For the past decade, Ruben Diaz Jr., has been the Bronx’s chief advocate — roaming around the Boogie Down, promoting all it has to offer.
But Diaz’s remaining time as Bronx borough president is waning. He’s term limited, and will be out of office by year’s end. Five candidates are vying to succeed him in a June 22 Democratic primary, hoping to convince voters to rank them No. 1 on a ballot that also includes races for city council, mayor and comptroller.
Many refer to borough presidents as cheerleaders for their respective boroughs mostly because they have no real legislative power, and their main function is to advocate. They can introduce legislation to the city council, but none of the five borough presidents have an actual vote.
However, they’re given sizable budgets each year that can be used toward borough-specific initiatives like improving public schools and parks. They also have a say in land use decisions with an advisory vote that holds a significant amount of sway.
And perhaps, most importantly, borough presidents appoint community board members, including Community Board 8 here locally.
Four of the candidates already hold elected office of some sort, and are using that to emphasize their experience with the legislative process. But perhaps the two candidates most familiar with how things work at the city level are the two council members in the race: Vanessa Gibson and Fernando Cabrera.
Gibson has represented areas including Highbridge, Morris Heights and Mt. Eden for the past eight years. Her time in City Hall overseeing a $95 billion budget — and as an Assemblywoman — give her the experience to be a champion for the Bronx, she says, especially during its recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.
Gibson says she understands the impact of the pandemic because she was out in Bronx communities last spring when the city was hit hardest by the virus.
“I have been in the trenches,” Gibson said. “And I’ve seen the impacts of COVID-19 on my own community. I was one of those elected officials out early on in March and April giving out food and (personal protective equipment), when it was really tough to access PPE, and really tough to get food.”
Gibson has big plans for the Bronx. She wants to implement a jobs program that would expand construction and economic development as well as provide green jobs and create public-private partnerships. She also wants to transform industrial business zones into mixed-use areas, allowing for a combination of wholesale and retail businesses as way to increase foot traffic.
“We need to look at how we get people back to work,” Gibson said. “I want to be able to create a real pathway to the middle class and build economic wealth and power and prosperity in the Bronx.”
Gibson also wants to focus on improving Bronx schools. That means updating aging HVAC systems, closing the digital divide by acquiring more technology for classrooms, and even building new schools.
Cabrera — who represents areas including Kingsbridge Heights — also wants to prioritize economic recovery from the pandemic.
“Having us go through what we’re going through right now, where we see about 20 percent of all our businesses closing down and the level of unemployment rising up, that’s definitely going to be one of my priorities,” Cabrera said.
The councilman, who’s served on the council since 2010, said one way he’d do this is by providing low-interest loans to create new small businesses. He also wants to expand educational training for woman- and minority-owned businesses so they can get city contracts more easily.
Cabrera has been criticized in the past for comments he reportedly made about the LGBTQ community. Most notably, he appeared to praise Uganda’s 2014 ban on same-sex marriage when he visited the country that year. But he has defended his record, admitting gay marriage is the law of the land, and his voting record on the council shows support for LGBTQ rights.
For Assemblywoman Nathalia Fernández — who represents areas including Allerton and Pelham Gardens — housing affordability will be a top priority if she’s elected borough president. Most notably, Fernández wants to change the geographic regions factored into the area median income — the formula the city uses to determine how much an apartment can be to still be considered affordable. The AMIs of neighborhoods currently include wealthy regions of Westchester and Rockland counties. It’s those neighborhoods advocates say skew the numbers here.
“The AMI is simply not working for ‘Bronxites,’” Fernández said. “We are the poorest borough. We have an income that (on average) is lower than the entire city and Westchester and Rockland. So, we need to really address how we can give to the community in a way that they can afford.”
Fernández would require community impact studies be included in the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure — the city’s process for considering new construction projects.
Fernández also wants police reforms like ending qualified immunity and evaluating the use of lethal force in some cases. Additionally, she aims to hold monthly town halls with every police precinct in the borough, where there can be a dialogue between police and their communities.
“We need to really look at the measures to take to really bring accountability to those that have done wrong,” Fernández said.
“And I think that can really bridge some of the gaps that lie between police and communities in building trust back.”
Former New York Police Department lieutenant Sammy Ravelo, on the other hand, said he’ll advocate for increasing police presence in Bronx neighborhoods, and reinstating the anti-crime unit that was disbanded last year. Ravelo believes the NYPD is not a systemically racist institution, and he wants to get that message out to communities.
“Saying — because it just fits the narrative — that in the Bronx the police have been involved in some systematic approach in arresting young men of color is just wrong,” Ravelo said. “It’s just not true. And those are the things I’m going to make our community aware of. I’m going to be that bridge that the community needs with the police.”
State Sen. Luis Sepúlveda said one of his main agenda items as borough president would be strengthening protections for undocumented immigrants — work that he’s already started in Albany. Sepúlveda said he’d create a specific office within borough hall to help those who need it find a path to citizenship.
Sepúlveda was arrested last January for allegedly strangling his wife. He faced immediate calls from his state senate colleagues and borough president opponents to resign and withdraw from the race. He did neither, and continues to deny the allegations.
No matter what, Fernández said, it’s pivotal the Bronx elects someone who can bring the borough back after the devastation of the coronavirus pandemic.
“This is a time that we really need to look at our leadership and who’s there,” she said. “And pick somebody that has bold and progressive ideas.”