News & Politics

Jamaal Bailey’s shaking up the Bronx Dems

With a majority female City Council representation, could the old boys club be gone?

Left to right: Vanessa Gibson, Amanda Farías, Marjorie Velázquez, Jamaal Bailey and Althea Stevens.

Left to right: Vanessa Gibson, Amanda Farías, Marjorie Velázquez, Jamaal Bailey and Althea Stevens. New York City Council; Amanda Farías Campaign; Richard Rosario; New York State Senate; Harry Montás

State Sen. Jamaal Bailey stepped up to the microphone, entirely surrounded by women, at the July 13 City Hall Park press conference celebrating the 29 women who won their Democratic primaries for the City Council. Eight women spoke before him and 10 after him. Bailey was the only man who spoke. Women are expected to be a majority of the 51-member council for the first time in its history. So Bailey had to clear something up. 

“I was invited, y’all, just so you know!” he said. “I didn’t just come here, I didn’t just show up in the park. But for too long, women have not been invited to the party.”

“The party” was a metaphor in this case, but he may as well have been talking about the Bronx Democratic Party, the organization that he’s led as chair since September of last year. If it was notable that a man was speaking at the event, it was downright shocking that the man chosen leads the Bronx Democratic County Committee – an outfit with a reputation as a backroom boys’ club. 

Bailey’s brief, humble speech was a public sign of his efforts to shift the county committee’s approach from that of an old-school machine to an organizing force that supports the best candidates – including women and progressives. It’s an ongoing project, but it may be the only way to maintain any bit of power in an era of weakened county parties.

If the goal of a county Democratic Party is to win elections, then the Bronx is clearly the most successful in the city. There are nine City Council seats in the Bronx, and the party endorsed the winner in every primary on June 22. By contrast, the Queens Democratic Party backed winners in six out of eight races, but didn’t endorse in some hotly contested match-ups. In light of tension over rules and the overall direction of the Brooklyn Democratic Party between leader Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn and progressive reformers, the county party didn’t endorse any council candidates. The Manhattan Democrats never endorse in primaries, and the Staten Island Democrats stayed out of the borough’s only Democratic primary for City Council this year.

The Bronx party got its perfect record by backing some candidates that the machine probably wouldn’t have supported before, all of them women. In Council District 18, the party supported Amanda Farías, a former council staffer who lost a race against the party’s pick, Rubén Díaz Sr., in 2017. Díaz wasn’t running for reelection in the East Bronx district, but he and his son, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., were both supporting Community Board 9 District Manager William Rivera for the seat. The party backed the younger, more progressive Farías over the older, more moderate Rivera. In District 14, the party endorsed 33-year-old Pierina Sanchez, a former policy adviser to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, over Yudelka Tapia, the Democratic district leader who also had Diaz Jr.’s backing. In District 13, the party endorsed Democratic District Leader Marjorie Velázquez, who had challenged the party-backed Mark Gjonaj in 2017. This year, Gjonaj declined to run for reelection, and Velázquez didn’t face a serious contest – thanks in part to the county party’s support. In District 16, the party endorsed Althea Stevens, a department director at a social services nonprofit, over Yves Filius, who served as the Bronx Democratic Party’s political director from 2016 to 2018. And even Stevens herself didn’t expect such a move from the party. “I was 100% surprised. Surprised, in a way, of how everyone thought it was going to be old politics, where it was not about the work,” she told City & State. “I think I forced people’s hands. They had to support me because I did the work. And they saw that, and they wanted to support that.” Assuming all of these candidates win in November’s general election – which is usually a safe assumption in the overwhelmingly Democratic borough – the Bronx will be going from a council delegation of two women and seven men to a younger, more left-leaning delegation with five women and four men. And for the first time in history, the Bronx borough president will be a woman too, City Council Member Vanessa Gibson.

He may have accepted a speaking slot at the presser, but Bailey was careful to not take too much credit for the women getting elected. “It doesn’t come from the organization – even though, for the first time in the history of the Bronx, we’re going to have a majority-women, women of color delegation,” he said at City Hall Park. “It was the amazing women who ran their races and their families and our amazing Latina Executive Director Ariana Collado who’s in the background.” 

A week earlier, Bailey met City & State for lunch at Code Red, a Jamaican restaurant on East Gun Hill Road in his Northeast Bronx district. Also there was Collado, who was most recently former Council Member Andrew Cohen’s chief of staff, and Jason Laidley, Bailey’s chief of staff. Bailey, over jerk steak and steamed vegetables, didn’t dwell on the female majority. “I think that we’re selecting the best folks possible. If those folks are women, that’s great!” he said. “We had to look at the population – how to equate the population with representation. So it’s only fair.”

