Untwisting the Knot: Towards an Understanding of the Bronx

When Joel Rivera became Council Majority Leader at the age of 23, it was not because his colleagues beheld him as a new Pitt the Younger.  It was because the Bronx political machine still had a lot of power, his dad was now Assemblyman, and the Bronx Delegation had swung Gifford Miller the Speakership.           

For the last 12 years, CM Rivera’s role as Leader has been a prime mystery of the Council.  His handsome suite of offices at 250 Broadway is virtually always dark.  He has introduced fewer than two pieces of legislation per year, and almost none of them have been moved into committee.  One of his proposals was to ban fluoride from the city’s water supply: this item had no co-sponsors.

The Majority Leader didn’t even do a great job of steering money into his own 15th District.  According to Citizens Union, Rivera ranked 4th among Bronx council members for total combined capital and expense funding this term, behind Members Vacca, Arroyo and Seabrook. 

Council Member Rivera, term-limited out of a job, appears to be happily gearing up for his second career as a Re/Max real estate agent.  He recently received licensure, and has started his own website.  Rivera has even written an article detailing the ins and outs of search engine optimization for one’s website.  He appears to be totally engaged in the details of XML and Dreamweaver.  All in all, CM Rivera shows far more enthusiasm for real estate sales and web applications than he has in twelve years for being an elected official.

But who can blame him?  The Bronx machine that he was born to is shattered.  In 2008 his father Assemblyman Jose Rivera was forced out of his role as boss of the Bronx Dems in a populist revolt known as the Rainbow Rebellion.  In 2009, key Rivera ally Council Member Maria Baez lost her primary re-election campaign to a Republican, Fernando Cabrera.  

Then in 2012, in a stunning upset, Rivera’s sister, Assemblywoman Naomi Rivera, lost her bid for re-election to Mark Gjonaj, a Bronx-born Albanian-American investor and community leader. The Rivera family brushed off the Assemblywoman's well-publicized scandals, and assumed that its brand of ethno-politics would keep it in power, as it always had.  The Gjonaj campaign, in what became a textbook case of a targeted field operation, made a strong appeal to the district's large, and largely ignored, black population, which came out heavily for Gjonaj.  Naomi Rivera, in denial, never conceded defeat. 

But it is not just the Rivera dynasty that is ending.  Indeed, much of the Bronx is in play.  The Espadas are in prison.  Efrain Gonzalez is in prison.  Larry Seabrook is in prison.  Assemblyman Eric Stevenson has been indicted for taking bribes, and Nelson Castro resigned from the Assembly after taping him, and presumably others, for years.  Carl Heastie, head of the Bronx County Dems, has little actual authority and is barely holding on. The time is ripe for reform to sweep through the Bronx like a breath of fresh air!

Not likely.  Instead, we see other elected officials, untainted as yet by arrest or scandal, moving into the vacuum to extend their own power.  In the race to succeed CM Rivera we find his own chief of staff, Albert Alvarez, scarcely running a credible campaign.  Normally a council member’s top assistant has the inside track on succession, and it is a measure of the decline of the fortunes of the Rivera family that the front-runner for the seat is Ritchie Torres, a staffer for CM Jimmy Vacca in the adjoining 13th District.

Torres is a remarkable case of all the players lining up behind an unqualified yet handsome Council staffer who appears to know how to listen.  Only 24 years old, Ritchie Torres has worked for CM Vacca’s office since he was 17, so he quite literally does not know about anything except working in the city council.  Torres has received all the labor endorsements and all the political endorsements that matter, including those of the Working Families Party and REBNY’s Jobs for New York PAC, which according to Tenants PAC he refused to disavow.

Over to the northwest in District 11, Council Member G. Oliver Koppell is facing the end of his third term in the council.  The race to succeed the man who was once appointed NYS Attorney General (and who beat Joe Hynes and Eliot Spitzer in the ensuing primary, though losing to Karen Burstein…remember?) has come down to a contest between two men who have never held office before: Andrew Cohen, a lawyer, and businessman Clifford Stanton.

Clifford Stanton owns United Snacks, which franchises the popular “Nuts 4 Nuts” carts one sees around Manhattan.  He was chief of staff for the erratic former Council Member Noach Dear, and is active in the Riverdale community.

His opponent is another classic example of what City Council Watch is fascinated by: a benign nobody who, through some mysterious alchemy, is presented to the public as the candidate of choice.  Andrew Cohen, who has never run for office before, has apparently worked nicely with the powerful Benjamin Franklin Reform Democratic Club, from which Senator Jeffrey Klein and Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz hold sway over Riverdale and Kingsbridge.

