New York City

City Councilman Fernando Cabrera is challenging AOC

The centrist Bronx pastor is running in the Democratic primary.

New York City Councilman Fernando Cabrera.

New York City Councilman Fernando Cabrera. Misael Campos

A City Councilman from the Bronx and Christian pastor, who’s no stranger to controversy for his anti-gay views, is running for Congress in a district where he doesn’t even live. No, not Ruben Diaz Sr. – well, not only Diaz Sr., who is running to replace retiring Rep. Jose Serrano: As of Thursday, Fernando Cabrera is launching a longshot bid against Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the 2020 Democratic primary. 

“I’m a centrist. She’s a socialist,” Cabrera told City & State, referring to Ocasio-Cortez’s support for economic redistribution and her membership in the Democratic Socialists of America. “And whatever adjectives she wants to put in front of the word socialist, she’s a socialist.”

Cabrera, who was born in New York and is of Puerto Rican and Dominican descent, said he has family in Venezuela, so he has “seen firsthand what effects socialism has on a nation” – a conservative talking point meant to connect Ocasio-Cortez’s politics to the South American nation’s authoritarian regime. 

Ocasio-Cortez has been a top target for the GOP – and in fact has more than a half-dozen Republicans lining up to challenge her. But Cabrera, who was a registered Republican until 2008, insisted that he’s not playing into Republican hands with his run.

“Actually it’s the opposite!” He contended that because of Ocasio-Cortez and other left-wing freshmen in Congress, Democrats have been branded as socialists. “It literally will cost us, potentially, the (presidential) election,” Cabrera argued. “I want to be part of that solution to take that argument away from President Trump.”

After a youth spent in New York, Puerto Rico, California and Virginia, Cabrera moved to the Bronx at age 25 to start a church. The 55-year-old grandfather of five and father of two is the senior pastor of the non-denominational New Life Outreach International Church in the North Bronx. He was first elected to the City Council in 2009 and lives in the neighborhood of Fordham – more than a mile outside the closest point of the 14th Congressional District, which spans the East Bronx and western Queens and which he hopes to represent.

Cabrera said he used to live in the district, in Throggs Neck, but that’s beside the point. “I’ve done more for the Bronx and Queens than (Ocasio-Cortez) ever has. I’ve visited all the community boards,” he said, pointing to a budget boost for community boards that he shepherded through this year as chairman of the City Council’s Governmental Operations Committee. 

Whatever Cabrera says about Ocasio-Cortez, he may have some of his own liabilities in a Democratic primary. Though he’s been less outspoken than his notoriously controversial colleague Diaz Sr., the socially conservative Cabrera has been criticized for aligning himself with an anti-gay group and for publicly praising the anti-gay government of Uganda. The New York Post reports that Cabrera personally opposes same sex marriage and abortion, but accepts the laws of the land. And while Ocasio-Cortez thinks billionaires shouldn’t exist, Cabrera has preached the so-called “Prosperity Gospel” that is prevalent among conservate Evangelical Christians, saying that “it’s harder being rich than being poor.”

Cabrera said he better represents the working class in the district, and he thinks he may get some support from elected officials, even though Ocasio-Cortez is the incumbent. The Congressional delegation has a “disdain towards her,” he said, because “she’s not a team player. … Teamwork makes the dream work.”

The Ocasio-Cortez campaign did not respond to a request for comment, but the Bronx Democratic Party did not exactly give a ringing endorsement when contacted by City & State. “By and large, The Bronx Democratic Party has been inclined to endorse incumbents, and we expect to take the same approach in this district as it relates to Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez,” said Bronx Democrats’ spokeswoman Geraldine Estevez.

Ocasio-Cortez may have a rocky relationship with the Bronx party establishment, but she also inspires serious devotion among her fans and is fairly popular in her district. An April 2019 Siena College poll found that 61% of Democrats in NY-14 said they would re-elect her. 

Jake Sporn, political strategist at Tusk Strategies who has lived and worked in the Bronx, sees Cabrera’s bid as more of an exercise in raising his profile. “For all the Republicans hopelessly trying to oust her in the general election, it’s not a shock that a conservative Democrat would want to challenge her on the right too,” he said. “I’d imagine he’ll end up as a fixture on Fox News and as a critic in some other national stories, but any challenge against AOC is a long shot bid.”

Cabrera didn’t deny he was looking for some time on cable news networks. “I’ll go wherever I can get my message out,” he said. “I want to be on CNN, Fox.”