Campaigns & Elections

It’s Gustavo Rivera versus the Bronx machine

The state senator faces a primary challenger backed by many of the borough’s power brokers.

State Sen. Gustavo Rivera has had a rough couple of months.

State Sen. Gustavo Rivera has had a rough couple of months. Submitted

State Sen. Gustavo Rivera has had a rough couple of months.

It started in February when the original state Senate lines were approved by the Legislature. Rivera’s home had been redistricted out of his northwestern Bronx district by just a smidge. Running and winning in his old district would have necessitated giving up his rent-stabilized apartment of 20 years. But he probably could have run unopposed.

Matters got worse when the courts approved the final lines in May. Rivera would still need to move – unless he wanted to challenge state Sen. Robert Jackson largely on his turf – but this time, he would face competition. And though he welcomed the primary challenge from first-time candidate Miguelina Camilo, Rivera needed to get his stagnant campaign apparatus up and running – and fast. “This was the worst-case scenario,” Rivera said in a recent interview with City & State. He thought back to the week following the release of the final lines that left him with no good options if he wanted to remain in office: “I was depressed, I’m not going to lie.”

Now that the race against Rivera and Camilo in the newly drawn state Senate District 33 has gotten underway, things have only gotten more complicated. Despite running against a sitting lawmaker, Camilo won the backing of the Bronx Democratic Party as well as a slew of influential elected officials, including Assembly Member Jeffrey Dinowitz and Reps. Adriano Espaillat and Ritchie Torres. Rivera, meanwhile, has the lion’s share of powerful unions backing him as well as progressive organizations like the Working Families Party and Tenants PAC.

It’s not new that county parties in the city may try to push out members who won’t toe the party line. But the Bronx Democratic machine remains the most powerful in New York City, managing to maintain its influence even as other machines have crumbled in recent years. The race between Rivera and Camilo will serve as its latest test of power in the face of well-organized competition. But with demographic shifts in the West Bronx, the race may also prove to be a critical testing ground for Espaillat as a burgeoning power broker.

This was the worst-case scenario.
– state Sen. Gustavo Rivera, on the final district lines

When the state Legislature approved new district lines in February, Camilo announced that she would run in the state Senate district being vacated by state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi running for Congress. The open seat attracted other candidates as well, but the 36-year-old lawyer entered with the support of the Bronx Democratic Party. The former president of the Bronx Women’s Bar Association, she had first gotten involved with the party through judicial elections – meeting candidates and carrying their petitions – and had made connections from there. Born in the Dominican Republic before moving to Washington Heights, Manhattan, at the age of 2, Camilo also worked at the city Board of Elections.

But when the courts released new district lines following a lawsuit invalidating the districts drawn by the Legislature, Camilo’s home of Riverdale shifted into District 33 – a district without an incumbent, since Rivera’s home had wound up a short distance outside the district. So Camilo decided to switch gears and campaign there instead. “To me, it was never going to be a question of running anywhere else,” Camilo told City & State. “This is the district that I know and I’ve worked in.” She added that “it’s not about musical chairs” in order to get into the Legislature, referring to the prospect of moving to run in a district without challenging a sitting lawmaker.

When Camilo switched districts, the Bronx Democratic Party stuck with her, reiterating the endorsement it had already made for her in District 36 – where she originally planned to run – would also apply to her District 33 run. The district stretches across the northwestern Bronx to the heart of the borough, from Riverdale and Norwood to Belmont, the Bronx Zoo and Van Nest. Bronx Democratic Party Chair Jamaal Bailey, a state Senate colleague of Rivera’s, said the special master who drew the new maps “(threw) a wrench in everyone’s plans,” but the party decided to stick with Camilo, who continued to reside in the district that she sought to represent. “We thought the world of, and continue to think the world of, Miguelina in terms of her ability, her skills, her tenacity and what she would bring to the Senate,” Bailey told City & State.

Bailey insisted that the continued endorsement of Camilo did not represent a decision to explicitly go against Rivera, but ultimately, that’s what panned out. With no truly good options before him, Rivera announced shortly after the court released the new district lines that he would run in District 33 with plans to move the few blocks necessary to live there. Though Rivera could have moved to a different district that Camilo did not live in, he would’ve wound up representing new neighborhoods. “The 33rd is the one that makes the most sense,” Rivera said, adding that it has the greatest percentage of communities he currently and formerly represented.