Cohen, it has emerged, served as Pedro G. Espada’s chief of staff or counsel (it is unclear which) in the late 1990s.  Since then he has worked in the Bronx courts and maintained a small private law practice of some sort.  A respectable type of person, one supposes.  But to read his list of endorsements one would think that Andrew Cohen were Churchill being called to lead the nation at its darkest hour: Bill de Blasio, Christine Quinn and Bill Thompson all stand with him in the strongest terms.  Every union, every relevant elected official, former candidates for the seat, all the clubs and independent political organizations, they all support Cohen.  Except for the League of Independent Theater: it is with Stanton.

If one didn’t know better, it would seem like a conspiracy.  This kind of full-court press is typical of races such as the 34th CD, where the entire establishment is committed to Antonio Reynoso’s campaign, not because Reynoso is such an amazing candidate, but because he is not Vito Lopez.  When Hiram Monserrate tried to win his Senate seat back, everyone important came to Corona to stop him.  When Gustavo Rivera was trying to unseat Pedro Espada, he was brought to Chambers and given a standing ovation, prior to the election. 

In the case of CD 11, however, City Council Watch is perplexed.  The two candidates seem roughly equivalent, yet one has been anointed and the other shunned.  It is almost mystical…an act of Grace…like when only one of the thieves was saved. 

Anyone have any ideas as to why Cliff Stanton has been cast into the pit of darkness, and Andrew Cohen will be with the rest of the Council in Paradise?  Your guess is as good as mine.  


District 17: The Shameless Venality of Maria del Carmen Arroyo

Last July the Daily News ran a story about CM Maria del Carmen Arroyo of the 17th District in the Bronx.  The story explained that the council member had paid her husband, lawyer Ricardo Aguirre, $15,000 for “consultant” work.  

It appears that it is technically legal to pay a close family member out of campaign funds, as long as the money is from private contributions, not from public matching funds.     However, the money that you have received as a private contribution and since given to your husband is still allowed to be matched by public funds at the 6-to-1 ratio.  Got that?

To City Council Watch this argument about the non-fungible nature of campaign moneys is reminiscent of a child who keeps his lunch money in one pocket, and his comic book money in another pocket.  Or perhaps, as in the patois of the street, “Let me hold five dollars.”

In any case, one would think that CM Arroyo would have been taken up short by the revelation that the majority of her campaign contributions were being paid to her husband, and would have curtailed the practice, if not so much out of embarrassment, then out of pragmatics.  It doesn’t look nice.

But CM Arroyo has not stopped paying her husband since the Daily News story.  In fact she has ramped up her payments.

According to the Campaign Finance Board, the Arroyo 2013 campaign has taken in $55,600.  Of that sum, $42,500 has been paid to her husband for consulting.  The campaign is little more than a pass-through to her own household. 

Well, some may argue, so what?  The people who are contributing to the Arroyo campaign are surely aware what’s up, that 75 cents of every dollar they give to the campaign winds up paying for her and her husband’s vacations or cable bill or whatever.  So, while sleazy, by the low standards set by other recent Bronx politicians, nothing exceptional is going on here.

I thought that too, until when looking through her reported contributions I stumbled upon a tranche of payments over a few days this April from employees of the non-profit social welfare organization the Puerto Rican Family Institute: a dozen or so payments of $5, $10, or $20.  I could list the names and sums given, but you can look it up easily enough: I suspect that the donors have already suffered enough humiliation.

The PRFI does the sort of social work you might expect from the name of the organization.  It helps poor people find housing, get jobs, feed themselves, etc.  The group gets money from the City Council, and receives discretionary grants from CM Arroyo, among several others.

Only CM Arroyo received contributions from the employees of the Puerto Rican Family Institute, however, and in the same month when each council office allots discretionary money.

Is it really a stretch to imagine what I am imagining: that through some kind of cajoling or veiled threat, in the style of thugs throughout history, the campaign of Maria del Carmen Arroyo conveyed the message that continued funding for the PRFI was dependent upon tribute from the employees themselves?  And that the case workers and staffers of the organization, which is not even located in the same borough much less the same district as the Member, opened their wallets and pocketbooks and coughed up the next week’s lunch money, most of which was to be rolled through official channels and then paid out, legally, to her husband?

Maybe it wasn’t like that…maybe the social workers at the PRFI love Maria del Carmen Arroyo and would gladly tithe to her campaign.  A spokesperson at PRFI claimed to have no knowledge of why 13 non-executive employees who live all around the city would have each decided to give a Bronx council member around twenty dollars, all at the same time.

There is a human component to greasy corrupt politics.  A human component, and a human cost.