The Rise of Bronx Power

The Rise of Bronx Power

The Rise of Bronx Power
May 13, 2015

When the Assembly speakership opened up for the first time in a generation, a handful of contenders for the office was quickly whittled down to one: Assemblyman Carl Heastie of the Bronx. The official vote in early February was a coronation. A Bronx contingent featuring state Sen. Jeffrey Klein and Bronx Borough President Rubén Díaz Jr. gathered in the Assembly chamber to witness Heastie’s ascension as the first Assembly speaker from the borough.

Also on hand was Assemblyman Marcos Crespo, who several weeks later would take Heastie’s place as Bronx Democratic Party chairman. Assemblyman José Rivera, who was ousted by Heastie as Bronx party boss in 2008, showed no sign of hard feelings. “My friend, I wish you the best,” Rivera told Heastie. “I think you’re up to it.”

Heastie’s vanquished rivals—one each from Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan and upstate New York—were congratulatory. Assemblyman Keith Wright of Manhattan, who dropped his bid for the speakership to clear Heastie’s path, said, “I guess the Bronx has now become the center of the universe.”

Indeed. Heastie is now one of the state’s most influential elected officials. Klein, who shared control of the state Senate the past two years, continued to participate in backroom budget talks this session. Díaz, the borough president, has cultivated ties in Albany, while Heastie has an ally in Mayor Bill de Blasio, who buoyed his campaign for speaker. Add to that the fact that half of New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito’s district is in the Bronx and that Crespo now leads the Legislature’s Puerto Rican and Hispanic Task Force, and the borough is starting to look like a powerhouse.

“The most powerful Democrat in each legislative chamber, from the state Assembly to the state Senate to the City Council, is a representative of the Bronx,” said first-term Bronx City Councilman Ritchie Torres, who chairs a high-profile committee overseeing the city’s troubled Housing Authority. “So that is a level of influence that is historically unprecedented. The election of Carl Heastie in particular as the state’s most powerful legislator in some ways tells the story of the Bronx and tells the story of a borough on the rise. On a whole range of issues, from housing to public safety, the Bronx has made a level of progress that probably would have been unimaginable a few years ago.”

All that remains to be seen is what this renaissance will mean for the Bronx—and for its leaders.

Officials say that the political resurgence is already yielding dividends. A variety of developments—a FreshDirect headquarters, a golf course, new malls—are in the works or opening. Klein said he capitalized on his leadership position last year to launch the Bronx HIRE program, and that it has already created hundreds of jobs. The party establishment also claims credit for safer streets and the recent population gains and job growth, even if the borough still lags behind the city and the state.

Díaz’s pet project is the conversion of the Kingsbridge Armory into a state-of-the-art ice rink facility, and the latest state budget allocated funds to study how to address the projected increase in traffic. The budget also earmarked $250 million for four new Metro-North stations in the Bronx. Another $100 million was designated for the New York City Housing Authority, which will fund repairs for aging public housing developments, including some in the borough.

“I’d say even in this year’s budget, the money for struggling schools—when we did the budget there were 12, and half of those were in the Bronx,” Heastie said. “So I think this is another place where the budget will help the Bronx.”

However, critics like Ramón Jiménez, a lawyer and a longtime opponent of the Bronx machine, argue that residents are not benefitting much from the borough’s political ascent. He said several high-profile deals have helped developers more than their neighbors, with generous subsidies or terms for Donald Trump’s new golf course, the controversial FreshDirect headquarters and Yankee Stadium. “The whole subsidize the wealthy and it will trickle down to the poor is what Rubén Díaz’s approach is, and I’ve got serious problems with that,” Jiménez said.

Others note that the Bronx Democrats have experienced several letdowns in recent years. Klein’s partnership with the Senate Republicans kept the mainline Democrats out of power, which angered many in this heavily Democratic borough and spurred a bitter primary fight last year against veteran politician Oliver Koppell. Several high-profile picks by the Bronx Democrats—Bill Thompson for mayor, Adriano Espaillat for Congress, Dan Garodnick for Council speaker—have ended up losing.

Mark-Viverito, cited as an example of the Bronx’s strength, wasn’t even backed by the party machine, and thus owes it few favors. When she was campaigning to become Council speaker in late 2013, Heastie, then the Bronx Democratic leader, joined forces with his borough counterparts—Rep. Joseph Crowley in Queens and Brooklyn’s Frank Seddio—to get behind Garodnick. But Seddio flipped and joined mayor-elect de Blasio in endorsing Mark-Viverito.