The borough’s delegation on the council will also be down to just one white member, Eric Dinowitz, for the first time – bringing the Bronx’s representation more in line with demographics in a borough that is just 9% white. Asked for overarching thoughts on the new delegation, Bailey focused on their records. “Every district that we have, you have people who are community-service, community-oriented first,” he said. “I think the common thread is, it’s people who have been in the community, working, doing something tangible for people before they had the aspiration to be an elected public servant.”

But none of them have been working for too long. Seven of the nine candidates elected are in their 30s. “The Bronx has swag!” Bailey said. The county leader is a sneakerhead, and he was wearing Air Jordan 11 Legend Blues at lunch. “I was joking as I went around to candidates on Election Day – everybody had on a pair of fresh sneakers! And I had a suit on. I was like, ‘Oh man, how come I can’t wear my sneakers?’” the 38-year-old Bailey said. “There’s a youthful exuberance that the borough’s leadership has in it now. And I’m excited for that being around, just to see young folks take matters into their own hands.”

The story of the changing face of Bronx politics has been written before – even in this very magazine. Women planted the seeds of change in 2020, even before Bailey took over. The previous Bronx Democratic chair, former Assembly Member Marcos Crespo, said in 2018 that the party was unified and progressive – even if Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi had just unseated powerful veteran lawmakers. And in 2008, the “Rainbow Rebellion” led by now-Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie ousted Assembly Member José Rivera as county chair and ended a divisive era. “New blood” and “reform” often turns quickly into entrenched power and complaints of unexamined support for county loyalists.

There’s a youthful exuberance that the borough’s leadership has in it now. And I’m excited to see young folks take matters into their own hands.
– Bronx Democratic Party Chair Jamaal Bailey

And it’s not as if the Bronx became some revolutionary progressive organization that will now be joining protests outside Heastie’s office. In District 11, longtime Council Member Andrew Cohen resigned early to be appointed as a judge by the county party. The party then endorsed Eric Dinowitz, the son of longtime party insider Assembly Member Jeffrey Dinowitz, to succeed him over two female candidates, Mino Lora and Jessica Haller, who each had more grassroots progressive support. That Eric Dinowitz is a generally well-regarded special education teacher who has been involved in local politics for years hardly softened the criticism that the whole episode reeked of the old way of doing things. 

In the mayoral race, Bailey and the Bronx Democrats were the only Democratic county committee in the city to formally endorse a candidate, backing Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams. It was an obvious move – Adams is on track to win nearly half of the first-place votes in the Bronx, crushing the rest of the 13-candidate field, and that was going to happen with or without the party’s endorsement two weeks before the primary. But Adams, too, is known as more of a backroom dealer than a progressive reformer. In March, the Bronx Democrats declined to endorse in the special election in Council District 15, when progressives were split between two women, Ischia Bravo and Elisa Crespo, the latter of whom had a serious shot at being New York’s first transgender legislator. But Oswald Feliz, a tenants’ rights attorney who owes much of his success to his political loyalty to Rep. Adriano Espaillat, won. Only after he took office and seemed likely to win the primary did the party endorse Feliz. And most surprisingly, the Bronx Democratic Party didn’t endorse in the race for borough president. The leading candidates were four elected officials who had the party’s support in previous races: Gibson, Assembly Member Nathalia Fernández, City Council Member Fernando Cabrera and state Sen. Luis Sepúlveda. Cabrera has long been known for his socially conservative views, including his opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion, and has run multiple challenges from the right against popular progressive Bronx incumbents. And Sepúlveda was arrested in January and charged with strangling his wife – though he denies he did anything wrong. But the party didn’t even take the easy way out and co-endorse Gibson and Fernández. Gibson said she would’ve been fine with that. “When I got the word that they were going to be neutral, of course I was really disappointed,” Gibson said. “I said if the party cannot agree to one candidate, can you agree to two?”

When asked about council race endorsements, Bailey talked about the importance of representation and candidates who were active in their communities, but when asked about the borough president race, Bailey sounds like an old-fashioned party boss. “People had been good to the organization, and they had been good in their respective areas, and it became difficult for the organization to select someone,” he said. But Bailey clearly didn’t see it as his role to discourage Sepúlveda, his colleague in the state Senate, from seeking higher office, despite the pending misdemeanor charge. “We have not had a conversation about politics in quite some time,” Bailey said about Sepúlveda.

