New York City

Will the Bronx elect a cowboy-hatted congressman?

Four candidates have already declared for the Democratic primary to replace Rep. José E. Serrano, which will be held next summer and, much to the surprise of outsiders, New York City Councilman Rubén Díaz Sr. may be a serious contender.

Ruben Diaz Sr.

Ruben Diaz Sr. Celeste Sloman/for City & State

Even before 15-term Rep. José E. Serrano announced he will not seek reelection next year, following his diagnosis with Parkinson’s disease, New York City and state elected officials were jockeying to replace him. City Councilman Ritchie Torres had previously expressed serious interest in the race, and others were rumored to be eyeing the seat. Once Serrano made his retirement official, the floodgates opened. Four candidates have already declared for the Democratic primary, which will be held next summer: City Councilman Rubén Díaz Sr., Assemblyman Michael Blake and South Bronx community organizers Tomas Ramos and Jonathan Ortiz. Torres remains technically a holdout, although he told City & State that it’s not a “question of ‘if,’ but ‘when’” he’ll run. “I have been actively laying the groundwork well before every other candidate,” Torres said.

The Democratic primary is effectively the election in this race, given the huge Democratic tilt of the district, which spans the southern half of the Bronx, from the tip of Port Morris to Fordham University.

The major candidates have each carved out an identity for the campaign, with Torres pegging himself as a progressive crusader, Blake a coalition builder and Díaz a champion of the district’s muted conservatives. And, much to the surprise of outsiders, Díaz may be a serious contender.

Díaz, a political oddball who has served since 2003 in the state Senate and then the City Council, enjoys the highest name recognition among the candidates. He has a track record of bringing home the bacon and claiming credit for it: Rev. Ruben Díaz Gardens Apartments is a affordable housing residence in the district. For many voters, this may outweigh the Pentecostal minister’s habit of making controversial statements.

His most recent notorious comment – that he wouldn’t report sexual harassment if he saw it occur at the City Council because he doesn’t “rat” – came just a couple of months after he made a head-scratching claim that the “homosexual community” controls the City Council. That February gaffe drew intense scorn from City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and even some of Díaz’s staunchest allies, including his son, Bronx Borough President Ruben Díaz Jr.

Díaz Sr. is the congressional candidate closest to the Bronx machine. Bronx Democratic Party Chairman Marcos Crespo, an assemblyman, is a former staffer for Díaz Sr. Crespo also has shared some of Díaz’s socially conservative positions in the past, including voting against legalizing same-sex marriage in 2011. The county party remains publicly silent about the race. Despite numerous attempts to contact the party chairman, Crespo was not available for an interview.

One might suspect Díaz’s decision to run for Congress stemmed from his punishment in the City Council for that remark, which was losing a committee chairmanship. Díaz, however, told City & State he would have tossed his signature cowboy hat into the race regardless. “I believe, in Congress, a voice like mine – to represent those voices, conservative Democrat, conservative people, on a national level and here in New York – would be great, would be needed because we don’t have any,” said Díaz, who opposes abortion rights, voted against same-sex marriage in the state Senate and filed a lawsuit opposing building a public school for gay students.

Although the district is the poorest urban congressional district in the country and it is overwhelmingly Latino and African American, it’s not necessarily uniformly progressive. As the many storefront Pentecostal churches throughout the area suggest, its electorate, while concerned with nagging issues of housing, education and lack of access to health care, includes many religious social conservatives – especially among elderly people.

Díaz, who said he hopes to bring down high prescription drug costs for senior citizens if he is elected to Congress, is a good fit for many of those voters. He’s the only candidate in that lane: Blake and Torres, who is gay, are both staunch progressives. There is a generational, as well as ideological, split, with Blake, 36, and Torres, 31, versus Díaz, 76.

“That particular district has an aging Latino population that is more socially conservative in some ways than the general New York City population,” said one Bronx political insider, who asked to be anonymous given his ties to the Bronx Democratic Party. “I think it’s clear there is some viability for Díaz in this race, especially if there’s like 15 candidates and they all split up the progressive and moderate votes, and split up all the African American votes. He has a chance of sliding in with the higher percentage, almost like the Eric Ulrich effect in the public advocate’s race,” he said, referring to Republican City Councilman Eric Ulrich’s second-place finish in the recent special election for New York City public advocate.

