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Bronx state senator Efrain Gonzalez Jr. was back in federal court last week to hear the latest developments in his two-year-old fraud indictment. Gonzalez, 60, is a burly fireplug of a man with a quick, jovial grin that's served him well over his 20 years in politics. For the occasion, he wore a gray suit that matched his iron-gray hair and the thin mustache that makes him look like a chubby Cesar Romero.
At the hearing, Gonzalez never had to say a word as the lawyers did all the talking, agreeing to a tentative trial date in mid-October. This is good timing for the senator, since it's a few weeks after the September 9 primary, in which he faces two opponents. This way, if he gets convicted, the Bronx Democratic organization can simply choose his successor.
Outside the courtroom, Gonzalez was asked to rate his chances in the election. "No problem," he said. "I win."
Most observers agree. Even though Efrain Gonzalez has stood accused since August 2006 of stealing more than $400,000 from nonprofit groups to which he had routinely routed state grants, there have been few complaints heard from colleagues and constituents. The feds say that the money went to pay the senator's often extravagant personal expenses, including fees for a vacation club in the Dominican Republic, renovations for his mother-in-law's home (also in the D.R.), jewelry, clothes, credit-card bills, and the design and printing of special cigar bands.
Gonzalez's allies insist these are huge misunderstandings that will be cleared up at trial (Gonzalez is represented by a powerful Bronx spark plug, lawyer Murray Richman, who says he's ready to do battle for his client, "a great guy.")
As for the cigar scheme, Gonzalez's pals say it would have allowed the senator to peddle Dominican stogies dubbed "The Senate Cigar" and "The Assembly Cigar" to legislative pals and others. The revenue, they claim, would have gone to worthy causes. Don't ask.
Actually, Gonzalez could have claimed he was going to hawk the cigars for five bucks apiece outside the maternity wing of any Bronx hospital and few of his supporters would have cared. Ever since he first took office in a special election in 1989, the former bus driver with an old gun conviction has easily won re-election. In 2006, months after his indictment and two years after the first news stories appeared about the federal probe of his activities, he cruised to victory with 97 percent of the vote. It's not hard to understand why. Gonzalez represents a largely low-income and Latino district in the northwest section of the Bronx where his clout has made him the key route to crucial state jobs, contracts, and grants—the same money chain he is now accused of abusing.
As a result, despite his status as the walking wounded, the only opponent to try a serious run against Gonzalez this year is Pedro Espada Jr., the pugnacious gadfly and health-care entrepreneur. Espada is his own piece of work. He spent three terms representing an adjacent senate district as well as one in the City Council. During that time, he became such a thorn in the side of the Bronx Democratic machine (for months he wore his own wire on Democratic party leaders) that he wound up the target of a rare public-corruption indictment brought by the district attorney's office.
Espada beat that rap, but his closest aides later went down in a state case brought by then–attorney general Eliot Spitzer. In 2005, three executives of Espada's Soundview Health Center pleaded guilty to steering $30,000 from programs intended for family health care and AIDS prevention into Espada's political campaigns.
Espada wasn't charged, but he got the message, lost his last race, and went back to his home in Mamaroneck. Gonzalez's obvious problems lured him out of political retirement, and Espada and his crew have been back at it in recent weeks. To collect petition signatures to get on the ballot, Espada had his campaign workers offer free heart tests and pineapples to anyone signing up. He also had to explain in court last week why his four cars are still registered to his Westchester County address, and why the gas and electric consumption are minimal at his nominal Bronx home in a fourth-floor apartment at 325 East 201st Street, where he claims to reside with his wife and six grandchildren. (Several apparently busy-body neighbors testified that they've never seen Espada around the building, even though he claims to have lived in the apartment since last year.)
"No question, this contest is the lesser of two evils," says Gary Axelbank, the Bronx's hard-driving political commentator who grills top pols on a local cable-TV show and his WVOX radio show (1460 AM) on Wednesday evenings. "Everybody knows the race is a joke, but it is confirmation of the state of politics in the borough."
One pol who had no trouble making his pick is Assemblyman Jose Rivera, the boss of the Bronx Democratic Party and Gonzalez's friend and next-door neighbor on Fordham Hill. Rivera showed up at a Gonzalez fundraiser last week and has vowed to help his pal beat back the dreaded Espada.
Also fully on board is Senate Minority Leader Malcolm Smith of Queens, who could become the Third Man in the Room with Governor David Paterson and Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver if the Democrats succeed in taking control of the senate this fall. Gonzalez helped elect Smith to his position a couple of years ago. The Queens pol repaid the favor, putting Gonzalez's son and several other aides on the senate payroll.
But even without that personal allegiance, there's a strong political rationale for the senate Dems. When last in the senate, Espada picked up his chair and went and sat with the Republicans. His reward from then–GOP majority leader Joe Bruno was some $745,000 in member-item grants he was allowed to dole out to recipients of his choice. (Espada found the perfect home for the money: his own Soundview health-care centers. He was later forced to withdraw the gifts after the Times reported them.)
This year, Smith and the senate Democrats aren't taking any chances, pledging strong support to Gonzalez. This doesn't exactly help bolster the reform image the Democrats are trying to shape as they prepare to battle the GOP in several crucial districts upstate and in Queens, but they've got a ready explanation: "Senator Gonzalez has been accused, but he hasn't had his day in court," says Doug Forand, the political consultant representing the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee. "We do not consider Pedro Espada to be a good Democrat," he adds. "He was in Albany once before elected by the voters, and he turned his back and sat with the other side."
Funny thing is, you'd be hard-pressed to hang a "True Blue Democrat" sign on Gonzalez, either. Since serving in the legislature he has endorsed many top Republicans, including Al D'Amato, Rudy Giuliani, and George Pataki.
All this might be dismissed as just another sideshow in the ever-fractious world of Bronx politics, but unfortunately there's a lot at stake. "The looming transfer of power in the state senate from Republicans to Democrats is going to be the biggest political shift in this state in 100 years," says one Democratic warrior. "And once we're in power, we're never going back. But how's that power going to be used? That's the question."