South Bronx Council Races Generate Little Heat

Photo by: Joe Hirsch
City Council candidate Julio Pabon (center) and a volunteer stump for signatures.

As Campaign 2013's temperature rose, diners at Mott Haven's Camaguey restaurant and voters in Melrose had little interest in their lowest-level officials.

By: Joe Hirsch

This article is an installment in The Five Borough Ballot, a collaboration between City Limits, City & State and WNET's MetroFocus. In each edition of the print and video series, we return to a location in each of the five boroughs to ask real New Yorkers their take on the 2013 election as it unfolds. For a complete overview of the series, go here

When the city's redistricting commission pulled back the curtain on newly drawn City Council lines in February, it revealed that all of Mott Haven would be lumped in with East Harlem in the 8th Council district.

The move pushed the 17th Council district, now represented by longtime incumbent Maria del Carmen Arroyo, to points farther north. The largely residential Melrose neighborhood just north, will remain inside the 17th.

Five months later, few residents appear to have taken much interest in the district lines or the candidates.

Incumbent has low profile among diners

At Camaguey Restaurant on 138th St., and across Mott Haven, Melissa Mark-Viverito is the incumbent voters will consider in September's primary.

On a sweltering afternoon, a half-dozen 60-something men sat on stools around the entrance to the 6-train at Brook Avenue near the restaurant. None could say who is running for the council seat, or knew that Mark-Viverito has represented this sliver of the neighborhood for eight years.

Beverly Smalls, a regular customer at Camaguey who owns a convenience store around the corner, came in to buy lunch on a slow July 5 afternoon. She explained that a local candidate for the council seat left a form at her store weeks ago, asking for help getting signatures to put her on the ballot. But Smalls said her customers "don't want to sign a paper if they don't know who she is. They want to vote, but they don't want to vote for someone they don't know."

"This neighborhood is all about who you know," she said.

While mopping the restaurant floor, Janet Greenberg, one of three sisters who runs Camaguey, recalled an elected official who began his career locally, then worked his way up to Albany. She recalls how he used to come in regularly to chat with staff and customers, courting votes. It's been years since he's been back.

"Now he's all the way up there and we're down here," Greenberg said.

Smalls says she has heard a few local NYCHA tenants say good things about Mark-Viverito, but it's rare that anyone among the hundreds of regular customers who come into her store for supplies or lottery tickets knows about the candidates or the imminent elections.

"If something is not done, the vote is going to be very low," Smalls predicted.

Challenger faces steep climb

Early indications are that voter apathy is as entrenched in the other section of Bronx Community Board 1, the 17th Council district just north of Camaguey, as it is in the 8th.

At a voter registration drive at the Jackson Senior Center in Melrose on July 3, one dark horse candidate running against del Carmen Arroyo encouraged seniors to get involved.

"You are in District 17," Julio Pabon, 61, told some 100 seniors, then informed them that "the City Council decides everything that has to do with the city," including "the buses you take," and the need for elevators at subway stations.

He urged the seniors to help raise local voter participation rates from the meager 12 percent of those registered who now vote.

"That's why this community gets no attention," he said.

"Don't vote for people just because they're the only ones you see on the ballot," Pabon urged the seniors in Spanish and English.

Name recognition is especially complicated in an area in which the familiar names span generations.

"Ruben Diaz has our backs," said Monserrate Bica, 81, in Spanish, while seated at a table with friends. But when asked, she could not specify whether she was referring to longtime State Senator Ruben Diaz Sr., or Diaz's son Ruben Diaz Jr., the borough president.

Asked about the City Council race, Bica complained that Arroyo doesn't come to the center as often as she should, but couldn't say whether she was referring to current Councilwoman Maria del Carmen Arroyo or the councilwoman's mother, longtime Assemblywoman Carmen Arroyo, who also represents Melrose.

Danny Barber, a lifelong resident of Jackson Houses and a tenant and youth organizer, supports the Arroyos for securing funding for key initiatives in the South Bronx.

"My commitment is to the dynasty," he said.

Even so, Barber says he recognizes many fellow tenants cast their ballots not for deeds but for names.

"People have the idea stuck in their heads. Nothing's going to change," he said, adding, "They're not going to take chances on people they don't know."

Tired of government

But even name recognition can be hard to gauge in a race few at the senior center are following.

While attending the voter registration pitch, Elsie Velez, 66, said City Council representatives "don't do anything." Shirley Drakeford, 64, said candidates "do things for their own benefit." But despite their dissatisfaction with their representatives, neither was able to name the candidates or the role of the City Council.

A wheelchair-bound NYCHA tenant, Betty Gant, sat waiting to enter the center. Gant, 65, said that although she votes, she does so with reservations. Her two grown sons are so disillusioned with the political process that they don't vote at all, she said.

"It's always the same. They make a lot of promises but nothing ever happens," said Gant. On a recent night when neither elevator in her building was working, Gant, who has diabetes and heart disease, slept in front of the building, after being carried down twelve flights of stairs in her wheelchair.

Gant says she has pushed NYCHA officials for two years to transfer her to a lower floor with a wider doorway that EMS workers and family members can wedge her through in emergencies.

For Gant, the city's failure to improve public housing conditions is an indication of unresponsive government. This time, she hopes it will be different.

"They sweep you under the rug," she said, adding, "Seniors like me in a wheelchair, who's going to fight for us? I hope like hell somebody's going to hear what we have to say."

Clock ticks for hopefuls

After the registration session, Pabon's volunteers collected signatures in the torrid heat on 156th St., with just a week left to get their man on the ballot for the September primary.

Pabon, a local businessman who served as chief of staff for Congressman Jose E. Serrano during the 1980s when Serrano was an assemblyman, threw his hat into the ring earlier this year to challenge Arroyo, who was first elected in 2005.

Arroyo's eight-year run has been pockmarked with scandal. In 2010, her nephew, Richard Izquierdo Arroyo, was jailed for a year and a day, after pleading guilty to embezzling $115,000 in federal funds from a low-income housing non-profit he ran. He confessed to funneling some of the money to his aunt's and grandmother's campaigns.

In 2011, the councilwoman tried to circumvent standard practice by pressuring officials to bypass city housing agencies and allow a group that had contributed to her campaign to land a management contract on a large Mott Haven apartment building for seniors, according to Crain's.

Although Pabon's volunteers have collected far more than the 450 signatures needed to get on the ballot, they say the arcane process has been an obstacle course. Campaign volunteer Saj Rahman, 31, has been inputting signatures into one of eight computers at the Bronx Board of Elections' dingy basement office, trying to beat the July 11 deadline on a balky computer system.

"Two can be broken at any given time," Rahman said. At times, teams of four or five volunteers from better-funded campaigns have arrived at the election office. If he has been on the computers for a while, the clerks will tell him to leave so the other team can use the computers, he said.

According to the New York City Campaign Finance Board, Mark-Viverito is being challenged by Ralina M. Cardona, Sean P. Gardner, Gwen Goodwin and Tamika L. Humphreys*. Aside from Pabon, Arroyo is facing challenger Jose Velez.

Challengers are encouraged to get three times the minimum number of signatures in order to fend off inevitable legal challenges by incumbents and party lawyers.

"Since the Board of Elections is run by people who are appointed by the Democratic establishment, this favors the incumbent," Rahman said. "Are they being biased toward us?"
* Ariel E. Guerrero, another candidate named in the original version of this story, announced shortly after press time that he was withdrawing from the contest.