The borough president race was a tough test for the newly elected county leader for another reason too – Bailey is an African American man leading a majority-Latino borough, where four of the previous six borough presidents have been men of Puerto Rican heritage. “There was this undercurrent, or elephant in the room, of having a Latino borough presidency in the borough that’s predominantly Latino, and (the party) not going out and supporting a Latino candidate,” said Assembly Member Karines Reyes, who is Afro-Latina. Reyes personally gave Gibson, who is Black, a first-place ranked endorsement and Fernández, who is Latina, a second-place ranked endorsement. While others in the Bronx may have wanted to see another Hispanic borough president, Reyes is happy with Bailey and Gibson. “I think the Black community has thrived under Latino leadership, and the Latino community is going to thrive under Black leadership,” she said.

In less than a year under Bailey’s leadership, some past critics of the Bronx Democrats like what they see. “I would not call them the Bronx machine, I would call them the Bronx organization. There’s been a transition in that regard,” said state Sen. Gustavo Rivera, a progressive-leaning state senator who has rarely seen eye-to-eye with the county party. “I do think (Bailey and his team) are establishing processes that the prior machines didn’t have. I think that they’re committed to bringing new types of people into the mix, new energy, and not standing in the way of people just because they don’t stand in line and shut up.”

How does one go from “machine” to “organization?” Bailey said he’s expanded the number of vice chairs to add more diversity to the committee. He brought together advisory boards – and not just ones “stacked with county loyalists,” he said – to screen candidates in districts with open seats, and guide who the organization would endorse. And instead of shunning potential rivals, he worked with them. “What was interesting about Jamaal is he was willing to talk to everybody and wanted everybody’s input, because he wanted this to be a collaborative effort,” said Reyes, who was also considered to be a contender to be the next county chair after Crespo stepped down last year. Before Bailey was officially chosen as chair, he and Reyes had a two-hour sit-down discussion. “Part of those conversations was that we want to see more women. We want to see our organization support more women. Uplift more women and uplift the progressive vision that we believe best serves the constituency of the Bronx,” she said.

I would not call them the Bronx machine, I would call them the Bronx organization. There’s been a transition in that regard.
– state Sen. Gustavo Rivera

It’s notable that Bailey is trying to open up the party, since his own path to power was decidedly traditional. As an undergraduate at the University at Albany, Bailey took an internship at the state Capitol and was placed with Heastie, the Assembly member who represented the Bronx area where he was raised. Bailey took to politics quickly and stayed connected, joining the Democratic state committee and volunteering for Heastie while attending the CUNY School of Law. After a stint at Rodman & Campbell, a law firm in the Bronx, Bailey joined Heastie’s staff as director of community relations. When longtime local state Sen. Ruth Hassell-Thompson stepped down in 2016 to join the Cuomo administration, Bailey won the open primary by a wide margin, thanks in part to his close ties with Heastie, and endorsements from unions, including 1199SEIU, that presumably were eager to stay in the speaker’s good graces. And while Bailey is a new leader, there’s continuity. He’s a protege of Heastie, who was county leader from 2008 to 2015. And Stanley Schlein, the behind-the-scenes power broker who has served as the Bronx Democrats’ attorney for decades, is still part of the team.

The shift in borough leadership was sudden and unexpected. Early in 2020, Diaz Jr. announced he wasn’t pursuing a mayoral bid. Diaz and Crespo are close, and the county committee under Crespo had been focused on electing Diaz, so Crespo announced he’d step down too, both from his position as county leader and from the Assembly. Bailey ran a quiet campaign, building support among the Democratic district leaders who would be casting their votes, and he was elected in September.

Bronx voters were changing the face of political leadership in the borough already, replacing officeholders with younger, more progressive alternatives. In 2018, Ocasio-Cortez beat then-Rep. Joseph Crowley and Biaggi defeated then-state Sen. Jeff Klein, who had led the Independent Democratic Conference that shared power with Republicans. In 2020, voters chose then-Council Member Ritchie Torres, who is gay, to succeed former Rep. José E. Serrano over Díaz Sr., who is known for making homophobic comments, among other candidates. 

Many of the borough’s other establishment figures left office. Diaz and Gjonaj, who has drawn criticism from ethics watchdogs, both declined to run for reelection. Former City Council Member Andy King was expelled from the body after it concluded that he had harassed staffers and refused to accept the council’s repeated punishments. Former Assembly Member Carmen Arroyo was removed from the ballot in last year’s primary after a court ruled her campaign had committed petition fraud.

Bailey and the Bronx Democrats seem to have done a good job of moving with the political currents, but the 2022 elections will create a new set of challenges. Will Sepúlveda run for reelection? Will young, progressive insurgents take on older incumbents?

“The reality is that (Bailey is) somebody who I know cares about the Bronx, cares about public service, and cares about this organization differently,” Rivera said. “But nothing can change in a day. Nothing can change overnight.”