Berning to Serve: Maria Ordoñez Brings the Political Revolution to Uptown City Council Race

Youthful upstart sees surge of support, would be youngest-ever member of NYC City Council.

John Tarleton Mar 1, 2021

Maria Ordoñez loves to organize. 

As a teenager, she organized with her community garden, her church and at the 1,200-unit Riverside Park Community apartment complex where she initiated a first-ever recycling program.

Bernie Sanders’ two presidential runs provided a portal into progressive politics. She canvassed with uptown Bernie groups and helped start a Young Democratic Socialists of America chapter at Columbia-Barnard College. 

Now at the ripe old age of 21, she’s taking a pandemic year off from college to run for New York City Council in Manhattan’s District 7 which stretches along the western edge of Manhattan from the Upper West Side to Washington Heights. For Ordoñez, this is no spring break lark. 

A call for affordable housing, equitable schools, a Green New Deal for NYCHA and defunding the police by up to $2 billion.

Tapping into her network of Uptown Bernie supporters, she quickly became the first candidate in her race to qualify for the City’s 8-1 matching funds and has since reached the maximum threshold of $200,000 with which to wage her campaign. She has also been endorsed by Our Revolution, the New York Progressive Action Network (NYPAN), the Professional Staff Congress, which represents 30,000 faculty and staff at the City University of New York (CUNY) and former Bronx congressional candidate Samelys López.

“People call me crazy, but that just fuels me,” Ordoñez says. 

She vows to make affordable housing her top priority. The daughter of working-class Ecuadorian immigrants, she has witnessed gentrification first-hand at Riverside Park Community where new owners took the building out of the Mitchell-Lama housing subsidy program in the mid-2000s and ousted hundreds of her neighbors in pursuit of more affluent tenants.

If Ordoñez prevails in her 8-candidate race, she would be the youngest person to ever serve on City Council. If she falls short, she’s proven she will be a force in the future. However, she’s of no mind to “wait her turn” when her community’s traditional machine politicians have failed to stand up to corporate developers, the police and elite institutions like Columbia. 

“The path to victory is very simple,” says Ordoñez who makes a point of speaking to at least 100 district residents per day. “Get out there and talk to voters. If you’re not out there talking to voters, then you’re losing.” 

Indypendent: This is a district that extends from affluent neighborhoods of the Upper West Side all the way up to the 160s in Washington Heights. Talk about your feelings about the district and what you see as the issues that most need to be addressed. 

“We are one of the communities that are most often policed, over and over again — especially in NYCHA. We need to transform how we deal with that.”

Maria Ordoñez: With the pandemic, the issues the district faces have become clearer than ever. I’d say that the first issue that we have to address is housing. We have to deal with affordability, we have to talk about how people are going to continue to live in the district while we continue to have luxury developments and we continue to have an elite institution like Columbia expand. How are we going to afford to house people in this district who cannot pay more than 50% of their wage in rent?

The second issue is education. You can see the complete difference when you go to school in the Upper West Side and when you come to school in Harlem and Washington Heights. You don’t have the same textbooks, you don’t have access to a library, you don’t have access to a gym. In Columbia Secondary School, I didn’t have a library when I was there. Not all schools have access to nurses, and you still have police presence in schools. That needs to change.

The last thing I’d say is making sure that we don’t need to be policed. We are one of the communities that are most often policed, over and over again — especially in NYCHA. We need to transform how we deal with that. The first step is defunding the NYPD and bringing that money back into this neighborhood. It will be a transition. We start out by defunding by $2 billion or $1 billion but we continue to defund it and work with our communities to reallocate those funds. 

I’m running, but it’s not just in my hands. We have to have town halls and talk about where we want that money to go. That money can go into schools. We can put money into small businesses. We can put money into health sites, to housing the homeless. So there’s so many places where we can allocate that money but it needs to be done with the community. And if all that ultimately comes together, our community could thrive.

You said housing was your top priority for this district. What do you want to address the problems you are talking about?

The first thing we need to do is stop using mandatory inclusionary housing to rezone areas. We have to stop using that as a way to define affordability in buildings. When we build housing, it has to be according to the community. It cannot be based on area-medium income, because low-income people don’t make that much. It’s not affordable, it’s just affordable to certain people. 

