Interviews & Profiles

Vanessa Gibson wants the be the Bronx’s first black BP

And the city councilwoman has been practicing her Spanish for 2021.

New York City Councilwoman Vanessa Gibson

New York City Councilwoman Vanessa Gibson Official NYC Council Photo by William Alatriste

For a while the Bronx Democrats seemed to have it all planned out. Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. would be elected mayor in 2021, and Assemblyman Marcos Crespo, who has loyally served as the Bronx Democratic Party leader, would waltz into the borough president’s office without much of a challenge. After all, this is a borough where political succession is usually orderly – just look at Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark, who was essentially appointed to her position in 2015, or Diaz, who was handpicked as the BP by County in 2009.

But that all changed in a few weeks. Diaz suspended his campaign for mayor in January, saying he would leave public life when he was term-limited out in 2021. Soon after, Crespo announced he’d be leaving government too, and not running for borough president.

It’s a rare opening. And now New York City Councilwoman Vanessa Gibson wants to fill it, telling City & State that she’s officially planning to run for borough president in 2021. It’ll probably be a busy race. Her City Council colleague Fernando Cabrera said he’ll be running, and another councilman, Andrew Cohen, has been eyeing the race for a while. Additionally, Assemblywoman Nathalia Fernandez and New York City Councilman Rafael Salamanca are known to be considering campaigns. 

Gibson, 40, is a Democrat who represents much of the South Bronx. She chairs the Capital Budget Subcommittee and was just elected co-chairwoman of the Women’s Caucus. In a conversation that’s been edited for length and clarity, she talked to City & State about what brought her to the Bronx, her mistake that led to a $5,000 fine and why she’s taking Spanish classes.

You’re going to be term-limited out of the City Council at the end of 2021. Why are you interested in running for Bronx borough president?

Being in the City Council since 2013, and the work I did as an Assembly member for four years prior to that, and living in the Bronx for probably about 15 years now, I've seen the Bronx go through so much of a transformation. 

I represent a district that has a lot of challenges. One of the things it forces you to do is work hard, work smart and learn quickly. Because you have to be on your feet. So I feel like the office of the Bronx borough president is a great catalyst to change the Bronx. To continue a lot of the great work that Ruben Diaz Jr. has done, but to make sure that great initiatives continue, great partnerships continue, more investments happen. And we continue to change the dynamic of the Bronx – the stigma, the stereotypes that we continuously live with have to change.

You say you’ve been in the Bronx for 15 years. Were you in New York before that?

I was born and raised in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. That was no choice of my own! My mother raised me as a single parent. I went to local public schools in Bed-Stuy. Two years of middle school, I went to a Catholic school that has since closed. I went to Murry Bergtraum High School for Business Careers, right near the Brooklyn Bridge in Lower Manhattan. My senior year at SUNY Albany, I learned about an internship with the New York state Assembly. I was assigned to work for (former Bronx Assemblywoman) Aurelia Greene, and I said, wow, this is amazing. She was an African-American legislator. She had a lot of years under her belt. She was a senior member. At the time she chaired the banking committee. When I graduated, Mrs. Greene offered me a job to work as a legislative aide at her Albany office. I ended up working for her for a couple of years, and then a position became available in the district office in the Bronx. My transition was great. I started becoming her representative at the community boards, the precinct council. Since that time I had moved to the Bronx because I’d, number one, wanted to reduce my commute. It was my first apartment in New York City. I lived in Soundview on Underhill. And honestly, I had no inkling that I would run for office. 

Fast-forward to 2009, I was at (Greene’s) house one day and we were going over appointments and meeting requests and she said Ruben (Diaz Jr.) wants me to serve as his deputy borough president should he win the election. She’s like, “I want you to run for the seat.” And I’m like, “Me?! You threw me out of left field with that one.” I kind of felt like, if she was so confident of my ability to succeed her then I should really consider it instead of outright telling her, “Hell no, you crazy,” or, “No, I can't do that.” But I felt like she had so much confidence and hope in me. I ended up graduating with my master’s May 27. And then was able to win the election on June 2, 2009.

The Bronx has never had an African-American borough president, and never a woman. What does that mean for you? And the last few have been of Puerto Rican descent. Do you speak Spanish? 

Yes, by the time the election arrives, I will be fluent in Spanish. I’m very mindful that traditionally, this has always been a large borough known for Latino residents. 

What making history would mean for me is that it gives hope to so many young girls out there that dare to dream, that dare to hope, that dare to say that they can look at me and see themselves. I never envisioned I would ever be a role model to anyone. But that was what God planned for me by putting me in these different positions where I can influence public policy, I can change people's lives and I can really have a direct impact on their future.

But I also say to my Latino brothers and sisters, I can be your representative, too. If you look at my district and the population that I've represented for the past 10-plus years, the majority of the residents in my district are Latino. When I first got elected, I used to have a lot of doubts that I was worthy of being an Assembly member, because I felt that I wasn't worthy to represent them because I didn't look like them, and I didn't talk their language. But then I slowly started to get over that, because I said, well, if even if I don't speak Spanish – I mean a little bit, I do know. My accents are very good. I can say, “Que dios te bendiga.” “Bochinche.” I do pretty well with what I know, and I’ve started to take classes already. And they are excited that I'm learning their language and I'm good at it. They appreciate that. It's a sign of respect to the elders, and they say that to me. But I've always made sure that my staff speaks more than one language. The staff is reflective of the overall district, because I don't want to forget about my West African brothers and sisters as well, from Ghana and Nigeria. It’s huge! I've always made sure that literature, communications, brochures are always in more than one language. And also I've tried to make sure that when we appoint residents to the community board, it’s obviously a racial- and ethnic-, gender-diverse background. 

