News & Politics

Bronx Giant Ruben Diaz Sr. Faces “Grassroots” Challenger for Council Seat

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“I think this is the moment. If it’s not now, then it will be never.”

Amanda Farias was speaking last June at a training session at the New American Leaders Project, which helps first- and second-generation Americans plan runs for public office. At the time, the then-26-year-old sat among 29 women of color intending to launch political careers. Now, the Bronx native is fulfilling that aspiration as a candidate running for the open City Council seat in District 18, which covers Parkchester, Castle Hill, Clason Point, Harding Park, and Farias’s neighborhood of Soundview.

Of the seven candidates in the race to replace term-limited councilmember Annabel Palma, who has represented the district since 2003, Farias is the only woman. That helps her stand out and presents both an advantage and a disadvantage: More women vote than men (at least in presidential elections), but men donate more to politicians. And though Farias has been endorsed by the New York City chapter of the National Organization for Women, she lacks a Rolodex of high-powered, high-earning supporters.

“Men are used to giving money to campaigns,” Manhattan councilmember Helen Rosenthal tells the Voice. “They donate tons of money to Congress and the president, but there’s a local level, too. We need to build a pipeline of strong, dedicated women with integrity who are going to be the ones to fill those shoes.”

The child of Puerto Rican– and Dominican-born parents, Farias was raised in Soundview as the oldest of three children in a single-parent household. After receiving both a B.A. in government and politics and an M.A. in international relations from St. John’s University, she eagerly plunged into the world of politics, organizing Black and Latinx voters in Colorado during President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign.

“Then I realized that I needed to come back home,” Farias says. “I wanted to take a domestic focus, looking at how New York City politics is working or not working” — and seeking incremental changes in Bronx public schools, health care, immigrant and women’s advocacy, and infrastructure.

In 2013, Farias returned to New York and started working as director of special projects and participatory budget liaison under Queens Democratic councilmember Elizabeth S. Crowley, breaking down expense funding, expanding capital projects, and managing the City Council’s Women’s Caucus. Now, her focus is on the district she hopes to represent, which is littered with vacant buildings, run-down parks, undermaintained roads and waterfronts, and shoddy infrastructure.

Before leaving her position as legislative aide to run for office, Farias helped organize a push to enact three women’s health bills and Local Law 116, which amends the city’s administrative code to require city agencies to publish online their plans for aiding minority- and women-owned businesses. Now, she is focused on breaking down how to best allocate her district’s budget, something she says has not been done well in the past, though she doesn’t provide specifics.

“The money is there,” she says. “It’s either not being moved along fast enough or it’s just not being done, and that’s concerning for neighborhoods that are overlooked, that are lacking resources, that are in desperate need of transportation upgrades and healthy food access. People are tired of having complaints not being heard, having issues not being changed.”

Farias is up against known names with larger teams and more dollars: According to the New York City Campaign Finance Board, State Senator Ruben Diaz Sr. had raised $121,068 through this year, and Elvin Garcia had raised $63,411. Farias had almost as many total contributors as Garcia, and nearly double as many as Diaz, but brought in less in total donations ($41,861), thanks to her earning the most small-dollar donations of any City Council candidate in the city. And though the New York City Campaign Finance Board matches small donations at a six-to-one rate for contributions up to $175, Farias still lags behind.

“I’m not going to say that I’m not proud of what I’ve raised,” Farias says. “I’m very proud of being a small-dollar-donor leader. I’m running a grassroots campaign. My network of folks are hardworking people, they’re low-income people, they’re people working two jobs, they’re folks in the public sector like myself, working to the betterment of the city with a lower pay because we’re here to do the hard work.”

But a win for Farias is still feasible, thanks to New York’s winner-take-all council races. “In a multi-candidate race, you only have to get one more vote than the next person,” says CUNY Graduate Center’s Center for Urban Research director John Mollenkopf. “So if ten thousand people vote and several other candidates siphon away two thousand, it will only take four-thousand-plus votes to win the nomination. If someone assiduously knocks on every door of voters likely to participate in Democratic primaries, they could attract this number of votes.”

The political giant running for the District 18 seat is Diaz, a 74-year-old state senator who is a staunchly anti-LGBTQ and anti-abortion politician — he sponsored the failed Woman’s Right to Know Act, which would have required a 24-hour waiting period before abortions so that women could “receive information about the medical risks” — appeasing a demographic of Bronxites in line with the conservative Democrat’s beliefs. His candidacy could snuff out promising first-time candidates, as a committed following of older citizens may be unwilling to abandon Diaz for an unfamiliar face.

One of those close competitors is the 30-year-old Garcia, who has served as Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Bronx borough director and LGBT liaison for the last three years. The only openly gay candidate in the race, Garcia is focusing on such issues as funding for homeless LGBT youth and health care. This serves as a stark contrast to Diaz, who has continuously voted against same-sex marriage legislation, led an anti–marriage equality march in 2013, and in 2003 sued the city to shut down the Harvey Milk School for LGBTQ students after claiming its admission policy discriminated against heterosexual students. William Russell Moore (former chief of staff for Brooklyn councilwoman Una Clarke), Michael Beltzer, and the Green Party’s Carl Lundgren are also in the running.

“The Bronx County Democratic organization is tough to go up against,” Mollenkopf says. “They have the machinery to get all the signatures for their candidate to get on the ballot and to challenge other candidates. They may well have some turnout capacity as well. And one of their own is the Speaker of the New York State Assembly. So if they decide to back Diaz, it will be a very tough fight.”

Solidifying the approval of progressive organizations could also prove difficult for Farias. Though NOW-NYC is backing Farias, the Progressive Caucus so far hasn’t. The only three female candidates endorsed by the caucus —Carlina Rivera in lower Manhattan,Diana Ayala in a district that spans East Harlem and the Bronx, and Marjorie Velazquez in the east Bronx — are the preferred candidates of the councilmembers they’d be replacing.

“Endorsing a woman when it’s hard for her to win is really the test for a progressive organization,” says New York City political consultant Alexis Grenell. “First-time female candidates need money to get off the ground, more institutional support. These progressive organizations need to endorse women when it’s hard for them to win and not just when it’s safe. Don’t endorse women when it’s easy; endorse them when it matters.”

Farias says that if elected, she plans to immediately get to work on improving District 18’s transportation; increasing access to affordable healthy foods and targeting the area’s diabetes, obesity, and asthma endemic; and improving test scores in local public schools, though she hasn’t offered specifics. She also supports making CUNY tuition-free, partnering with the private sector on job programs for the unemployed and formerly incarcerated, and transitioning the city to use 100 percent renewable energy. She also hopes to “partner with nonprofit developers to build 100 percent affordable housing,” while using participatory budgeting to allow residents to have a direct say in determining how money is spent: “This can change their understanding of the budget and how money is allocated, making them more proactive.”

“The Bronx has taught me how to always keep hustling and never give up,” Farias says. “From when I was young, everyone was telling me, ‘You have potential, you’re smart. The Bronx is terrible; get out if you can.’ Even though I ‘made it’ to some people that I grew up with, I’m coming back to bring it back to the community, because that’s what we deserve. No matter how many times people say I don’t have a chance here, or there’s a political giant in this race, or I won’t be able to raise enough money, I’m still rising. The hustle continues, and I’m going to be here till the very end.”

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