An Espada-slayer and his outside army go to battle in the Bronx

Gustavo Rivera. (Photo via gustavoforstatesenate.org.)
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The man who arrived at Amalgamated Housing Cooperative in the Bronx last week to speak to 15 residents who had gathered to meet him looked like a police detective or an athlete gone to seed: tall, broad-shouldered and fleshy, with a shaved head, a neat goatee, and wire-rimmed glasses.

It was Gustavo Rivera, a 34-year-old part-time college professor and former political staffer who has never held elected office, and who is now running for the State Senate against a well-financed incumbent senator of his own party.

The good news, for Rivera, is that the incumbent is Pedro Espada, who threw the Senate into chaos by defecting to the Republicans before being bought back by the Democrats with a new title; who is currently under investigation by state and federal authorities for allegedly looting $14 million from a series of nonprofit clinics to pay for his personal and political activities; who probably resides in Westchester and not in his district in the Bronx; and who is quite possibly the most widely reviled incumbent official in New York, at least outside his own district.

(Espada’s Senate communications director Franck LaBoy said that the investigation, and accompanying lawsuit, is without merit and “frivolous,” and responded to the well-worn charge that the senator lives in the suburbs by saying that “99.99 percent of incumbents don’t live in their districts. Everybody knows.”)

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So Rivera has lots of fervent well-wishers at the moment. He has the support of every major union, both Democratic citywide officials, and the bulk of the Bronx Democratic Party. Dan Levitan, the spokesman for the influential Working Families Party, says electing Rivera is “our top priority for September.” Millionaire Bill Samuels’ New Roosevelt Initiative is spending $250,000 to help him win the Sept. 14 Democratic primary.

Rivera does live in the district, in a rent-controlled studio in Kingsbridge Heights. He moved to New York from Puerto Rico twelve years ago to get his doctorate in political science at CUNY, and moved to the Bronx two years later.

He speaks without much of an accent, from Puerto Rico or the Bronx. His explanation: “I got my English through cable television.”

His favorite shows include “LOST,” “House,” “Firefly,” and “True Blood.” He is currently watching the final season of “The Wire.” I asked him if he thought Pedro Espada bore any resemblance to “The Wire’s” corrupt senator-character Clay Davis.

He responded instantly with Davis’ trademark phrase: “Sheeee-it.”

 

IN THE SMALL MEETING ROOM AT AMALGAMATED, Rivera listened patiently while Ruben Diaz, Jr., the savvy young Bronx borough president, outlined his reasons for supporting Rivera. They were, essentially, that Espada is a continuing embarrassment to the Bronx, and that Rivera has a chance of beating him. (A third candidate, Dan Padernacht, dropped out the following day and endorsed Rivera.)

“We have a level of intellect here that I know is going to prevail,” Diaz said.

Rivera answered the residents’ questions with an academic’s love for detail. Jack Marth, a local community activist, noted that Espada has a staff that costs taxpayers $38,000 a month. “$36,000,” Rivera said, before going on to refer to some of his opponent’s other tactics.

“My staff will not also work on my political campaign,” he said. “Everyone trying to knock us off the ballot at the Board of Elections, coincidentally is employed by him.”

At least seven of the 24 individual contributors listed in Espada’s last campaign finance filing are on his public payroll.

The criticisms did not go unanswered.

A long-haired, mustached man in a cowboy hat videotaping Rivera on his cell phone was an Espada employee, an Amalgamated resident named Michael Gary. Gary pointed out that Senator Espada has sponsored a rent-freeze bill. Rivera’s face lit up.

“Let’s talk about that bill!” he said.

He made the case, at somewhat trying length for a few of his listeners, that the bill is a landlord-backed means test that would saddle taxpayers with the cost of rent increases.

Some people in New York Democratic politics think Rivera’s a know-it-all. An anonymous political operative in the Daily News recently called him “extremely arrogant.” It’s certainly safe to say that he doesn’t talk like most Bronx politicians. The distinction between Rivera and Espada, and between Rivera and many Bronx politicians, seems not really a distinction between arrogance and humility. Espada, after all, was recently filmed contemptuously tossing money at protesters. Rather, the key distinction is class background. Rivera’s English is better than Espada’s, even though Rivera left Puerto Rico at twenty-two while Espada left at five. Espada grew up dirt-poor, the eldest child in a large family. Rivera is the middle of three sons (“el jamon del sandwich,” he says, the ham in the sandwich) of a homemaker and the retired general manager of a pharmaceutical factory. Espada likes to box; Rivera prefers videogames.

Most of the Amalgamated residents, who are whiter and more middle-class than the district as a whole, don’t really know or care about Rivera’s childhood. They are embarrassed to be represented by Pedro Espada, by a man who campaigns like a Tammany ward heeler, immaculately dressed while presiding over frequent grocery and school-supply giveaways.

