New York City

Last machine standing: Marcos Crespo vs. the uprising

Can Marcos Crespo and his Democratic machine survive the progressive insurgency?

Marcos Crespo

Marcos Crespo Portrait by Amy Lombard

Marcos Crespo, the assemblyman who triples as chairman of the Assembly’s Puerto Rican/Hispanic Task Force and as chairman of the Bronx Democratic Party, will be the first to claim that his borough’s party is wholly progressive. Period. Even setting aside Crespo’s socially conservative views, his low-key support for the now-obliterated Independent Democratic Conference, and the general impression that parties are out of touch with regular New Yorkers, Crespo will argue that the party stands by progressive causes.

Call it political survivalism for Crespo – a potential candidate for Bronx borough president in 2021 – but he stands by it.

The Democratic Party faces an identity crisis ignited by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ run for president in 2016 and fueled by Donald Trump’s subsequent victory. The rising tide of progressives broke through in New York this year, with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s astonishing primary upset of Rep. Joseph Crowley, a political heavyweight who doubles as the Queens Democratic Party boss, in a congressional district that spans Queens and the Bronx. The denunciation of established Democrats was sealed on Sept. 13 when state Sen. Jeff Klein, whose breakaway conference partnered with Republicans in Albany, lost his primary to Alessandra Biaggi, also a political newcomer.

The losses by Crowley and Klein stand as a bellwether moment for progressive Democrats who, driven by outrage at Trump, seek to pull the Bronx Democratic Party to the left, calling out its leaders for excluding democratic socialists like Ocasio-Cortez. Yet the reckoning within the party – exemplified by the primaries against Klein and other former IDC members – is seemingly lost on Crespo.

“It is a little disheartening when you see a group of new Democrats or ultra-progressives, or democratic socialists, or whatever term people want to use, claim that they need to change those that are in office because we need progressive values, progressive policies,” Crespo said during an extended interview. “I’m sorry, but if you take a look at what we’ve been doing, that’s exactly what we’ve been doing.”

Criminal justice reform through Raise the Age? That began with Crespo’s predecessor as county leader, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie. A $15 minimum wage in New York state? That was championed by Klein. A plan to create a single-payer health care system? It has been on Democrats’ agenda long before it became a part of Ocasio-Cortez’s platform, Crespo said.

“Nobody’s going to come and give us a lecture of what progressive values are,” he said.

The comment points to Crespo’s propensity for institutional protectionism and defense of party members who “put in the work” to advance the agenda over newbies looking to break in. It’s a comment reminiscent of what South Bronx Assemblywoman Carmen Arroyo said of the party at a 2017 fundraiser for now-New York City Councilman Rubén Díaz Sr.: “We cannot allow people to come from the outside to take over the work that we developed without the contacts that are necessary to bring money to the South Bronx.”

Marcos Crespo speaks to a constituent
Photo by Amy Lombard

An approachable politico with a cheery, squinty-eyed grin, a salt-and-pepper goatee and a hint of toughness he keeps in check, Crespo, 38, is a self-made man who has led the party since 2015. He presides over a big tent of Democrats, ranging from progressives like New York City Councilman Ritchie Torres to social conservatives like Díaz Sr. His political acumen – and bulldog defense of the party – has earned him the respect of the borough’s elite Democrats, namely Heastie, and Bronx Borough President Rubén Díaz Jr.

A few weeks ago, I met Crespo at his district office in the Bronx’s Soundview neighborhood. It was 2 p.m., and caseworkers from Crespo’s constituent services were hard at work, ironing out issues on behalf of residents. Crespo was busy too, talking inside his back office with Bronx Democratic Party attorney Stanley Schlein, the organization’s tall, bespectacled kingmaker. He was the reason why I sat for 20 minutes inside the boxy waiting room, where Crespo’s portrait hangs just above his teller-style window.

After Schlein left, Crespo waved me in. Wearing a gray three-button polo shirt with the words “Assembly District 85, Marcos Crespo,” the assemblyman took out his iPhone and began recording the conversation. It’s common for lawmakers to record conversations with the press, but not for Crespo. He later told me a recent article by The Intercept inaccurately depicted a party meeting he held at F&J Pine Restaurant four days after the congressional primary. “I was so upset at the misrepresentation of my responses to those questions,” Crespo said. “You should put that in your piece.”

Perhaps Crespo’s instinct to record the interview stemmed from his belief that the story of the Bronx Democratic Party was not accurately told. (Before even reading this piece, Crespo assumed it would be a hit piece.) To Crespo, it’s a well-oiled machine that’s worked out most of its kinks and become a model of what the party can do, even as the influence of county organizations has been weakened.