Díaz, who announced a run before a crowd of clergy in Parkchester in April, has received no party support. And he likely won’t get it, according to the source closely tied to the party, because that would alienate many liberal party activists. “Once you weigh in all the factors, and you could even try to do it like in a mathematical way and attach a numerical value to each factor – you know, give Díaz +3 for being close to Marcos, give him a -10 for the kind of backlash and pushback that we’re going to get, if you give him a +7 for name recognition – you add all things up and down, and, I think, at the end of the day … I don’t see him being the (endorsed) candidate at all,” said the source, who thinks the party could endorse Blake, citing the developing relationship Blake has with Crespo. (Blake was not embraced by the party when it was run by Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Blake won the 79th Assembly District seat in 2014.)

Díaz told City & State that, in true renegade form, he didn’t bother telling Crespo he was going to run. “I’m not basing my aspirations on who endorses me or who doesn’t endorse me,” Díaz said. “I’m not crossing my fingers on that.”

Blake concurred that endorsements are not likely to determine the primary’s outcome. “The critical piece of all this is that people believe in your vision and what you’re trying to accomplish there,” he said. “Endorsements are always helpful, but at the end of the day, you need people to vote for you.”

The main advantage for Díaz and Torres, and a disadvantage for Blake, is demographics: the district is two-thirds Hispanic, according to census figures. While Puerto Ricans represent more than 20% of the population, Dominicans make up roughly 30%. Díaz and Torres are both Puerto Rican. Most of the rest of the district’s population is African American, as is Blake. Black voters tend to turn out at higher rates than Latinos, according to the Pew Research Center.

Blake said he can win Latino voters, given that he’s been elected and reelected in a heavily Hispanic Assembly district. “People vote for who they believe in. And if you look at my Assembly district, my Assembly district is majority-Latino,” Blake said. “(That) I’ve been elected and reelected twice is a demonstration that people are not looking at you because of your skin color; they’re looking at you because of your skill. If Barack Obama can win in Iowa, why can’t Michael Blake win in his hometown in the Bronx?”

On the other hand, Blake may face competition for the black vote from Torres, who identifies as Afro-Latino.

Predicting an outcome for this race is virtually impossible because of the lack of competitive primaries for the congressional seat in three decades, according to Jerry Skurnik, a political consultant. “Someone who’s already an elected official starts at least on paper with an edge,” Skurnik said. “(Díaz) has run more often than any of the other candidates, and you don’t need 50%. But I just think it’s too soon to say who’s the clear front-runner.”

Skurnik, using data his team collected, estimates 56% of past primary voters are Hispanic, while black voters make up just under 30%. Of those voters, the ages 50 to 69 voting bloc comprises 34% of voters, the largest bloc, which could benefit Díaz. “If Joe Biden can run at my age – he’s older than me – if he could run for president, and if the other guy, what’s his name? The old man?” said Díaz, failing to initially remember U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ name. Díaz is actually older than Biden: Díaz was born in April 1943, while Biden was born in November 1943. “If Bernie Sanders can run for the whole nation, what’s stopping me from running for a little district? If they got the energy, I got the energy.”

But Blake has a talent for robust fundraising. Blake was one of the top fundraisers during his unsuccessful run for New York City public advocate. He amassed $384,569, according to the New York City Campaign Finance Board. That’s more than the winner of the special election, Jumaane Williams, who raised $293,788. Blake has a foot in national politics as a vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, allowing him to tap into a vast network of donors ready to see him ascend to the congressional seat. New York-based donors poured the most money into Blake’s coffers, with California and Washington, D.C., coming in second and third.

Although Blake placed fourth in the 17-candidate race, he argued that his backers will contribute to him again. “People believe in you in the same way Jumaane ran for lieutenant governor and then ran for public advocate,” Blake said. “If people believe you, they will support you.” One good sign for Blake in the public advocate’s race is that he carried the Bronx, thanks to strong turnout from his Assembly district.