The Bronx is the fastest-growing borough.Does the Bronx need to build more housing to keep up with that demand?

Yes. But it has to be affordable housing. It has to be housing that provides opportunities for families living at or below the federal poverty level. We have to have set-asides for formerly homeless families living in shelters. We have to provide a significant amount of housing for seniors, because seniors are living now in housing that’s either too big or it’s not conducive to their living. We have to take care of veterans. We have to do more for foster youth aging out of the system. And we have to always take care of our domestic violence victims and survivors. 

When you look at the Bronx and how it's changing rapidly in terms of population growth, you should also look at where the growth is happening, in the West Bronx. Parts of Highbridge, Morris Heights, University Heights, Fordham Heights along the Harlem River, because many of the residents are being pushed out of Washington Heights and northern Manhattan. And the only place they can go is to the Bronx. But what happens when we get pushed out of the Bronx? Where do we go? We have nowhere to go. So yes, we should always provide more housing, but it has to be affordable housing that meets families where they are today at the federal poverty level.

You supported the Jerome Avenue rezoning. Are you happy with the results so far? Have you seen any residents or businesses being pushed out as a result?

We’ve been working a lot as the Jerome rezoning implementation is still underway. It's been three years since we passed it. I tried to put in a lot of provisions. There were 65 different points of agreement in the overall final agreement. And I've absolutely seen the affordable housing. 

The small businesses have been a little more challenging, because we don't have enough safeguards in terms of regulations for commercial tenants. That's why we've been looking at commercial rent regulation. That's why I led the bill and we passed – the commercial tenant harassment bill – so that we can raise the penalties for landlords that are harassing commercial tenants. We’ve been helping a lot of them because we know that many of them are victims to landlords. That's a big issue. We don’t own property. We need to own property. We are renters for the rest of our lives, and we shouldn't be. So the auto worker that sits on Jerome (Avenue), Inwood (Avenue), Cromwell (Avenue) today should be the owner tomorrow, but we have to provide programs that help tenants with purchasing their buildings.

You voted in favor of closing Rikers and building the new jails, including the one at the NYPD tow pound in the South Bronx. If you were to be elected, would you try and change anything about the plan, like try to move the jail? 

The reality is, the borough of the Bronx needs to have a borough-based facility. I am not one of those elected officials that was out there saying no new jails, because I recognize that, unfortunately, we have a population that does get arrested, that does need to be in a location.

My plan is to make sure that community residents and stakeholders are engaged. My fear is because there was so much opposition to the plan from the Bronx, that this plan is going to move forward, they’re going to build housing, the jail, jobs, and our Bronx residents won't get access to anything. And I don't think any elected official should let that happen. Whether you were on board or not, we have to make sure this is done properly and done right.

You were just fined $5,000 by the Conflicts of Interest Board for using your position to try to get out a traffic ticket in 2014. Should voters trust that you wouldn’t abuse your power as borough president?

Yes. That was one of the worst days of my life to have to deal with that. And unfortunately, because I went through a process, it's been hanging over my head for years now. And at the end of the day, I admitted my guilt and the role I played. And I accepted the fine, the fine was paid. But I do think that Bronx voters should look at the total picture, and all the great things I've done. And also the fact that elected officials make mistakes, too. I mean, we're not perfect. We're human just like everyone else is, and we make mistakes. As elected officials, we don’t know everything. We don't know all of the rules, and sometimes we do make decisions that are not what we should be doing. 

I tried to argue that I had a relationship with this particular commanding officer (that she called about the traffic stop) well before I got to the City Council. But the reality is, it was a title that I had at the time. And so I had to just accept the reality that it was violation of the Conflicts of Interest Law. I feel like it's something that I admitted, I accepted my guilt. It is definitely something that I will never forget, and people won’t forget it. But I do want to obviously move on and continue doing my work and really focus on a lot of the good things that need to happen in the Bronx. 

Are there groups that you wouldn’t take donations from in your run for borough president?

It’s still a conversation that I would love to have. So before I make any of these particular decisions and make these pledges, I honestly want to understand what people stand for. Many elected officials have said they’re not taking money from developers, from landlords. I have landlords in my district that are actually really good landlords, and I think it's unfair that they're lumped in with all the others. So before I make blanket commitments, I’m going to take time to meet with everyone that wants to meet with me, whether you are a lobbyist, whether you represent a PAC, you represent a landlord, real estate, tenants. I mean, everybody, I feel like I should give them the respect of meeting with them before I make that decision. And so that's exactly what I'm going to do before I make any public declarations of not accepting money from anyone. 

Who are you supporting in the South Bronx congressional race to replace the retiring Rep. José Serrano?

Oh my God! Would you believe I have not publicly endorsed anyone yet. It’s hard! It’s a challenge when you have all of these races and you have lots of people and friends you work with. It wasn’t easy for me in the public advocate race last year, I took a chance and I supported Jumaane Williams when most of my borough didn’t. And I did that because he’s my colleague. So obviously it is a race of people I currently serve with, I have served with. At the end of the day, I will make a decision, because I really do want to endorse.