New York City

Who will be next to lead the Bronx?

With unexpected retirements, the competition for borough president and Democratic party chair takes shape.

Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr.

Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. Philip Vukelich

No one expected Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., who was a potentially strong candidate to be New York City’s first Latino mayor, to announce in late January that he would drop out of the 2021 mayoral race and retire from politics at the end of his term.

In a matter of weeks, Bronx Democratic Party boss Assemblyman Marcos Crespo dropped his own bombshell: after a decade in office, the 39-year-old announced he will no longer seek re-election to the Assembly. He’s now reportedly stepping down as party chair, ending a five-year run that saw the election of the borough’s first female district attorney and a more diverse judicial bench.

These imminent departures from top positions in the Bronx have led to many politicos jockeying for the inside track to replace them. Here’s an overview of the top candidates:

Borough president

Before Diaz announced plans to retire from politics, a slew of term-limited members of the New York City Council had made known their intention to run for the top executive post in the Bronx. Many had already gone on the record with the intention of running as far back as last year, since Diaz was also term-limited. Among the leading contenders are:

Councilwoman Vanessa Gibson: Gibson, who represents the neighborhoods of Concourse, Highbridge, Mount Eden and University Heights, hopes to replace Diaz in Bronx Borough Hall, emphasizing her experience on both the city and state levels. Gibson’s influence in the Assembly – replacing her former boss, Aurelia Greene, who went on to become Bronx deputy borough president – was limited. She was the prime sponsor of three bills that passed in her four years there, from 2010 through 2013, and then she won election to the City Council in 2013.

On the council, Gibson spent years hammering out a deal with city officials over the Jerome Avenue Rezoning, getting the city to provide greater amenities and protections to the affected low-income neighborhoods She was the first woman of color to preside as chair of the council’s Public Safety Committee and she could be the first woman of color – in fact, the first woman o and the first African-American – to serve as Bronx borough president.

Councilman Andrew Cohen: The Bronx has not had a white borough president in more than 40 years, since Stanley Simon left office in 1987, but Cohen hopes to end that streak. The 11th Council District lawmaker representing Riverdale, Fieldston and Norwood has publicly expressed interest in running for the office, emphasizing the need to continue the revival of the Bronx, attending various functions and events outside his district for some facetime with prospective constituents.

His affiliation with the entrenched Benjamin Franklin Reform Democratic Club in Riverdale can certainly help him win the neighborhood and other northwest sections of the Bronx. But, the Bronx is only 9.3 percent non-Hispanic white, whereas it’s 29 percent black and 55 percent Latino, according to census data. So any white candidate may be at a disadvantage.

Councilman Rafael Salamanca Jr.: Councilman Rafael Salamanca Jr. is on the short list of names to be the next speaker of the New York City Council, yet his name is now being touted for BP by Crespo, according to at least one well-placed source with knowledge of Bronx politics.

The boost can surely put him in the front of the line, but lawmakers who spoke to City & State have unanimously and anonymously agreed that serving as speaker, which include controlling the city’s purse strings, is a better perch for not only Salamanca, but would allow him to do more for his borough as well.

Councilman Fernando Cabrera: It was long rumored that Councilman Fernando Cabrera, representing West Bronx neighborhoods including Fordham and Mt. Hope, would make a run for borough president, even as he mounted a longshot Democratic primary challenge against Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. With Cabrera having used the congressional bid to build a base in the East Bronx portion of AOC’s Congressional District – only to drop out and immediately back centrist Democrat Michelle Caruso-Cabrera – the 10-year lawmaker may have an advantage in name recognition.

Councilman Andy King: The term-limited councilman may be radioactive right now – given his suspension from the Council in October after an internal investigation substantiated claims he abused his office – but he’s been getting some words of encouragement by constituents to run. On BronxTalk With Gary Axelbank in December 2019, King told Axelbank he’ll run if the populace demands it so. But with very little political capital left, King is unlikely to win.

85th Assembly District

With Crespo announcing his decision not to seek re-election, the seat representing Soundview and Longwood is officially up for grabs this year. But be it coronavirus worrying the masses, Crespo’s slightly late announcement on the eve of petitioning, or lack of interest in the seat, there only appears one prospective candidate in the running.

Kenneth Burgos: Like Crespo, Burgos is a staunch ally of Councilman Ruben Diaz Sr, the borough president’s more conservative father. Burgos currently works for Diaz Sr, handling budget issues for the Soundview lawmaker.

And so far, with petitioning ending on April 2 while also hampered by the recent coronavirus, and no one else having opened a recent committee to get petitions or making their intentions to run known, Burgos appears locked to win the seat held by both Crespo and the younger Diaz.

Bronx Democratic Party chair

One would think that the prospect of running the strongest county party in New York state would produce a long list of candidates breaking down the door to succeed Crespo, but not in this case. Despite the Bronx Democratic County Committee’s near-unilateral ability to pick judges, the district attorney and some other elected officials, not many candidates have come forth. The unpaid job of running the organization, as most political observers told City & State, is somewhat thankless, as it’s a great way to upset other politicos or get embroiled in controversy, with little reward.

Still, a handful of names have surfaced with many Bronxites believing it’s now time for a person of Dominican ethnicity to run the organization, given how Dominican-Americans now outnumber Puerto Ricans such as Diaz and Crespo in the Bronx.

“I believe it’s going to be difficult not to have a Dominican [as party boss],” said one Bronx political source.

The decision on who will be Crespo’s successor will likely come in July, as county rules state it must have its organizational meeting 20 days after a primary in even-numbered years.

Among the handful of names are:

Assemblywoman Karines Reyes: Crespo personally backed Assemblywoman Karines Reyes, who is of Dominican descent, to run for the seat left vacated by now-state Sen. Luis Sepulveda, giving her a leg-up for such a run. Crespo’s support and her Dominican background mean that Reyes, a registered nurse, should gain some traction. But hurting Reyes is the fact that she has served in the Assembly for much less time, only since 2019, than her potential rivals. Reyes told City & State she is considering the job, and that she’d make the party more progressive. The Bronx Democratic Party has been known for being a “boys club” and conservative on social issues by the standards of New York City Democrats – Crespo did, after all, vote against gay marriage in 2011.

Assemblywoman Latoya Joyner: Assemblywoman Latoya Joyner’s name has bounced around as a possible successor, given her position as County Committee chairwoman, a de facto second-in-command post, making her transition to Crespo’s position appear seamless. Joyner, like Reyes, would be the first woman to lead the Bronx Democratic Party.

Assemblyman Victor Pichardo: A Bronx political insider described Assemblyman Victor Pichardo as a “team player” with the “institutional and legislative knowledge” to succeed Crespo. It could take a team player to navigate the slew of different personalities that make up the Bronx political caucus. Pichardo is also Dominican-American.

Correction: Due to an editing error, this article originally misidentified Councilman Rafael Salamanca Jr. in one reference.