“Frank pulled a Judas on them and went for Melissa,” said Bob Kappstatter, a former longtime Daily News Bronx bureau chief and political columnist, something he said would be unlikely to happen again given the Bronx’s new political clout.

“I think that will give them an extra ounce of credibility and strength and a little bit of fear and loathing for what can happen to the other counties if they mess with the Bronx—if in fact Carl stays strong with county,” he said.

No matter what the latest crop of Bronx leaders accomplish, they are unlikely to match the feats of Edward J. Flynn. Flynn, “the Bronx boss” for more than three decades starting in 1922, was one of the most powerful politicians of his time—not just in his borough but in the whole city, the state and even the nation. A product of Tammany Hall, he was a friend and associate of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, helping him become governor and playing a pivotal role in his election to four terms as president. In 1948, he catapulted Harry Truman to the presidency.

“It is often said that the term ‘in like Flynn’ comes from him, because if he supported you, you won,” said Lloyd Ultan, the Bronx borough historian. “Ed Flynn could open his mouth and say, do this, and people would say, how high should I jump? Carl Heastie cannot do that. He basically has to rule by respect, and respect for his acumen, that he knows the political scene and what’s possible.”

When Flynn died in 1953, the cigar-chomping Rep. Charles Buckley took over as party boss. Buckley was knocked out of Congress in 1964 and died a few years later, amid rising tensions between the Bronx party regulars and a group of reformers. The reformers—younger, better educated and mostly of Jewish and Italian descent—challenged the Irish-dominated old guard, and the split eroded the borough’s clout. Around the same time, Rep. Paul Fino established a foothold for Bronx Republicans, electing a borough president, a councilman, an assemblyman and a state senator. Over the next two decades the borough descended into an era of arson and crime, prompting residents to flee in droves. As announcer Howard Cosell reportedly said over the loudspeaker during a 1977 World Series game at Yankee Stadium, “Ladies and gentleman, the Bronx is burning!” 

The following year Stanley Friedman took over as Democratic Party boss, and he established a Bronx judicial district that gave the party more influence. “I don’t believe anybody in the Bronx at the time chaired any major committees or had a high post statewide, but they still had influence and could get things accomplished for the borough,” said Michael Benjamin, a former assemblyman who joined the party organization in 1981. Yet Friedman was toppled in 1986 when he was convicted and sentenced to 12 years in prison for his role in a corruption scandal that also ensnared Bronx Rep. Mario Biaggi and then-Bronx borough president, Stanley Simon.

A turning point came in 1987, when Fernando Ferrer replaced the disgraced Simon and set about restoring and revitalizing the beleaguered borough. Ferrer, who served as borough president until 2001, spearheaded health and education initiatives and a rebuilding plan that led to the creation of 66,000 homes and apartments. Ferrer left office to mount two failed runs for mayor, while party boss Roberto Ramírez made an exit to launch a political consulting firm. José Rivera, who replaced Ramírez, drew criticism for favoring his fellow Puerto Ricans at the expense of other party regulars. In 2008 the party ousted him in a “Rainbow Rebellion” that ushered in the current leadership, headlined by a pair of rising stars in Díaz and Heastie.

“The Bronx has been somewhat united, but not as united as what Carl was able to do,” Klein said. “I think he brought all of the different communities and elected officials together under one Democratic roof, and now I think he’s going to be able to do the same thing in the Assembly in a statewide Democratic conference.”

Of course, political power in the borough is not always as straightforward as it looks on paper. Díaz is deeply entrenched as a member of one of the borough’s dominant political families and as a candidate being groomed for higher office, even though he has little structural power as borough president. “A lot of this goes toward pushing Rubén Díaz Jr. for mayor,” Kappstatter said. “That’s Rubén’s target, that’s his dream, that’s the goal, and everything that has happened politically has steered it in that direction. That seems to be a large mantra of the party: that we are going to deliver the next mayor.”

Heastie’s rise could boost the fortunes of Díaz, a close friend and confidante who sat next to him when they served together in the Assembly. State Sen. Rubén Díaz Sr. followed his son to Albany over a decade ago, and the younger Díaz took on a key role in the fall as co-chair of Cuomo’s re-election campaign.

