Ramon Velez died Sunday night. He was once the most powerful Latino politician in New York, a scandal-scarred city councilman who ran the South Bronx like a monarch.
When I discovered that he owned 14 condominiums in Puerto Rico while running a poverty program on a public salary of $210,000 in 1985, he was waiting for me in the darkened stairwell to a San Juan penthouse, the last of his island holdings that I visited. He jumped me, wrapped his arm around my throat and used his 300-pound bulk to force me to the ground, muttering that he was going to kill me. A Voice photographer, Susan Ferguson, jumped on his back, dug her fingernails into his eyes, and freed me. Velez was indicted on several felony assault counts, but was acquitted by a judge in a trial that became a Yankee-go-home media circus.
Velez’s passing, on the same day that another minority son of New York, Eric Holder, is named the next Attorney General, is a commentary on how much has changed in black and Latino politics in two decades.
In 1985, Velez was the quintessential “poverty pimp,” a term of art applied to many minority pols who assembled poverty programs the same way developers acquired sites, taking over neighborhoods one block at a time. Velez had all the guile and stubborn strength of a street fighter turned oligarch and, while all the other giants of the Bronx machine at the time, from Democratic boss Stanley Friedman to borough president Stanley Simon, went to jail, Velez was pictured in his office with a sign that read: “I’m still here.”
Jose Serrano, the South Bronx congressman today, was a bank teller handpicked from behind his window by Velez to run for assembly when he was in his 20s. Serrano is but one of an entire generation of Bronx Latino politicians who rose to power on Velez’s immense shoulders. To him, each was both a protege and a vessel of empire, an extension of himself in time and space. Many of them still see him as the father of Latino politics in this town, an institution and legacy builder unparalleled in New York’s barrios.
On my weeklong visit to Puerto Rico checking out his condos, and examining a dark personal secret of his, I made the mistake of visiting his mother in a faraway corner of the island. He may have thought I told his mother this secret, but I did not. He certainly thought that my visit crossed a line, that anything I wanted to report or write about him was fair game, but that his mother was not in play. He swore later that he attacked me that day because I visited his mother, though my interview with her and what I wrote about her was respectful and appropriate. He taught me a lesson about boundaries.
Velez came from so little, and rose so high, entertained at the White House by Ronald Reagan and embraced by mayors, that he stands out in the modern history of New York as a pioneer and a stepping stone, a bridge to our more inclusive city and country.