He credited unity. Again, and again, and again throughout the interview. A unified party has allowed elected officials to focus on improving conditions in a borough that’s rebounded from the depths of the “Bronx is Burning” days. Deeply read on the borough’s political history, Crespo saw the results of a fractious party, alluding to the party’s history under Stanley Friedman and George Friedman, and then Assemblyman Jose Rivera. What ended all that was 2008’s so-called Rainbow Rebellion, in which disaffected party officials led by Schlein, Heastie and Díaz Jr. turned against Rivera, then the party chairman, in a move that resembles the progressive movement enveloping Democratic parties across the country today. Heastie was voted the new chairman.

“Before Carl, there was a lot of division, a lot of racial fights along borders, along neighborhoods, amongst elected officials, a lot of chat you would see in election time with colleagues supporting candidates against each other left and right,” Crespo said. “So, knowing that we were positioned really well politically has given us a lot of opportunities to bring more resources to get attention and to shape what is happening.”

It has also helped that Heastie still represents the Bronx while ascending to the influential post of Assembly speaker, while Díaz Jr. has developed an alliance with Gov. Andrew Cuomo, ushering a kind of golden age unseen for quite some time.

“They’re definitely in a very good spot. Marcos is a young, popular leader, and having Carl Heastie and Rubén Díaz Jr. makes the party very strong,” said George Arzt, a political consultant in New York City who previously worked with the Bronx Democratic Party.

But in the aftermath of the Crowley and Klein upsets, the party will lean heavily on Crespo’s good-natured popularity to keep it from regressing to the days of ideological rifts and political pettiness. He’ll have to count on progressive allies to help him carry the message. And he doesn’t subscribe to the all or nothing approach on political and policy positions.

“I think we have to be concerned about these lines in the sand, where if you’re not with me 100 percent of the time, then you’re not good enough,” Crespo said. “There’s always, you know, a gray area that has to be accepted and dealt with.”

“Nobody’s going to come and give us a lecture of what progressive values are.”

Crespo’s tenure has coincided with an influx of young politicians: New York City Councilman Ritchie Torres, City Councilwoman Vanessa Gibson, Assemblywoman Nathalia Fernandez, Assemblywoman Latoya Joyner and state Sen. Jamaal Bailey.

“There’s a youth movement afoot and I think that’s a good thing, right?” Crespo said. “People want to see that. Fresh voices.”

His endorsement of Fernandez impressed some critics. Fernandez succeeded her former boss, Mark Gjonaj, who was elected to the New York City Council last year. “That’s a plus all the way around,” said Michael Benjamin, a former Bronx assemblyman who has called the party a “boys’ club.”

Crespo also backed Karines Reyes, the Democratic nominee for the 87th Assembly District seat left vacant by state Sen. Luis Sepulveda. At a county-sponsored barbecue and baseball game, I ran into Reyes, who spoke highly of Crespo’s character even though she’s a self-described progressive and he isn’t.

“He and I have clashed in those senses, but he’s somebody who always just kind of brings it back and doesn’t let politics get in the way of actually getting work done, which I actually think is important,” Reyes said.

After winning the primary, Reyes has a good chance to join a growing list of female legislators representing the Bronx. The stunning rise of Ocasio-Cortez, while not officially a congresswoman yet, has diluted the argument of the party functioning as a boys’ club.

With the Queens Democratic Party licking its wounds and attempting to keep the status quo with the re-election of Crowley as party chairman, the Bronx’s stability has given them a leg up to become the more relevant and powerful county party. Crespo has shown what unity can do, pointing to a picture of him and Cuomo shortly after Cuomo announced in March 2017 a major renovation for the Bruckner-Sheridan interchange.

“When I put an ask in for the governor – you see the announcement there – $1.8 billion to fix the Bruckner-Sheridan Expressway. Again, that’s been talked about for 50 years. It is, I believe, the single largest transportation investment, state investment or project anywhere in the state,” said Crespo, excluding the new Gov. Mario M. Cuomo Bridge. “I think it has a lot to do with the unity overall in the Bronx. I think it has to do with the fact that people are looking at us different.”

“I’m seeing a lot of people who I’ve never seen a part of the conversation, never seen involved in the community, who may have 100,000 followers on social media. I’m not impressed.”

Back in 2002, thoughts of vetting candidates and cutting deals would never have crossed Crespo’s mind, let alone a career as an assemblyman. But perhaps it was a matter of fate. While enrolled at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Crespo painted homes and offices alongside his father, an undocumented Peruvian immigrant. His mother hails from Puerto Rico. Crespo, who was born in Guayama, Puerto Rico, was uncertain of his plans. His future stood before him like one of those blank walls he and his father were hired to paint.

After prematurely skipping out on an internship for a Bronx judge, a move that would prove serendipitous, Crespo wised up and applied for the only internship he was eligible for: one in the state Legislature.