“I’m so sick of these Manhattan blog commenters saying people in the Bronx can get bought with a bag of fruit,” said Jack Marth, a community activist. “I want to win big to show them… As somebody said, a ham sandwich could probably beat Pedro Espada.”

 

IN OTHER PARTS OF THE DISTRICT, it’s not at all clear that the ham sandwich will win. Espada has a lot of money, much of it raised from real estate interests. He is known for periodic giveaways of produce and poultry to residents, and many of the recipients remain grateful. His campaign headquarters is expansive, marked by a large sign that reads “ESPADA For The People Community Assistance Office.”

The building was until recently the home of the National Puerto Rican Forum, an apparently defunct social services agency that was the recipient of a state education contract as recently as last year. No one at the Espada campaign could tell me who owns the building, and the campaign’s legally mandated disclosure reports do not appear to show any rent being paid, or any in-kind contribution of space. The office has a very large central area, with at least three rooms branching off of it. At 4:15 on a recent afternoon, there are at least fifteen people in the main room, preparing packets for the paid canvassers, who will go out to knock on doors and identify Espada supporters who can be turned out on election day. There was an enormous television on one side of the room, and the “Tyra Banks Show” was on.

I followed a canvassing team led by Chryss Coronel, a slim, pretty and very friendly 37-year-old. She wore a t-shirt that read “VOTE ESPADA OUR HERO” on the front and back, accompanied by an old photo of Espada with long, slicked-back hair. Coronel said she’d worked for the senator’s campaigns off and on for the last ten years.

“I just came from Puerto Rico,” she said. “He said he wants me, he paid for my ticket, he [told] my employers to let me come. He called me the secret weapon.”

Her walk sheet—the list of people she was to contact—had “Constituent Database” on the top of each page. It’s unclear whether the voter data is from Espada’s district office or just labeled that way as part of the general melding of the Espada campaign with constituent services. The list was of every registered Democrat in a specific election district, the two blocks or so of neighbors that is the smallest political unit in the state.

The other two members of the team were Luis and Margie, a married couple. Margie walked with Coronel through the apartment buildings. She held literature and occasionally knocked on a door, but mainly she was there because canvassing in this part of the Bronx might not be safe to do alone. Luis trundled around a black rolling suitcase filled with Espada posters that he taped to streetlamps. He also taped Espada literature and a flier for Election Day work above each apartment building’s mailboxes. Job offers are a central part of the Espada campaign message. Coronel got into buildings by buzzing the top-floor apartments and asking for the names on her walk sheet. Most of the time, someone would let her in before she’d exhausted all the buzzers. She’d then head to the apartment that buzzed her in, knock on the door, and after identifying the person she was talking to, would say in either English or Spanish, “Hi, there’s an election coming up on September 14. We hope you’ll vote for Senator Pedro Espada, and we’re hiring people for work who are 18 or older. For Election Day. Call this number.”

Haile Rivera, the campaign spokesman for Pedro Espada, disagreed with me later when I suggested that this appeared to be a way to buy votes. Rivera (no relation to Gustavo) is a talented young community activist, an early supporter of Barack Obama, and one of the small donors who was selected to have dinner with the future president six months before he won the Iowa Caucuses. Many political observers were surprised that he signed on with the Espada campaign, but he told me, “Everybody here is innocent until proven guilty… I’m in the district, I live here, I want to be involved.”

I asked Rivera why the Election Day jobs—essentially handing out fliers for Espada outside of a polling place, surrounded by other people handing out Espada literature—were only for those over eighteen. His initial response was, “I have no idea.” After some thought, he suggested that it might be to avoid legal liability in case something happened to employees who were minors. I pointed out that the campaign would still be liable for adult employees harmed on the job, and that the campaign already sends out teenage volunteers to perform these same tasks. He told me he didn’t make the rules.

Haile left Espada’s government payroll about a month ago to join the campaign staff.

Coronel told me there were about fifty paid canvassers, some of whom have been working since petitioning in June. None of them appear as expenses on the Espada campaign’s disclosure report, nor, for that matter, does Haile Rivera.

Espada’s campaign filings list no regular employees. When asked about this, Haile told me, “I don’t want to give you an answer I don’t have,” and promised to put me in touch with someone at the campaign who handled the finances. At press time, he still had not gotten in touch with me.

The cash on hand in the disclosure report should correspond to the money in the campaign’s bank account at the time of the filing. If paid expenses are not listed, then the campaign is either being inaccurate about how much money it has in its account, or it’s concealing some of its donations. For example, the New York Post noted that the Espada campaign had not declared the expense of its grocery giveaways. In the next filing, the campaign said that it had written a check for $17,000 to the Hunts Point Terminal market.

However, the Post said that the market is merely the landlord for a number of vendors, and could not have taken a check. Pedro Espada has already been fined more than $15,000 for late and improper filings, which he has not yet paid. LaBoy, Espada’s government spokesman, said that the disclosure rules are being selectively enforced against Espada.