NEW YORK—Gustavo Rivera, the freshman state senator from District 33 in the Bronx, faces a sharp learning curve in Albany.
The 35-year-old professor-turned-legislator not only inherits a pressing list of problems including tenants’ rights issues, growing poverty and unemployment in his district, but also belongs to a fractious minority party that will start the session contending with a significant budget deficit.
Puerto Rican born and raised, Rivera told Feet in Two Worlds in a phone interview that he intends to build cooperation based on issue-consensus with fellow senators when he begins his tenure.
“I’ve worked in and around the State Senate for a while and I am very familiar with the fact that it is a very dysfunctional place. I do believe, however—and this is what I ran on—that are ways to make it more functional and a more grown-up legislature, and intend to put that into practice and that means going up there with an open mind. It doesn’t mean that I’m going to change what my values and my principles are, or the things that I’m going to advocate for, or the fact that I work for the 33rd District, but it’ll be my job to find who is potentially an ally on X or Y issue. And then figure ways that we can work together to make that issue into some legislation.”
Under any circumstances, the tense situation in Albany would be more than enough for a first-time elected official to grapple with. But Rivera, who was sworn-in earlier this month, also faces expectations from the progressive coalition of activists and labor unions that helped get him elected.
One powerful source of support was the New Roosevelt Initiative (NRI), a liberal reform group that helps Democratic challengers unseat incumbents. The group spent $280,000 on Rivera’s successful bid to unseat embattled incumbent Pedro Espada Jr. in last September’s primary, yet Rivera insists he has no political debt to pay.
“I will be an independent voice when I need to be for my constituents. Somewhere it was mentioned that I would be a “lapdog” for organized labor. Now people can certainly have that opinion if they want, but the fact is that I have always been a liberal, I have always been a progressive, I have always been pro-organized labor, pro the issues of the Working Families Party. And when it comes to the New Roosevelt Initiative, the types of things that they believe in, as far as making the legislature the best in the country, which is the goal of the NRI—these are things that I absolutely agree with. I don’t think it’s a problem that these folks have helped me. […] And if it comes to a time, when I disagree with them on a certain point I will respectfully tell them ‘this is not something that I can be with you on.’”
Meanwhile, residents of the 33rd District are looking to their new elected official to address the needs of an impoverished area.
Shannon Lee Gilstad, a case-manager in the South Bronx who lives in the district, said her vote for Rivera in the primary was mainly an ‘anti-Espada’ vote. But by the general election she felt comfortable voting for Rivera because she met him at a campaign event, and felt that he was from the area.
Gilstad wants the newly-elected state senator to address the decline she has witnessed in her community.
“A lot of people see the Bronx and think of what happened in the 70s. They’ve rebuilt the South Bronx but in doing so have neglected the Bedford/Fordham area,” said Gilstad. “It’s almost like a cancer: one part gets better and another gets worse. I would like to see some stability take place.”
The district, which runs from the Norwood neighborhood to Mott Haven in the West Bronx, is home to two prominent symbols of the economic hardship that has befallen the area in recent years: the shuttered Stella D’Oro Factory and the abandoned Kingsbridge Armory.
The Stella D’Oro cookie factory, with over 70 years in the Kingsbridge section, closed its doors in 2009 after a labor dispute and moved its operations to Ohio, taking with it the union jobs of over 130 residents.
The Kingsbridge Armory’s future use remains uncertain as well. Last year, a plan to construct a shopping mall in the massive military structure was scrapped after Mayor Bloomberg and local leaders, including Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., butted heads over workers’ salaries. Diaz and others were advocating for a $10 an hour “living wage” for the workers, while the city called for $7.50 an hour—New York’s minimum hourly pay.
Both the New York Daily News and the New York Post recently published editorials on the anniversary of the project’s demise, chastising Diaz for “killing” the shopping mall project, with the Post citing worsened poverty for the area in the interim.
“In Bronx Community Board 7, unemployment surged to 12.7% last year from 9.3% the previous year, according recently released American Community Survey statistics. Poverty climbed from 30.6% in 2008 to 35% last year.”
In October, Borough President Diaz appointed Rivera to the task force responsible for devising the Armory’s redevelopment plan. Rivera says he’s committed to re-purposing the space, but wouldn’t give specifics just yet.
“Not that I want to pull a Sarah Palin, but I actually can see [the Armory] from my window. It is obviously something that is important to the way this district goes forward. With as high an unemployment as we have, we have to find a creative way to use this space in order for it to have a positive impact for the Bronx and this community, in particular, and I think the Armory task force has this in mind.”
The fresh-faced state senator is optimistic he can offer more to the 33rd district than his predecessor, Pedro Espada. But will he be able to evade the scandals that plagued Espada, and so many others in Albany? The voters and backers that helped him beat Espada in the Democratic Primary by a 2-1 margin, and then win the general election in a landslide, are holding their breath.
Monika Fabian is a Feet in Two Worlds fellow. Her work, and the work of other Fi2W fellows, is supported by the New York Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation with additional support from the Mertz Gilmore Foundation.