We need to talk about the real estate that’s coming into the community. Talk to the community first, co-govern with the people in the district. We need to open this [process] to everyone, and make sure everyone’s there, that everyone’s listening. We had way too many meetings at Columbia where the same 10 people are there.

When I think about the Green New Deal, I think about NYCHA. Let’s put something in place where we transform these buildings that are old, buildings that don’t have working elevators, buildings that are just rotting, and give people jobs in these buildings and unionize them. Allow them to be the people that are making the change in that building by transitioning into an energy-efficient and sustainable environment. 

Speaking of Columbia, you’re in a unique position as someone who’s both a student at Columbia and a lifelong resident of this neighborhood. How would you try to change the dynamic between this incredibly wealthy and powerful university and the community around it?

We oftentimes say the students don’t want to come into the community. But it’s the people in power who are sometimes not listening to the needs of the community. I think we have to have an attempt at meeting with them and actual people from the community. We’re tired of hearing, “yeah we promise this, we promise scholarships, we promise jobs.” It’s time that we demand that those things actually happen. 

As a council member, I would ensure that we actually meet those demands. I can put a stop to new development in my district. I will say no to it if they don’t meet certain requirements. And when I say meet certain requirements, I mean affordability, ensuring that we provide jobs for people in the community so when we have new construction, people in the community get the jobs. Scholarships and stuff like that. It’s been too long where a lot of people are going to Columbia, but not enough are from Harlem. It’s truly a disappointment because if we gave people an opportunity, we would see a lot of change. 

Elaborate on why you think it’s important to have a socialist bloc on the City Council. 

When I think about a socialist bloc, I think of a group of council members who are going to come together and fight for continued unionization of our communities, continued organizing, making sure that there are offices or places where we can organize people. 

We’ve seen [last year’s] budget season where people were rallying to defund the NYPD. A socialist bloc would’ve been amazing at that moment because we would’ve had a bunch of council members organizing their districts and bringing everyone together on the same issue. 

When the New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America issued their endorsements for a slate of six City Council candidates, you were not tapped for the slate. Your thoughts on campaigning as a democratic socialist without the endorsement of DSA?

So I’m a democratic socialist. That’s what I am and I believe in those values so I’m running as such. What I will say is that I had all of the members and the membership behind me. Certain people believe that because I’m too young, it’s not a race I should be doing. They said the same thing about AOC, they said the same thing about Tiffany Cabán. We’re so involved in the movement that it doesn’t matter. I still believe in those values because those values are near and dear to me.

DSA is an organization that puts effort and energy into campaigns. I think that if it wasn’t me because I was “too young,” maybe it could’ve been someone else and we could at least build something in Manhattan. When people think about New York in general, they think about Manhattan. So you want a presence in this borough especially coming into this city-wide election.

Talk about what it means to have bold, progressive women of color taking leadership.

Photo: Sue Brisk.

I think it shows the power we have and inspires other people to do the same. And it shows that you don’t need to meet a certain standard to be a leader in your community or run. It shows that when women of color run, they uplift their communities, they uplift their families. It’s really important now that we’re seeing all these issues, especially those that came out of the death of Breonna Taylor, or seeing this pandemic where single mothers have had it really hard because they had to take care of their children but they have to work. 

We come with a set of experiences that other people just don’t come with. We’ve seen what it means to be a woman of color in society where we’re often ignored because we’re just not good enough. We’re often left out of the conversation because we’re not supposed to be there, or we’re supposed to be quiet. But it’s time to say no to that. It doesn’t matter who you are, you should be in these positions if you want to. 

Right now, people do not feel inspired, do not feel like they have the power in their hands to do anything for their community. But they are the most powerful to go enact that change. I’m running to co-govern, I’m running to work with everyone and build this movement. It’s just not about me or any one individual. It’s about a lasting change and a movement we can create for people who come after in the future. 

Would you say this is a very local extension of the idea of a “political revolution” central to both of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaigns?

It is absolutely a local extension of a political revolution. We’re building that at the national level but at the same time, without even noticing it, we have been building it at the local level. This race right here, it’s that extension of the political revolution in District 7. 

Rob Katz contributed to this article.

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