The BronxTalk debate between 33rd District candidates State Sen. Gustavo Rivera and party-backed attorney Miguelina Camilo touched on a range of issues, from bail reform to what “progressive” really means to them.


Miguelina Camilo and Sen. Gustavo Rivera.
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The race for State Senate District 33 in The Bronx is one of the more competitive contests in Tuesday’s primary—one where redistricting changes led to longtime State Sen. Gustavo Rivera facing a challenger, attorney Miguelina Camilo, who’s been endorsed by many of his Democratic colleagues.

The match-up will determine the Democratic candidate on the November ballot for the wide-ranging district, which was redrawn this year to encompass Riverdale, Fieldston, Bedford Park, Belmont and Van Nest. When Camilo, a former attorney for the NYC Board of Elections, initially launched her campaign, it was for what was then an open State Senate seat being vacated by Congressional candidate Alessandra Biaggi. When a state court tossed those earlier redistricting maps and ordered new ones, both Camilo and Rivera faced a new set of choices about where to run.

When both ended up vying for the redrawn District 33, several established New York Democrats who’d thrown their support behind Camilo earlier in the election cycle, when she was running for Biaggi’s open seat, decided to remain in her camp—motivated, she said, by the prospect of electing a woman of color and experienced attorney to the State Senate.

“It was never the intention to go against Sen. Rivera,” Camilo said during a debate this week between the two candidates, hosted by BronxNet’s BronxTalk and co-sponsored by City Limits. “He had a choice. He made a choice to run in the 33rd.”

Rivera said he opted for the 33rd because its new lines most closely overlap with his existing district, an area he’s represented for a decade (he defeated controversial former State Sen. Pedro Espada for the seat back in 2010).

“When I made the decision to run in that seat it was because of the neighborhoods that I’ve already been representing and want to continue to represent,” said Rivera, who was recently endorsed by U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

The BronxTalk debate, hosted by longtime host Gary Axelbank, touched on a wide range of topics, and the two candidates offered measured answers throughout without clashing too seriously over any one issue. They expressed different takes on bail reform, with Camilo saying she agreed with state lawmakers’ recent decision to rollback more of the state’s 2019 overhaul of its cash bail system, again expanding the types of charges judges can set bail for.

“Absolutely it is upon our electeds to try to craft legislation that is tailored to the community’s needs, and that’s what the legislature did,” Camilo said. “I understand the community concern and I would want to be an elected that speaks for them in Albany, and tailoring legislation further if necessary.”

The more left-leaning Rivera disputed the argument, put forth by some Republican and moderate lawmakers, that New York’s bail law changes are responsible for the uptick in crime since the pandemic began, a trend that’s also happening on the national level.

“Bail is a way to criminalize poverty,” Rivera told Axelbank. “Let’s actually figure out the things that really solve crimes, not use this as a boogeyman.”

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Both candidates offered similar answers when asked if they would support the placement of new homeless shelters in the district—a practice that’s been increasingly met with public backlash as the city looks to expand its shelter capacity to keep up with a rise in homelessness. In the newly redrawn District 33, several Bronx lawmakers have denounced the city’s proposal to open a men’s homeless shelter on Broadway and West 262nd Street in Riverdale.

Rivera said he considers each project on a case-by-case basis, depending on its location, the parties involved and other factors. “I believe that certainly there needs to be a balance of services available in all neighborhoods so that we can house our homeless New Yorkers,” he said, adding that “keeping people in their homes is number one priority.”

Camilo said similarly that she would dig into the specific details of each project, and took issue with the Riverdale proposal in particular over what she described as a lack of information that’s been shared with the public, and other issues.

“They already have these plans drawn up that no one has seen except to know that they want to have eight men per room. And that is highly troubling when you also know that the area lacks transportation access,” she said.

The two Democrats also weighed in on the future of the long-fraught Kingsbridge Armory, the massive city-owned landmark on Kingsbridge Road and Jerome Avenue that’s sat empty for decades. The most recent plans to fill the site with an ice rink and other amenities fell through earlier this year because of a financing shortfall.

“I’m Puerto Rican; for me ice is something you put in a rum drink, I don’t know anything about ice skating. But I was supportive of it because the developer, to his credit, sat down with the community and drew up a legally binding community benefits agreement,” Rivera said of that recent plan (an earlier Bloomberg-era proposal to build a shopping mall at the vacant site was killed because the developer behind it refused to agree to community demands for a living wage).

He declined to offer a specific vision for what he’d like to see at the facility other than that it should be a “community asset.”

“What I would want to do is as I’ve done for the last 11 years: Work along with the community to make sure that it is a process that is driven by them,” Rivera said.

Camilo said she’d like to see the Armory used as a community center. “That is lacking in the district and related again to the youth, which is so important, and just engaging our families and making them feel like they have a place that is their own.”

You can watch the full debate below, or on BronxNet’s website. Early voting is underway now, the primary election will take place on Tuesday. Find your poll site here.