GOP's Forgetful Convert

New republican state senator Olga Mendez quit more than just the democratic party

Filings by other political action committees show at least a dozen other contributions to Mendez in 2002, both before and after Catsimatidis's party. None of that showed up on her reports, however, which listed only two donations, totaling $1,500.

Mendez recalled Catsimatidis's party as "a very nice event." But she said she had had nothing to do with arranging it or reporting its receipts. "I have never paid attention to those things," Mendez said of the missing information. "In all my life, I never, ever called anyone for a contribution."

Yet past campaign reports show the senator has done well by those doing business in her district. Mendez said when she needed a developer for a new low-income apartment complex to be built on East 115th Street, she was contacted by a Westchester-based firm called MacQuesten Development. "I was impressed by the work they did before, in the Bronx, which I saw," said Mendez.

With the senator's backing, MacQuesten won the state's designation to build that 130-unit project, as well as a second one of 74 additional units on East 116th Street next door to Mendez's district office. Campaign filings show the firm's principals and family members, as well as its in-house architects and a political action committee to which MacQuesten is a major contributor, gave $11,100 to Mendez between 1999 and 2000 as the project was being negotiated.

The second complex, now under construction, is to be named Olga Mendez Apartments; the first one, already occupied, is named after Tony Mendez, in honor of the senator's late father-in-law. Antonio Mendez, who died at age 80 in 1982, was Tammany Hall's top ally in East Harlem, the first native-born Puerto Rican to be named a Democratic Party district leader. His base was the Caribe Democratic Club, whose offices in a Lexington Avenue brownstone still carry a large sign above the door with the names of Mendez and her brother, Freddie Aran, as its leaders.

That was the base of operations in the 2001 mayoral election, when Mendez endorsed billionaire Republican Michael Bloomberg after her first choice, Fernando Ferrer, lost a primary runoff to Public Advocate Mark Green. Her endorsement came with a pledge to turn out the vote, and to that end the mayoral candidate made a $40,000 contribution to the Caribe Democratic Club. Bloomberg reported the donation, but not the club, which has no reports on file with the city's elections board, despite rules requiring it do so.

Why not? "My understanding is they don't have to do it," said Mendez. "Only those clubs that have paying members do; that is the way my father-in-law always said it was done."

And how had Bloomberg's money been spent? "Freddie took $10,000; he was running it all, he was the campaign manager. The rest was spent with all the people who were all over the place in the streets."

This fall, Mendez faces her toughest race yet as she runs for re-election as a Republican. Two Democrats, City Councilman Jose Serrano Jr. and former assemblyman Nelson Antonio Denis, are competing for the nomination. Mendez said she's not worried. "I play it straight. It would've been easy for me to stay Democratic and win 90 percent of the vote. But I go for something I believe in."

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