The Most Interesting Local Race of the Year

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Photos by Jon Reznick

By Elizabeth Burke
Special to the Clyde Fitch Report

The most interesting local race this year is not the Epic Battle between Andrew Cuomo and Rick Lazio for the governorship of New York. Yes, I know, “Epic Battle” is a bit over the top.

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No, the most interesting local race this year is for the seat currently held by New York State Sen. Pedro Espada of the 33rd district in the Bronx. Espada is in for the fight of his political life this fall as five possible candidates pound the streets, getting signatures on petitions that will get them on the ballot for the Democratic primary on Sept. 14.

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The candidates include community organizer Desiree Pilgrim-Hunter; Van Cortlandt Village attorney and Community Board 8 member Dan Padernacht; Community Board 7 chair Fernando Tirado; and Gustavo Rivera, former director of outreach for U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. Refreshingly, each candidate actually lives in the Bronx (though Pilgrim-Hunter’s condo is in an exclusive gated community in the borough).

I find Rivera to be a stand-out candidate, part of what the New York Daily News’ Erroll Lewis calls “Generation O” (for Obama). These are the young idealists who worked on Obama’s presidential campaign and have used that experience to jump into political races themselves in 2010. As constituency director for the Obama campaign in Florida, Rivera’s job was to build coalitions of the many diverse communities across the state; collectively, his team created a massive voting bloc and helped win Florida. Rivera’s campaign manager, Horacio Gutierrez, is also an alumnus of the Obama train. Their combined experience will be formidable.

Rivera himself is a veteran campaigner; he has worked on behalf of three state senators: Jose Serrano, Andrea Stewart-Cousins and John Sabini. (The latter was succeeded by Hiram Monserrate, who twice challenged Sabini for his seat and won it in 2008, then lost it when Monserrate lost it and beat up his girlfriend and was expelled from the chamber. Now, Monserrate is trying to find someone his own size to beat up. Will he never go away?)

Don’t think campaigning is all Rivera has done since moving to the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx. (He has lived in the same rent-stabilized apartment since he moved here from his native Puerto Rico 11 years ago.) He was a fellow at Hunter College, for example, and teaches political science at Pace University.

There has been much talk in the last year about ousting “political insiders,” thanks to jokesy, folksy Sarah Palin. Well, I don’t know about you, but I don’t want the regular guy in office — I include myself in that group. These are very tough times, with New York in perpetual crisis mode and clowns running the circus. As in the presidential election 18 months ago, I want the smartest people in office. I do not want Joe-the-(fill-in-the-blank) near my statehouse, or any house for that matter.

Now, in case you’ve been living in another country or in a state far from New York, you’ve probably have heard of the myriad investigations focused on Espada. Some of the charges that he and 19 family members and friends are accused of by state and federal authorities include: looting the Soundview Healthcare Clinic of $14 million; spending $20,000 on sushi (which was billed to the clinic but delivered to Espada’s wife at their home in Mamaroneck, in Westchester); and failing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in payroll taxes, an omission that led state officials to cancel a $3 million contract last year that would have allowed Soundview to build a new clinic. You get the idea.

Recently, I spoke with Rivera about why he stepped down as Sen. Gillibrand’s director of outreach, and what drew him to the idea of public service. He told me that he tells his students of the late political scientist Harold Lasswell‘s comment on politics:

Politics is who gets what, when, and how.

To Rivera, Lasswell’s comment means there are limited resources available; government is there to figure out where those resources go and who gets them. “There will always be people who make the decisions about where resources go,” he said. “It matters who is making those decisions.” Rivera believes good governance creates a direct impact on the community — and provides the public with accountability of those making important decisions.

The New York State Senate has been controlled by the Republicans for all but one year from 1939 to 2008. With the historic 2008 election, control of the Senate flipped to a thin majority. Still, it was a majority — Rivera had worked to get Democrats elected and, once in office, to enact legislation that the GOP-led Senate had been sidelining or ignoring. For example, there was bill S4781A, which protects tenants from abusive practices. The Senate also passed a comprehensive jobs package — 10 bills designed to put New Yorkers back to work, creating new jobs and spurring economic growth for businesses statewide.

Then in June 2009, fairweather Democrats Espada and Monserrate — along with their fellow state senators Rubén D√≠az and Carl Kruger, collectively called the “gang of four” — hijacked the Senate by refusing to caucus with their party, effectively becoming Republican tools that handed control of the Senate back to the GOP. Not only did this completely shut down Albany, as we all know, but it also cost the state millions during one of the worst fiscal years in New York history. Only Sen. Espada came out a winner: his reward for dishonorable behavior was to flip himself and his friends back toward the Democrats by becoming their majority leader, with a fat staff budget and more power, his agenda all along.

Rivera told me that witnessing such traitorous behavior — after finally achieving that Democratic majority, after getting good legislation accomplished — was the impetus for him to consider going from political aide to politician. Watching Espada create the coup that shut the government down for month, watching him do it for no other reason than for selfish gains, told him that Espada needed to be taken down — and defeated.

Citing his level of experience and the need for accountability in government, Rivera also acknowledged that running for office seemed like the next step in his career. After 10 years living in the middle of the 33rd District (as opposed to, say, Mamaroneck), he saw that he could directly affect people in his community. With an expansive knowledge of the process of Albany politics, he believes he will generate immediate results. “I can go into the legislature and get things done on the first day,” he said.

On the afternoon I spent with Rivera, he and his army of volunteers were focusing on that summer ritual, the Gathering of the Signatures — petitioning to get on the primary ballot. I watched as people who had no idea who Rivera is grab for a pen as soon as they heard he was challenging Espada. When meeting someone who didn’t recognize Espada’s name, all one volunteer needed to do was offer a list of the crimes of which Espada is accused and soon the person’s head was nodding and another signature was obtained. Rivera told me he’s met only three people who are Espada supporters — one of whom is an Espada staffer.

The voters’ general sentiment seems to be that Espada is a crook, a thug with no shame. “At times, they’re very specific about the issues they have with him,” Rivera said. “The coup is one issue. They want him the hell out. He has been lacking working with the community, no presence here, doesn’t live here, his actions are disrespectful, he is a disgrace and an embarrassment.”

“But after hearing all this,” Rivera added, “it’s easy to say [Espada’s] horrible. Instead, let’s offer an option, a positive change. It boils down to one thing: I want to be accountable. I tell them: “I want you to come to my office on a regular basis to remind me I work for you.” Let’s start from a higher ground with a message of experience, integrity and change.”

I watched Rivera repeat this statement to everyone he talked to. He gave them numbers to call, a voice to their issues, an ear to listen. By their reactions, it was the first time anyone running for office ever paid attention to their concerns. They started with skepticism and left with a smile and optimism. “Electors are not stupid, they’re not easily swayed,” he said. “They’re educated about the issues and I just need to do a better job to communicate how I am a better fit and will do a better job. Do not underestimate voters.”

Rivera has been endorsed by New York City Council members Robert Jackson, Annabel Palma, Melissa Mark-Viverito and Jumaane D. Williams, which is an unusually impressive achievement for this stage of a campaign. With this kind of support — and an opponent so controversial — I am looking forward to seeing Rivera on the ballot, not to mention the ensuing fireworks that will surely follow.

Elizabeth Burke, a New York-based actor, has been involved in politics since her first campaign at age 16. Burke’s Law does not necessarily represent the views of The Clyde Fitch Report.