02/18/2014 12:35 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Reflections From a South Bronx Candidate on NYC Campaign Finance


As promised, once in a while I want to write some reflections on the past elections that I participated in for city council and on the other positions that were electable in the city. On that note I was looking at some numbers recently for the mayors race and found the following.

In the past November election Christine Quinn carried the 73rd Assembly District, one of Manhattan's most affluent East Side neighborhoods, 6,031 votes to de Blasio's 4,360 and to William C. Thompson Jr.'s 3,513. Therefore, voting is very much determined by income, something that many of us who live in the "not so affluent parts of this city" know.

In our election for city council in the 17th district we immediately realized this was an issue, thus we participated in Campaign Financing to receive matching funds. We joined Campaign Financing to help us generate the money that we knew we would need to be competitive against a Bronx county supported incumbent who had a family entrenched dynasty that was not about to loose control of their lucrative hold in the South Bronx.

The 17th Council District is one of the poorest in the city with some of the worst quality of life and health statistics. I know that very well as I have been living in the district for over 56 years and though things visibly look better, many of the conditions have not improved. In fact some areas have worsened.

At least when I was growing up in the district my Junior High School was opened after school with real programs that helped me stay out of the mean streets of where I lived on Cauldwell Avenue. During the summer I always had a summer job that the city provided and when I got into my later teenage years I was always hired to work in local businesses. During Christmas I always had a temporary job at the general post office on the Grand Concourse as a Christmas helper. So though I was living in poverty, I always had money and I earned it legally.

Later in my senior year in Aviation High School a good counselor convinced me, a vocational student not prepared to go to college, to at least fill out an application for what had just become available, open admissions. The open admissions program would allow any high school graduate to go to college. I filled out the application and was accepted to Lehman, get this, with a scholarship called SEEK that paid my tuition and my books. It took me five years, as the first year was all remedial to bring me up to college standards.

Though I attended college for five years, my father, who barely made enough to pay the rent and provide some food (without any public assistance), never had to pay a dime for me to go to college. In fact, in my sophomore year I received another scholarship called the South Bronx Model Cities Scholarship and as a result I now had spending money as well as all my college expenses paid. In other words, I was being paid to attend college. Today students leave college with a debt that takes them years to pay helping to keep many of them strung out on debt even before they enter the work world, that's if they could find a job that pays.

So in reality when you compare the situation of what I lived through in poverty, I survived the streets and graduated from college never having to owe, borrow, or pay a dime to what is happening today, I had it much better. Add to that the quality of life we had where people in the community looked out for each other. There was no gun violence, child obesity, or AIDS -- I believe that things are much worse today for our youth.

So this brings me back to my topic, running for office today in one of the poorest districts in the city. In order to qualify for matching funds from the Campaign Finance Board we had to get a minimum of $5,000 by a certain date and at least 75 donations had to be from people in the district. The 75 donations from the district could be as little $10. Though we at first thought that 75 donations of a minimum $10 was not a major problem, we learned that was not the case.

First they had redistricted me out of my base where I had lived in different apartments for the past 40 years. This meant that the majority of my friends and contacts (more than 75) that donated to my campaign did not qualify for the 75 "in district" contributions to meet the threshold. So off we went to the remaining part of our district that was more in the deeper section of the South Bronx of Mott Haven, Hunts Point and Morrisania to collect 75 donations of $10. Simple right? Absolutely not! That was more difficult than what we thought. While $10 might not be a problem at all for someone living in Chelsea, or any other affluent part of the city, $10 was a whole lot of money for the majority of the people we were meeting in our district. Many believing in our campaign gave us $5, some as little as $3 and we accepted their generous contributions knowing that that was all they could give. However, none of those honest contributions were eligible for the 75 in district contributions to help us receive matching funds. We eventually received matching funds due to a great team of tireless volunteers that refused to give up.

So today when we hear the word progressive so often, lets use that progressive agenda to start helping to change the Campaign Finance laws to make it a bit more equitable for new challengers to the entrenched incumbents. For example, the Campaign Finance Board should evaluate each district and if that district has an unemployment rate that is double that of the city, or if the poverty level is above the median and disproportionately higher then perhaps that district should only have a minimum of $5, not the $10 that we saw was too difficult for many to give. My point is if we want change in politics we need to look at all aspects to make it easier for challengers to compete.