However, while running for another seat didn’t cross Camilo’s mind, it was something that Bronx Democratic Party leaders suggested to Rivera. “Conversations were taking place with Sen. Rivera in relation to the ability to run in possibly a different area,” Bailey said, noting that avoiding a primary against Jackson would necessitate moving regardless. “That being the case, the conversation was saying, ‘Hey if you’re going to move, is this an option?’” Those suggestions included District 34, an open seat in the East Bronx, and the new District 32, which also included parts of Rivera’s current district and would have pitted him against state Sen. Luis Sepúlveda.

Rivera declined and decided to run in District 33, “as is his right,” Bailey said, but the conversations left a bad taste in Rivera’s mouth. “This makes me a little queasy, in all honesty,” Rivera said. “The way that some of them were talking about it was like, ‘Hey, we’re just going to hand you this, why don’t you do this one, why don’t you do this one?’” Echoing Camilo’s sentiments about why she never considered moving in order to win a seat, Rivera said he felt as though the Bronx Democratic Party leaders were attempting to distribute seats like “possessions” to cajole him away from a primary against Camilo. Bailey said the conversations happened in a good faith to avoid a primary fight while keeping a senior lawmaker in the Legislature.

My loyalty is not to a particular club, not to a particular elected official and not to a party organization.
– state Sen. Gustavo Rivera

Rivera would be the first to tell you that he has never exactly gotten along with the Bronx Democratic Party. His relationships with the previous two leaders – now-Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and former Assembly Member Marcos Crespo – were well known for being hostile. According to campaign finance records, Heastie’s PAC donated $7,000 to Camilo in March, but he hasn’t given to his fellow sitting lawmaker – and probably won’t. “Gustavo never really, quote-unquote, played with the county machinery,” political analyst Eli Valentin told City & State. “He hasn’t been an establishment kind of guy.” Rivera has a much better personal relationship with Bailey, but that hasn’t translated to the party as a whole. Although he enjoyed nominal support against past challengers like former New York City Council Member Fernando Cabrera, who has garnered criticisms for his homophobic views, Rivera said he had never been one to “bend the knee” for the party apparatus. He has regularly sided with progressive legislators over his fellow Bronx colleagues and held policy positions that did not align with the party faithful’s often moderate brand of politics.

But Rivera has also made actively hostile moves against the machine, notably against Assembly Member Jeffrey Dinowitz, the party’s secretary and West Bronx power broker. The most recent example was this year when Rivera endorsed a progressive challenger to Dinowitz, but their relationship soured two years ago when Rivera supported a failed takeover of Dinowitz’s Democratic club by Biaggi in 2020. “I didn’t think that was very nice,” Dinowitz told City & State. “I mean, after all, we were supporters of his.” Dinowitz and his club, the Benjamin Franklin Reform Democratic Club, backed Rivera in his first run against disgraced ex-state Sen. Pedro Espada Jr. even though the Bronx Democratic Party did not, and they offered support in each of Rivera’s ensuing races. Rivera said at the time that he had called Dinowitz to inform him of his support for the attempted leadership change before the actual vote.

Despite the appearance of vindictiveness on Dinowitz’s part, he insisted that none of that history impacted his decision not to support Rivera. Like Bailey, Dinowitz said he made a commitment to Camilo and believed she would make a good addition to the Legislature, and that running in a district with a different number didn’t change that. “Even if I wasn’t annoyed at Gustavo Rivera, which I am obviously, it wouldn’t have made a difference.” But it didn’t mean Dinowitz was above taking jabs. “(Rivera) chose to run in a district in which he does not live – some people would use the word carpetbagger,” he said, before adding, “I don’t like to use words like that.”

Rivera also shares no love for Dinowitz either. “It’s funny that Jeff feels (it) necessary to tell everybody that I don’t share his values when he and the Ben Franklin Democratic Club basically supported me in every competitive election that I ever had,” Rivera said. “But … my loyalty is not to a particular club, not to a particular elected official and not to a party organization.” He insisted that the over decade of work that he and his staff have done for the district “apparently … is not worth as much as you saying, ‘I’m loyal to the party apparatus.’”

Asked about her own loyalties, Camilo offered a very different assessment than her opponent. “There is a sense of loyalty when these are elected officials that have represented our communities that I have shared time with and been present with,” she said, referencing the slew of local politicians with close ties to the party apparatus who have endorsed her. “When that is said as a negative thing coming from a senator who did have the party’s endorsement in past elections – but has maybe chosen to go against electeds himself – he has found himself in a position where maybe he feels they’re not being loyal to him.”

