How Old-School Politics Blocks Progress In The Bronx


In theory, heftier pay is supposed to attract better talent. The nation’s top college graduates rush to the financial industry to make their quick buck. The best mathematical minds shun careers as public school teachers to take their shots at Silicon Valley or a hedge fund. In politics, at least in New York City, a different kind of phenomenon is under way.

Last year, Governor Andrew Cuomo helped scuttle pay raises for state lawmakers, who have made a base salary of $79,500 since 1999. Naturally, those in the state legislature look longingly at the New York City Council, where elected officials are able to vote themselves pay raises, and do so without hesitation. Thanks to a dramatic boost in 2016, City Council members make at least $148,500.

There’s nothing wrong with incremental pay raises; in exchange for limiting outside income, Albany lawmakers should make more money. The problem arises when assembly members and state senators, looking to cash in on quick raises and fatten their pensions, decamp from Albany to fill open City Council seats.

This year, seven council members are term limited, which should allow a new generation of politicians to step forward. In the Bronx, this generation is currently being stymied. Political dynasties, fiefdoms, and retreads are too prevalent everywhere, but they have a particularly discouraging history in the borough. Fathers install sons. Mothers install daughters. Power stays in-house.

State Senator Ruben Diaz Sr., the 74-year-old father of Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., has declared he will leave Albany this year to run for one of two open City Council seats in the borough. This will be Diaz’s second tour of duty in the council: He served there briefly in 2002 before winning his senate seat.

For Diaz, the council bid is particularly brazen. Currently representing an overlapping district that ropes in the low-income neighborhoods of Morrisania and Soundview, Diaz could see a boost in pension payments with a new council salary. He told the New York Times in February that one of the reasons for his campaign is a recent back surgery that made Albany commutes difficult. (Diaz did not return a request for comment.)

Diaz is an automatic front-runner to replace the term-limited Annabel Palma, and his candidacy may snuff out a promising politician in thirty-year-old Elvin Garcia. Their difference in visions is almost absurd. Diaz, a Pentecostal minister, is fiercely opposed to same-sex marriage and expanding civil rights protections for the LGBT community. He happily campaigned with Ted Cruz in the Bronx.

Garcia, on the other hand, served as Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Bronx borough director and LGBT liaison. Running with the endorsement of Manhattan assemblyman Danny O’Donnell, who is gay, Garcia boasts about securing funding for homeless LGBT youth beds. Though staunchly Democratic, the Bronx is home to many social conservatives like Diaz who have made the battle for LGBT rights much harder than it needs to be. The chairman of the Bronx Democratic Party, Assemblyman Marcos Crespo, voted against same-sex marriage the year it became law.

As Diaz’s retrograde worldview threatens to further pollute the Bronx’s council delegation — it already harbors one gay-bashing evangelical in Fernando Cabrera — Mark Gjonaj looms over his corner of the borough, promising to bring all kinds of baggage with him to the city’s legislative body. Gjonaj, an assemblyman, is trying to jump into an open seat in the southeast Bronx. He was first elected to the assembly in 2012.

Like Diaz, Gjonaj is not a particularly liberal Democrat: He voted against the Women’s Equality Act, which would have strengthened abortion rights protections under state law, among other measures.

Known as a Democrat disdainful of the public finance system, Gjonaj is not participating. (He has about $143,000 in his campaign account.) More troubling is the way he funnels campaign funds to a nonprofit that he not only founded but housed in the headquarters of the Bronx realty group he and his brother manage. Gjonaj also blew more than $72,000 in campaign funds at his brother Paul’s restaurant, spending on various fundraisers and holiday celebrations.

Jennifer Blatus, a spokeswoman for Gjonaj, said he represents “a new generation of leaders” in New York politics. “He is running for City Council to be in a better position to address quality-of-life issues for residents,” Blatus said. “His record in the assembly and experience creating ladders of opportunity for hardworking New York families makes him the best qualified candidate to continue representing the Bronx in City Hall.”

The outgoing councilman, Jimmy Vacca, is not supporting Gjonaj. He is rightfully looking to the next generation, boosting 35-year-old district leader Marjorie Velázquez, who helped elect another rising star in the Bronx, Councilman Ritchie Torres. John Doyle, a 31-year-old former staffer to State Senator Jeff Klein and the unofficial mayor of City Island, is another young activist vying for the open seat.

What helps make city government less insular and ultimately less corrupt than state government is the term limits law. Every eight years, new people with new ideas are given the opportunity to run for city offices without the barrier of an entrenched incumbent. For all the flaws of this current City Council — it’s too preening and too self-congratulatory — it remains a legislative body willing to push more far-reaching bills than its state counterpart.

Thanks to a bevy of lawmakers being term limited in 2013, most employers must provide at least five paid sick days to their employees, working-class tenants have a right to counsel, and certain quality-of-life offenses are now civil rather than criminal penalties. If the Bronx can add to that change, rather than subtract from it, New York City will be much better off.

Editors note — Reader Rachel Brody responds to this story:

Recently you published an article about how old-school politics are standing in the way of progress in the Bronx. While your article only covered two candidates, there are many more who were not included. One of these, Amanda Farias, represents progressive women of color and their interests, and it is extremely disheartening that she was not included in the article. If we really want to change the way politics are run in this city, we need to start lifting up new voices and giving people names they can investigate and rally behind. In leaving Ms. Farias and the other challengers out of its article, the Village Voice neglected to give its readers complete information on the race – and contributed to the very problem the article’s premise addresses.