina Rivera, Salamanca has been short-listed as a potential next speaker of the City Council. Were he to be elected by his peers to that post, the residents of the 17th district would have a much more powerful representative in City Hall—but also one who would have to approach decisions from a citywide perspective.

“I’m not focused on the speaker’s race, to be honest. I’m focused on the budget and on my district,” he says. “And I’m focused on who’s going to be next mayor of the city of New York.” Salamanca has been welcoming candidates to tour the district, but has yet to settle on one to endorse.

Of the 10 City Council races in the Bronx in June, Salamanca is one of only two well-established incumbents on the ballot; Diana Ayala, who faces three opponents in the Manhattan-Bronx 8th districts, is the other. Three contests feature incumbents who took office via special election earlier this year, and the rest are open seats.

Early voting begins June 12 and the primary is June 22.