A protégé of the Díaz clan, Crespo is also rising through the ranks. When Díaz left the Assembly for the borough presidency, Crespo was designated his successor. After becoming Assembly speaker, Heastie handed the reins of the Bronx party to Crespo, a widely respected legislator who also took the helm of the Legislature’s Puerto Rican and Hispanic Task Force this year.

Meanwhile, Klein has charted his own course—and could find himself in a position to rise once again. While pledging allegiance to the Bronx machine, the former No. 2 in the Senate thrust himself into a leadership role by forming the breakaway Senate Independent Democratic Conference in 2011. He leveraged his small but pivotal conference to become Senate co-leader in 2013 and 2014, thanks to a power-sharing agreement with Senate Republicans that sidelined the mainline Democrats.

The GOP won an outright majority this past fall and no longer needed the IDC to maintain control, but Klein stayed on as one of the “four men in the room.” Corruption charges against former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos could put Klein in an even stronger position, especially if Skelos is convicted, although a renewed partnership with Republicans would risk further alienating Democrats.

The elder Díaz, in a recent “What You Should Know” column, claimed that his fellow Bronxite could even become Senate leader. “The only way—with the scandal of Dean Skelos and the power of Hillary Clinton in play—for the Republicans to keep power is to name Jeff Klein the Leader of the Senate,” he wrote. “This will keep the IDC’s five Democrats supporting the Republicans to control the Senate. Other than that, I don’t see any other way for Republicans to maintain their control of the Senate.”

The odds of Klein leading the Senate, Díaz calculated, are 75 percent.

The Bronx has a track record of cultivating the next generation of political leaders, such as Díaz, Heastie and Crespo. The borough recently elected Assembly members Michael Blake, Latoya Joyner and Victor Pichardo and Council members Vanessa Gibson and Ritchie Torres—all under the age of 40. “We do have a long tradition of electing them young,” Torres said. “Joel Rivera was the youngest Council member in history. Rubén Díaz Jr. was the youngest Assembly member since Theodore Roosevelt, and I’m the youngest elected in the city at the moment, so that’s one more striking feature.”

Of course, some of those seats opened up as the result of another tradition: political corruption. Pichardo replaced Nelson Castro, who was convicted of perjury, while Blake succeeded Eric Stevenson, who was sent to prison for bribery and other charges. Another young Bronx elected official, state Sen. Gustavo Rivera, was 34 years old when he beat out the incumbent, Pedro Espada, who was later imprisoned for embezzlement.

Heastie—who has faced questions about an apartment that his mother purchased with stolen funds and his ties to various Bronx officials, including former Councilman Larry Seabrook, a convicted felon, and longtime party consigliere Stanley Schlein—was himself elevated only after then-Speaker Sheldon Silver was forced out due to federal corruption charges.

The record of the long-serving Silver looms over Heastie’s brief tenure as Assembly speaker. Silver stepped aside in January after his indictment on charges that he orchestrated a $4 million fraud scheme.

He had amassed substantial power in Albany, which benefitted his district in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. But Silver’s tale is also cautionary one. “It’s not only about taking care of the Bronx,” Benjamin said. “We know what happened to Shelly when he began focusing, some say, on taking care of only his district and for the things that allegedly went on during his nearly 20-year reign as speaker.”

Bronx advocates and residents are already calling on Heastie to tackle pollution, open up the waterfront and spur more development that creates jobs and helps the community. But it could take years before he can really deliver. “He’s got to solidify his base in the Legislature,” said Bruce Berg, a political science professor at Fordham University. “He’s got to prove to his colleagues that he’s a good leader, that he can work for the betterment of the Assembly as an institution, that he can work well with the governor and the leaders of the Senate, whoever they might be. Only after a couple years of that can we really begin to talk about how is the Bronx going to benefit from all this.”
Heastie is careful to say that he will serve on behalf of the entire state, not just a single borough. But Heastie and other Bronx officials say they are pleased that the borough’s needs and priorities are now less likely to be overlooked.

“Having the previous speaker in the Lower East Side certainly wasn’t a bad thing for the Lower East Side,” said Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, the No. 2 official in the Bronx Democratic Party. “Having a Bronx speaker, if nothing else, it guarantees that we have somebody who understands the needs of the Bronx, the importance of doing the right thing for the Bronx. I’m certain that Carl Heastie’s going to do right by the whole state. Having said that, I’d rather have a speaker from the Bronx than not from the Bronx.”

Jon Lentz
is City & State’s editor-in-chief.