Torres, meanwhile, is using his post as chairman of the City Council Oversight and Investigations Committee to address issues in the South Bronx, most recently a probe into yearslong construction delays at the Bronx County Hall of Justice. As for fundraising, Torres hinted that he has built a campaign war chest over the past few months large enough that it will be impressive “by the July filing.”

Appealing to progressive activists, particularly from outside the district, could seal a victory for Torres, who enjoys frequent favorable news coverage from citywide and national outlets. If anyone has a chance of mimicking the success of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the neighboring 14th Congressional District, it’s probably Torres.

The Bronx progressive grassroots activists who helped young insurgent candidates like state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi and Ocasio-Cortez win primaries last year could get involved on behalf of a favored candidate. Although they uniformly dislike Díaz, it’s not clear if they will get involved in this race and, if so, who they will back. “While it’s still very early, Bronx Progressives is excited for the upcoming races in 2020 and beyond. We boldly and proudly endorsed Rep. (Alexandria) Ocasio-Cortez last year and we are looking to ferociously support candidates that will center our communities first as a strong force in demanding dignity, respect and restoration for the working class here in the Bronx,” said Michael Beltzer, founder of Bronx Progressives.

Ocasio-Cortez could herself be a factor in the race, as her devoted following and large social media presence would make an endorsement potentially powerful. “Political people think that that whatever she says, people will just follow,” said another Bronx political insider, who asked to remain anonymous. “I think that’s why she’s waiting, because she doesn’t want to stir up stuff in her own backyard with her own people by supporting someone that they may see as a mainline, mainstream, as part of the problem.”

One thing is certain: Díaz won’t be winning that endorsement. Though both are Democrats, Díaz has made it a point in emphasizing he is “the opposite of AOC.” In fact, some progressive Bronx activists and elected officials, including Beltzer and Biaggi, recently called for Díaz’s expulsion from the party.

Torres, despite his self-presentation as a reformer, has some of the same ties as Bronx machine politicians, such as having accepted donations from Sanitation Salvage, a private trash hauler with a troubled safety record that has since gone out of business. He also may want to address a potential liability: He doesn’t live in the 15th Congressional District. Currently, Torres lives in the north central Bronx, in a part of his City Council district that does not overlap with the congressional district. Although it’s not a legal requirement to reside in the district one represents in Congress, one need only look at Ocasio-Cortez’s upset of former Rep. Joseph Crowley, who was criticized for raising his family in Virginia, to see the risks of being seen as an outsider.

The political source with ties to the Bronx Democratic Party did say the party could shake things up by backing an unexpected candidate. That candidate could be Marlene Cintron, president of the Bronx Overall Economic Development Corp., the business development arm for the borough, where she was appointed by Díaz Jr. Cintron is also close with Rep. Nydia Velázquez, a Manhattan Democrat.

Cintron hasn’t declared yet, though her name continually pops up among Bronx political observers who feel she’s garnered enough respect to mount a serious challenge. “I think she’ll create a stir within the Bronx political establishment because she’s very well connected and respected in those circles. I think she puts people like the borough president in a loop because his father’s running, and she’s very close to Junior, so, yet again, his father’s put him in a headlock,” said the Bronx insider.

Díaz Sr.’s campaign could create embarrassment for Díaz Jr., who has spent two years laying the groundwork for a 2021 run for New York City mayor and who has had to defend his father on multiple occasions over the years. (Díaz Jr. has more conventionally liberal political positions – a necessity if he is to have a chance at the Democratic nomination for mayor.) But if Díaz Jr. campaigns on his father’s behalf, having the borough president on the stump could be an asset to Díaz Sr.

Then there’s the dark horse would-be candidate: Samelys Lopez, a community organizer who is close to the Bronx Progressives and spoke at Ocasio-Cortez’s inauguration.

For now, the Bronx political source with deep party ties said the work in building a reservoir of goodwill has to begin now. “You got to be building up that internal operation. You got to start getting volunteers, getting folks, collecting data, you know, doing demographic research, maybe some polling, so that stuff people don’t talk about but it’s all you got to be doing a year in advance to make sure you’re ready as soon as the gate’s open,” said the source.

Although Serrano’s son, state Sen. José M. Serrano, will not be seeking the seat, it’s likely that more candidates will jump into the race and they’ll have to try to distinguish themselves in a very crowded field.