As many of you know, I had become a candidate for City Council in the 17th City Council seat in the South Bronx. This is one of the poorest districts in the country. The following is my assessment of that experience.
On primary day, September 10th we had our post election gathering for our campaign. It was not the typical political party. With over 50% of the votes counted already, we were behind. However, all our campaign volunteers and supporters present were in a party mood. Everyone was happy, eating, drinking and celebrating and toasting, as if the election tallies appearing every few minutes on the TV screens showed us winning.
One reporter present was a bit confused on what he was experiencing. He asked me if we were behind in the voter count, why was everyone, "Like celebrating?" I smiled and told him that in reality we had already won this campaign and that the actual numbers were only one measure of success. He was a bit confused.
I told him that from the beginning of our campaign we knew that we were the serious underdog. Our initial strategy was to just get on the ballot and give the incumbent competition, so that maybe, just maybe, real democracy could happen in the South Bronx. The fact that the incumbent, Maria Del Carmen Arroyo. had no opposition in her last run (four years ago) and was about to go through another election without facing any opposition was what convinced us that someone needed to run against her.
Those who live here in the 17th Council District and have had dealings with Ms. Arroyo knew that we needed to make her more aware of her constituents. On more than one occasion--from issues like the Department of Homeless Services they wanted to build in the middle of our community, to the closing of the General Post Office, to intolerable filthy and unsafe conditions in the 149th St. and Grand Concourse subway, to requesting speed bumps on Walton Avenue--it was obvious she was out of touch. She even blocked the construction of a Children's museum and Science Park! We knew we had a non-existent councilwoman who clearly does not have our best interests at heart.
The fact that she ran unopposed four years ago and has been on the council for over eight and a half years, and thanks to Mayor Bloomberg's extension of the term limits, was poised to enjoy another four years made her so comfortable that she was not addressing the community's needs. In addition, we had many complaints about her constituent office being so inept that it was almost impossible to get any support from her office--there is no response to letters addressed to her, no return phone calls and it's nearly impossible to get an appointment to actually meet with her. There had been so much discontent that there were many in the community who were hoping to see a replacement in 2014. My name came up as President of the South Bronx Community Association; I had spearheaded and won many issues to benefit our immediate community. Though I entertained the idea, I was still watching to see if anyone else would be interested. Unfortunately, no one appeared to have the resources to challenge Ms. Arroyo.
In January, we finally decided that I would run. I registered and filled out the paperwork and the rest is history. We had no democratic county support, no political organizations or clubs endorsing our campaign. It was a purely grass-roots, community-driven campaign started by five individuals over a kitchen table.
As soon as we announced, volunteers began to join and pour incredible love and support into the campaign. During the petitioning period we began to recruit the most diverse group of people of every age, sex, race, religion and political background. The most impressive thing to me was the amount of younger people that were joining the campaign. This was not a movement where everyone believed in the same thing. Though we had many differences and opinions, everyone agreed that the incumbent councilperson should not be allowed to run unopposed. That was our first victory.
From that simple understanding the campaign was able to organize to the point that we found outright fraud and were able to challenge Ms. Arroyo's petitions--something that had never been done to any incumbent in NYC City Hall. The fact that she had forged so many petitions and should have been knocked off the ballot was incredible.
The whole issue of the forged petitions proved in court and in the streets what many who live in the 17th already knew, that the name Arroyo is synonymous with corruption. Though the judges allowed Ms. Arroyo to remain on the ballot, the court of public opinion had ruled against Ms. Arroyo and that was our second victory.
Our third victory was the fact that we galvanized a diverse group of responsible and committed people working together into a strong political movement. It was never about me personally winning a seat to the city council, but building a movement that would change the way that politics is run in the South Bronx. The formation of a new political organization, the Independent Progressive Democrats, is the fruit of this labor.
Yes, we lost the election, but a challenger who was running against both, the councilwomen and her mother the State Assemblywoman and who had the support of the Bronx Democratic County Organization and all incumbent elected officials in the borough was expected.
For our campaign to get 31.7% of the vote means that as of last week's count we received 2021 votes. Over two thousand people believed in our message of a progressive change for the South Bronx enough to vote. That is a large base of supporters that we will continue to work with. We can build on that support to change our communities for the better. In reality, we did not lose and that is why we were all celebrating on election night. We all know that we did much better than anyone expected and that means that the politics of the South Bronx have been changed forever.