NEW YORK–On the Saturday before the Democratic Primary election, the streets of the 33rd State Senatorial District–which encompasses northwest Bronx neighborhoods including Norwood, Kingsbridge, and Bedford Park–looked like they would on any other late-summer day.
Residents could be seen en route to supermarkets and laundromats on 231st Street. Bronxites lounged in Fort Independence Park and along leafy Mosholu Parkway, passing the time conversing and people-watching. On Jerome Avenue, a commercial artery underneath the elevated 4 train, vendors sat across from their wares (produce; handbags; and essential oils) and sprang up from their seats whenever a customer stopped to peruse.
But for the occasional trail of Gustavo Rivera campaign fliers near where a leafleter must have stood earlier, there was little indication in the neighborhood that an election was approaching, much less a closely-watched one.
Yet outside the district, the primary between embattled incumbent state Senator Pedro Espada Jr., the state’s highest-ranking Latino elected official and Rivera, the college professor, has become one of the most followed races in the city.
That’s why experts and community figures like Gary Axelbank, the host of the Bronx public access television show Bronxtalk, are scratching their heads over who will come out on top in Tuesday’s election.
“I’ve seen evidence in both directions—it’s hard to measure,” said Axelbank, who invited Espada, Rivera, and former candidate Daniel Padernacht to debate on his show recently (though Espada did not take him up on the offer).
“Mr. Espada is a divisive figure—there’s no doubt about that—his campaign events have turned into shouting matches and fist fights, but he also has a following and he has money.”
Axelbank was referring to the campaign appearances in the district where Espada has given out gifts of groceries and school supplies—gestures that can go a long way in an area where the median annual income is about $25,000.
“In a borough with poverty, health issues, and housing that is literally falling apart around them, people see groceries being handed out and say ‘f*ck everything, I’m going to get me some groceries,’” Axebank continued.
Outside interests are largely bank-rolling both campaigns.
Ninety percent of Espada’s $300,000 reelection war chest came from outside of the district. The Daily News reported that a substantial portion of those contributions came from landlords across the state who seek to curry favor with the senator who, in addition to being the senate majority leader, chairs the senate’s committee on housing, construction and community development.
Rivera, for his part, boasts a seemingly endless list of endorsements from high-profile Democrats who want Espada ousted – elected officials, unions, newspapers, and advocacy groups – as well as the backing of the New Roosevelt Initiative, a progressive reform group that funds insurgent candidates against incumbents. The group has pledged to spend up to $250,000 on his bid.
But in the Bronx, despite state and federal investigations of Espada, his reputation remains untarnished in the eyes of some voters.
“[I support] Espada because he always helps the needy,” said Juan Carlos Cuadrado, a Bedford Park resident, in Spanish. “I see in the news that he fights for the people.”
Kingsbridge resident Edward Corcino disagrees. He considers Espada to be a corrupt, self-interested politician who is waging an unfair smear campaign, but also sees Rivera–who has Corcino’s vote though not his support–to be more of the same.
“Rivera is backed by the Bronx [Democratic] machine,” said Corcino.
Many others in the community expressed disinterest in the race and in politics, in general–a sentiment which has historically resulted in low voter turnout in the district.
Only 8,352 of 102,510 registered voters cast ballots in a 2008 primary that pitted Espada against former State Senator Efrain Gonzalez, an incumbent who today is serving a seven-year prison sentence for corruption.
Some registered voters, like Norwood resident Gail Kemp, wondered if the outside influence has distracted the candidates, and questioned whether they have the district’s interests at heart.
“They’re covering everything but the basic community,” said Kemp, a nurse who has lived in the neighborhood for 25 years. “I’m looking at the young people who don’t have any training opportunities. There are no jobs for them, so they don’t have anything to do but mill around and get into issues.”
Kemp is so unimpressed she said her indecision isn’t between the candidates, but over whether she’ll even vote in Tuesday’s primary.
Monika Fabian is a Bronx-based free lance journalist. Feet in Two Worlds coverage of the New York Primary is supported, in part, by the New York Community Trust.