So far, the Bronx Democratic machine has managed to hold out against insurgent candidates in most elections, evolving arguably more effectively to include the more progressive wing of the party than other borough machines. It notably expanded its number of female elected officials in recent years, combating the image of the Bronx Democratic Party being an old boys’ club. A victory in District 33 against a longtime thorn in its side would serve to cement the party as the most powerful Democratic machine standing in New York City. But a loss could be devastating for the future influence of party leaders in the borough.

I didn’t think that was very nice. I mean, after all, we were supporters of his.
– Assembly Member Jeffrey Dinowitz, on Rivera supporting a challenge to Dinowitz’s leadership of the Benjamin Franklin Reform Democratic Club

The race serves not only as a testing ground for the Bronx Democratic Party, but also for Adriano Espaillat, whose House district includes Upper Manhattan and parts of the West Bronx. In some ways, it could prove even more significant for him than for the party. Espaillat, who is Dominican, has successfully helped fellow Dominicans get elected in and around his district at multiple levels of government. Most recently, his support played a key role in George Alvarez’s primary victory over longtime Bronx Assembly Member José Rivera, who is Puerto Rican. Those ethnic dynamics are at play once again in the state Senate race, with Espaillat backing Camilo, who is Dominican, over Rivera, who is Puerto Rican.

In the heavily Latino Bronx, particularly the West Bronx area in District 33, Puerto Ricans made up a large percentage of the community, and therefore the voting bloc. But recent demographic shifts have led to a growing Dominican community, with many people moving north from Washington Heights in Manhattan into the Bronx. “That is, I think, often publicly unsaid,” Valentin, the political analyst, said of the changing demographics. “But when it comes to the Latino political reality, one cannot lose sight of that.” He said that’s what he believed drove Espaillat to support Camilo in the race, getting involved in a district that has minimal overlap with his own.

Espaillat has already proven his ability to win, seeing success in the Rivera/Alvarez race against the Bronx Democratic Party. But he also helped to elect several New York City Council members in 2021, including Oswald Feliz in the Bronx and Shaun Abreu in Manhattan. The common thread among all the candidates were their Dominican roots. 

Bailey, who’s wife is Puerto Rican, said that ethnicity played no role in the party’s decision to support Camilo. She also has support from Torres, who is also Puerto Rican. But Espaillat’s goals don’t necessarily line up with the county party’s, as evidenced in the June Assembly race. This time, they just happen to be aligned. Valentin predicted that should Camilo win, a close examination of where she had the most support would offer insight into just how much sway Espaillat had among evolving Latino communities.

With roughly a month before primary day, both Rivera and Camilo are gearing up for what they expect to be a tight race whose outcome seems very likely a toss-up. Camilo enjoys the support of the county party and its campaign infrastructure. For a first-time candidate like her, such backing is invaluable. Camilo has endorsements from major officials in both her district and the Bronx as a whole. In addition to Dinowitz and Espaillat, whose districts overlap with hers, she also has support from Bronx Borough President Vanessa Gibson and Council Member Eric Dinowitz, who also represents part of the district.

But Rivera has maintained the support of politically powerful unions, including 1199SEIU, New York State Nurses Association and the United Federation of Teachers. The unions also offer tremendous resources to aid their candidates. Rivera also has a fundraising advantage. According to the most recent campaign filings, he had over $430,000 on hand heading into August. Camilo, meanwhile, had just over $130,000. Although past Senate and Assembly races have proved that money does not always lead to electoral victories, it still offers a significant leg up.

Right now, Valentin said he believed Rivera had a slight upper hand in the race. “The Rivera name still holds weight in significant portions of that district,” Valentin said in spite of the new lines. He said name recognition goes beyond the specific areas that Rivera currently or has previously represented in that portion of the Bronx. He also pointed to the strength of the endorsements that Rivera has in combination with his level of familiarity in the community.

As they hit the campaign trail in hopes of tipping a close race in their favor, Rivera and Camilo face similar obstacles: introducing themselves to new constituents. For Camilo, she’s doing so as a first-time candidate. For Rivera, he has entirely new communities – particularly Riverdale – where people may not know him. On election night, the deciding factor may come down to who had the better sales pitch to communities brought together for the first time thanks to redistricting.