In Albany, he met Díaz Jr., then representing the 85th Assembly District. The two men instantly clicked. “I saw somebody that I could be myself with, talk sports and hip-hop and the things that I enjoyed, and was relatable. But then I also saw somebody put on a suit and go into meetings with lobbyists and Harvard-graduated lawyers,” Crespo said. He later added, “Ruben was exactly the kind of man I wanted to be like.”

When the internship ended, Crespo headed back to familiar turf. It was 2004 and Crespo, on the cusp of earning a bachelor’s degree in government, was painting a kitchen inside a Connecticut home with his dad when his phone rang. It was Díaz Jr.

“‘Hey, do you want a job?’” Crespo remembers him asking. “I said, ‘Sure.’ So, I just hung up the phone and he’s like, ‘All right, great, I’ll see you on Monday.’ ‘Great.’”

The job wasn’t working for the younger Díaz, but as an assistant at the office of his father, then-state Sen. Rubén Díaz Sr.

Crespo recalled Díaz Jr. telling him, “But also you speak perfect Spanish and that’s helpful to my dad, and you guys are like, you know, will probably get along. You like old salsa, you’re like an old soul and he thinks he’s younger than he really is, so you guys should probably get along.”

Five years later, Díaz Jr. won a special election for borough president, leaving the 85th Assembly District vacant. Crespo, by then, had learned the mechanics of Albany and the impact constituent services can have in a local community. The Assembly post was his for the taking, and technically a fallback (he was also gunning for a job in state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli’s office). But despite pleas by Díaz Jr. and Heastie to run, Crespo, then 28, was reluctant. “I had Carl Heastie, I had Ruben, I had a number of people. No, when I tell you everyone, almost everyone I encountered felt that I should run and I was the one to say no,” Crespo said.

Three weeks before the June 2 special election, Crespo finally threw his name into the ring. Crespo sought the support of the party – and he got it. He won more than 90 percent of the vote in what was a lackluster voter turnout election.

It’s likely that Crespo brought up his own up-and-coming story as a way to talk about who he has supported as chairman. He said he wants doers, not people he senses just want a title. He disregards critics throwing stones from the sidelines, a trend he’s noticed recently.

“I’m seeing a lot of people who I’ve never seen a part of the conversation, never seen involved in the community, who may have 100,000 followers (on social media). I’m not impressed,” Crespo said. “I’m impressed by people who I see at the community board meetings, or on the street, or organizing or addressing issues, or rallying with us when things happen. Like, that’s the kind of activism that’s grass-roots and community-oriented.” He didn’t refer to her by name, but it seemed to be a dig at Ocasio-Cortez, who has more than 850,000 Twitter followers, a robust following that helped her win.

Still, Ocasio-Cortez won fair and square, a fact Crespo said he respects. This may not have happened a few years ago, when the prospect of such a crushing defeat by an outsider was inconceivable. Crespo seemed to see the silver lining in Crowley’s race, particularly the idea that parties aren’t fixers. “If that were true, there’s a number of colleagues today who I consider members of the organization who were not supported by us and would not have won had I had it my way,” Crespo said.

Though he acknowledged Crowley’s loss was partly due to the congressman’s overall absence in his district, Crespo had no regrets backing Crowley, who, as a potential House speaker and No. 4 Democrat, “could’ve been extremely helpful to our communities in securing federal resources for things that were of value to us and important us.”

Throughout the interview, it was clear Crespo preferred candidates who have not only put in the work, but brought dollars to the underserved borough. That’s why, when I shifted to questions about the now-defunct IDC, the eight-member faction of Democrats who collaborated with state Senate Republicans, Crespo appeared to be their apologist. During the interview, which was conducted before Klein lost, Crespo defended Klein’s ability to “bring millions of dollars of resources to the borough” and his ability to “be at the table as a co-leader to talk about and get the Republicans to budge on minimum wage, paid family leave and things that they had never said they would do.”

If anyone is to blame for Republicans maintaining control of the state Senate, it is state Sen. Simcha Felder, a Brooklyn Democrat who also caucused with the GOP, Crespo argued.

“Understand that even if the IDC had never formed, Simcha Felder is the deciding vote for the Republican Party, and if Simcha Felder, without any regard to what it did for Democrats or Republicans, said, ‘I’m going to sit with whoever that gives me, allows me to deliver for my community,’ and Simcha Felder is the vote that puts the Republicans over the top. And he … was never a member of the IDC,” Crespo said. However, Crespo’s argument ignored the fact that in 2012, when the IDC first formed a power-sharing agreement with Republicans, the breakaway group was pivotal to keep control out of the hands of state Senate Democrats.

Marcos Crespo
Photo by Amy Lombard
For all Crespo’s talk of unity, the concept is relative. Skeptics in the progressive Democratic wing have noted the party’s detachment from the populace, with dissenters observing a divergence from party principles and a distance from voters who put them into public office.

