New York State

Marcos Crespo on taking Somos back to San Juan

Why the conference’s return to Puerto Rico is crucial for the diaspora.

The most important meeting of New York politicos outside of New York is back in business, and so is its host: Bronx Assemblyman Marcos Crespo, chairman of the Assembly Puerto Rican/Hispanic Task Force. The Somos conference is being held in San Juan, Puerto Rico, right after the general election, from Nov. 7-11. Officially, it’s for elected officials, business interests and other political players to talk about the Empire State’s Latino population – although there’s plenty of political positioning that takes place there as well. Crespo gave City & State reporter Jeff Coltin a preview of what to expect, why he’s thinking about leaving the task force and why he doesn’t want just any Latino to become public advocate.

The conference was canceled last year, since the island had just been devastated by Hurricane Maria, and a fundraising dinner in Queens was held in its place. What’s the importance of returning to San Juan?

People often ask me, why Puerto Rico? No. 1, there’s an important history and synergy between the Puerto Rican diaspora and the political leadership in New York state. When they started doing the conferences in San Juan, it was with that very mission of connecting the diaspora to their home community. Now we have a much more diverse membership of elected leaders. We have Mexican-Americans, we have Ecuadorian-Americans, we have Dominican-Americans. We have an Argentine-Israeli. That’s a very good thing. But the conference in Puerto Rico has maintained its relevance. Unlike us going to any other place in Latin America, Puerto Rico is still within the United States. As long as Puerto Rico’s status isn’t resolved, there’s a sense that the Latino diaspora in general plays a very important role in advocating for state policies and federal policies that affect the outcomes of what is a Latino population in this territory.

Somos disinvited one of the sponsors, Charter Communications, amid a labor dispute. Were you involved with that decision? Were you happy to see it?

The extent of my involvement was checking in with the leadership within Somos to ask if they had been paying attention to what was happening and if they had thought through the potential impacts that they could have to the conference. They held a meeting, which I was not a part of, where they discussed the sponsorship and felt that the right thing to do was to return (Charter’s) contribution and not partner for this particular conference.

One of the main concerns was that this conference is supposed to be a policy forum, and in order to have a policy forum, you need elected officials, legislators and policy leaders to be a part of it. And there was a serious concern (about) many elected officials not participating because of the association with (Charter). The cost-benefit analysis was they couldn’t risk that.

What issues do you expect to be talking about? Is it all about rebuilding Puerto Rico, and getting more money and support for that? Or is the mandate for Latinos bigger?

There are a number of topics that are central to Puerto Rico, understanding the conditions and the situation. But there’s also a number of panels that relate to New York state issues. We even have one panel with a number of officials from Florida attending, on the needs of the growing Puerto Rican diaspora in Florida.

One of the ones I’m really excited about is a working group discussion with education leaders that’s going to have (New York City schools) Chancellor (Richard) Carranza, (state Board of Regents Chancellor) Betty Rosa, the state Education Department and a few other regional superintendents talking about what our agenda is in education to better serve Latino students, who continue to appear at the bottom of the achievement gap.

It’s not all policy. Somos is notorious for being where deals get made.

The agenda positions the discussion to be around policy and substance. But you get enough leaders together from all sorts of sectors that it lends itself to a perfect opportunity for people to plan a number of things. If some people choose at the end of the night to have dinner and talk about their political issues or ambitions? That’s fine. But keep in mind, we’ve got Republicans coming to this conference. This is not a Democratic political powwow. Powwows do take place, but so does a lot of very substantive and worthwhile networking that strengthens the Latino agenda.

Would you like to see a Latino elected as New York City public advocate?

I think it’s shameful in the city of New York, as of today, there has not been an elected, citywide Latino candidate. If you ask me, public advocate is a citywide, respected office. But my personal goals are having the Latino community having somebody in office that actually has the power to execute a vision to move our city and our state forward. I’m not so sure that the public advocate’s role is to necessarily do that.

Any Latinos in mind for public advocate?

Ruben Diaz Jr. for mayor in 2021.

I know that one, but former New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito’s name is in the mix for public advocate, same for Councilman Rafael Espinal Jr.

There are a number of folks who are going to position themselves, and I think their candidacies are worthwhile. There’s a part of me that certainly wants to see Latino empowerment, but I also strongly believe that it has to be the right person for the job at the right time.

A good example of that is my support for Darcel Clark for (Bronx) district attorney. Politically speaking, could I have forced the conversation for a Latino candidate to emerge? Maybe. But that would not have taken away from the fact that Darcel was as good of a resume for the job as you could have ever hoped to find. I’m going to always prioritize the qualifications of an individual based on their experience and their ability to do the job the right way over everything else. But I won’t deny that the political empowerment of my heritage, and my community is something that matters to me.

It’s been reported that you’re disheartened with the way things are going as chairman of the Assembly Puerto Rican/Hispanic Task Force and that you might move on to focus more on the Bronx and getting Diaz elected mayor in 2021. Real, or just bochinche?

I’m not at all disappointed. I feel that we have done a lot to re-energize the conference, to increase the participation, the support of the conference. All of which helps a number of programs that come out of Somos. Somos provides scholarships for PR/HYLI, the Puerto Rican/Hispanic Youth Leadership Institute that Angelo Del Toro helped create years ago and serves to empower and train students in leadership. Jose Paulino, the executive director of Somos, was a PR/HYLI kid. He was a student in high school in this very program and now he’s the executive director for Somos, bringing it to a level of support that it’s never had before, which allows the organization to support those kids. There’s also been a summer internship. There’s a number of student-led initiatives that come out of this. And we’re proud of them.

Also, the platform has allowed us to move the needle on a number of items. Three years ago at the conference, we focused on diversity in state government, and we harped on diversity within SUNY. The proposals that the task force made, which were presented at one of our conferences, led (to) the adoption of a bunch of those policy initiatives into the SUNY diversity plan. And a more expanded search of Latino candidates that led to a guy like (University at Albany President) Havidán Rodríguez.

I was in a conversation with the governor leading up to my first conference where he wanted to be involved in Somos, but was concerned that the perception of it was a junket. I walked him through all the things we had done to make sure that the conference was substantive and policy focused and bringing forward fresh ideas.

I said, look, one of the ways we can help Puerto Rico is through a partnership with U.S. markets. There’s a lot of businesses in Puerto Rico who could benefit from working in our market and vice versa. And it was in this conversation we talked about opening a New York office in San Juan. We did the ribbon-cutting during one our conferences. Through the work of that office connecting both the agricultural communities, Puerto Rico stopped buying apples from Ohio or Idaho, one of those places. They now buy their apples from New York state farms.

But are you considering leaving the chairmanship?

Since I’ve been elected (in 2009), I’ve seen three different chairs of the task force. And it makes sense why there’s been an average of four or five years (per) chair. There’s a lot of work that goes into it, and it takes a toll when you have a district to represent and you have other commitments. And after a while, you want to keep the conference and the leadership and the views fresh. So I think change is good every now and then. It’s not like I have plans to walk away or anything like that. I’m now going into my fifth year as chair, and I think it’s a very natural thing to start thinking about, OK, after Marcos, who will it be?