Last Thursday evening, six Bronxites gathered in a dimly lit cigar bar on Arthur Avenue to make sure their political pursuits don’t go up in smoke.
The event, hosted by the Bronx Veteran Political Party, focused on how to run an effective campaign for a lesser-known candidate. It attracted three vets interested in running in the upcoming citywide election as well as former Independent Party chair Michael Zumbluskas.
Yet despite its title, the Bronx Veteran Political Party is, in fact, not a political party.
It doesn’t endorse individual candidates or help raise campaign funds. It’s not aligned with either the Democrats or the Republicans. Rather, it’s a branch of the nonprofit organization Devil Dogs USA, which helps former military members adjust to civilian life.
“We’re giving them a fighting chance,” Gonzalo Duran, founder of Devil Dogs, said.
“Them” are the 10 potential candidates the nonprofit has helped identify for local elected positions, all of who have served in the U.S. military.
“The basic veteran coming back already has, I believe, a leg up,” Duran said. “If you mess with a veteran, you better come with a lot more than just idle threats because someone like (that) has been through war.”
Edson Arzu is looking to run in 2018 for district leader, an unpaid, elected position that oversees the political party within the district to make sure it is democratically governed by its members. He would never have considered launching a campaign if it wasn’t for the help of the veterans group.
“A lot of people thought it would be best, not just for veterans, but for the community as a whole, if I would run for anything,” Arzu said. “A lot of people were pushing me.”
Arzu spent a decade as a combat medic in the U.S. Navy, completing one tour in Iraq and another in Afghanistan. He’s currently running his own nonprofit and attending medical school at New York University.
The party guided Arzu, among others, on how to accomplish many aspects of running for office, including one important step that trips up many would-be candidates: correctly filing the paperwork needed to even get onto the ballot.
“They make it so difficult so that you are scared to do it,” Duran said.
In New York State, only 9 percent of state-level legislators have military experience, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Nationally there has been a steady decline in the number of veterans holding positions in Congress. Many attribute this trend to the fact that there are not as many veterans among the general population today as there was post-World War II.
The party began two years ago after Fernando Tirado, then running for an Assembly seat, had a public forum abruptly canceled after a debate about the legitimacy of nonprofit organizations hosting events for political candidates. A local senior center was going to host Tirado’s event, but after receiving numerous threats aimed at its nonprofit status, backed out.
Duran was both disgusted and inspired by the incident, deciding to let people use his nonprofit office as a site for public forums and open discussions. This eventually led to the party’s creation and its increased involvement in the community.
It’s main goal, however, is to increase voter turnouts at elections. This includes local college visits setting up tables for pop-up registration, or just standing on street corners and encouraging people to participate in their civic duty.
“I have no problem walking up to any person I meet and saying, ‘Hey you don’t have to vote for me, but I want you to vote for somebody. I want you to register to vote.’ That’s what we’re trying to do here,” Duran said. “I’d be embarrassed if I won because I was unopposed, or because I won with 3,000 votes.”
Duran and the party, however, could be toeing a fine line when it comes to the regulations and restrictions of a nonprofit organization when it comes to political campaigning.
In order to maintain a tax-exempt status, federal law prohibits certain activities when it comes to politics. This could include, according to the IRS, inviting a political candidate to make a campaign speech at an event hosted by the organization, using organization funds to publish materials either supporting or opposing a candidate, or donating money to a candidate.
But Duran is confident the Bronx Veteran Political Party is appropriately following protocol for nonprofit organizations.
“I’ve checked with the election board and the finance board, and there’s nothing wrong with it,” he said.
Duran has political pursuits of his own, running for city council’s District 15 covering the central Bronx. He spent eight years in the U.S. Marines, but when he came back home after a tour in Iraq, he was homeless for three months thanks to issues with the G.I. Bill. When he finally got situated he used all available resources to rebuild his life.
Even with these efforts, it’s unlikely candidates who choose this route will get elected to office. Without the support of an established party, it can be difficult to get the attention needed to win over constituents’ votes.
“It’s rare, but it can happen with the right candidate and the right message,” Zumbluskas said. “It can happen.”