“I think when they’re talking about this unification, I think they’re focused more on people who are in leadership or in elected positions, but that’s not necessarily the party and I like to see that really flesh out,” said Michael Beltzer, a member of the Bronx County Democratic Committee, made up of unpaid officials who hold decision-making power over the party’s direction. The committee differs from the organization’s executive committee, which is comprised of elected officials.

Understanding the roles played by the two groups can seem dry, but Beltzer and Samelys Lopez, a former county committee member aiming to reclaim a seat this year, have tried to inform Bronx residents about the role of the county committee.

Inclusion has been on their wish list of reforms. Lopez, a founding member of a group called the Bronx Progressives, asserted that if Crespo is a genuine unifier, he would “reach out to disaffected people who feel like it’s not as progressive, it’s not as grass-roots,” by organizing a town hall-style forum.

“I would like for there to be more of a space for (that) to happen within the party without people being marginalized for it and being seen as, you know, fringe people,” Lopez said. “Because there is value in what we’re saying and our experiences have meaning.”

While Beltzer and Lopez have made little progress, their goals are shared by state Sen. Gustavo Rivera, a progressive Democrat also on the outs with the party. Rivera was not invited to the F&J Pine Restaurant, which he called “disappointing.” The state senator said the party should do better in educating the Bronx electorate, which has a terrible voter turnout record. He also wanted progressive Democrats at the forefront in the party’s decision-making process.

“There needs to be a real embrace, not kind of like, you know, a half-hearted embrace but a real, true embrace,” said Rivera, who noted there are progressives in the Bronx, and they’re voting for candidates like Ocasio-Cortez. “Part of the mythology is that a year before Alexandria was elected, she was a bartender. So, I’m sure there’s people right now that have her level of intelligence, her level of passion and they’re seeing themselves as being wanting to admit themselves to public service. They’re going to demand a space in the party.”

Díaz Jr., in a separate interview, echoed Crespo’s line: The party has been on a path of inclusiveness since Crespo got there.

“Making history with Darcel Clark? That’s not inclusive?” he said, referring to the Bronx district attorney, who became the first African-American woman to hold the position. “Having more than half a dozen female judges on the bench – that’s not inclusive? You know, so, you know, having more and more men and women to (the) county committee and several judicial delegates emerging like the Bangladeshi community, like the Garifuna community, like the West African community – that’s not inclusive? That’s exactly what’s happening under the leadership of Marcos Crespo.”

Benjamin, the former assemblyman whose relationship with the party goes back three decades, said inclusion has been talked about for years. He likened the inclusion argument like a high school student desperately attempting to be in with the cool kids. “Well, it’s not inclusive because they’re not winning; they’re not part of the ‘in’ group and so to them it’s not inclusive,” said Benjamin, of those outside the popular political circles. Benjamin continued: “That can be frustrating. But it’s also a two-way street. You have to make yourself accommodating or willing to talk to folks and not constantly bashing people as I’ve noticed. Whether it’s on Facebook or in interviews, there’s a little bit of bashing that goes on in the party and what happens locally. And when that happens, it’s human nature to dictate that you’re not necessarily going to reach out and bring those people in.”

Perhaps the biggest test of the party’s relevance will come three years from now if Díaz Jr. runs for mayor in what is likely to be a crowded Democratic primary field. Already, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and City Comptroller Scott Stringer are among the names batted around as likely contenders. Crespo said he’s intent on throwing the weight of the party behind Díaz Jr.

“It is, to me, unconscionable that in the city of New York where the Latino community contributed so much, accomplished so much, and given back so much, and where we represent such a significant portion of the population and voting community, that we have never had a citywide Latino elected official is borderline offensive,” Crespo said.

In a case of déjà vu, it seems Crespo could once again follow in Díaz Jr.’s shoes, as he’s rumored to run for the borough president seat in 2021. While Díaz is sure to endorse Crespo, giving him an advantage, Crespo may have to deal with rivals highlighting his record on social issues. Sealing his status as a social conservative was his vote against same-sex marriage in 2011, which nonetheless became law. Crespo said he now regrets voting against the bill.

“Over time, what I’ve come to realize is that I was wrong. I was wrong to vote ‘no’ because whether or not you know I would choose that for my life, it doesn’t mean that I should legislate that against someone else,” Crespo said.

The race between Ocasio-Cortez and Crowley demonstrated that virtual unknowns can disrupt the establishment in a matter of weeks, making three years feel like an eternity in political terms. Crespo, in the meantime, reckoned more Bronx lawmakers will step it up.

“And I think that for generations to come, you’re going to hear the names of Bronx elected leaders being considered for higher office in the city of New York,” he said. “And I think that’s a measure of success of the organization to support that kind of talent.”

As for dissenters, Crespo said he can’t please everyone. “You know what the joke is with being a county leader? That for every decision, you make … seven enemies and one ingrate.”