In a Bronx Special Election, Big Money is United. Is the Left?

Tuesday’s vote in City Council District 15 marks the next clash between anti-corporate, pro-tenant organizing and real estate and charter school interests.

Rob Katz Mar 19, 2021

Tuesday’s hotly contested special election in the Bronx City Council district formerly represented by Ritchie Torres may shed light on two ongoing questions in New York City politics: one, how will ranked choice voting ultimately pan out in lower-income districts of color; and two, just how much can wealthy interlopers bend an upcoming turnover of City Councilmembers to their will?

In the Bronx’s District 15, 10 candidates are vying to replace Torres who won an open congressional seat last year. The competition to represent the neighborhoods of Bedford Park, Fordham, Mount Hope, Bathgate, Belmont, East Tremont, West Farms, Van Nest, Allerton, and Olinville may put ranked choice voting through another stress test and has already revealed further outside spending by some of the wealthiest humans on the planet. 

Three women of color make up the ostensible left flank of the race: Elisa Crespo, the education liaison at the Office of Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr.; Latchmi Gopal, the former national distributed organizer for the Bernie Sanders 2020 presidential campaign; and Ischia Bravo, district manager for Bronx Community Board 7 and former executive director of the Bronx Democratic County Committee. 

Crespo, who would be the first openly transgender member of the City Council, has faced transphobic smears from the New York Post en route to becoming a frontrunner. The centerpiece of her platform is the “Public Option for Employment,” which would provide a targeted public jobs program in areas with racially concentrated unemployment like District 15, as well as neighborhoods outside the Bronx like Brownsville and East New York. Torres’s federal district, NY-15, contains neighborhoods with unemployment rates over triple the national average.

“The idea is that we would target these ZIP codes where there’s high levels of poverty and we would find historically marginalized communities,” Crespo told the Indypendent. “We would create targeted hiring programs that would essentially establish pipelines into city service jobs for these people and that would provide them with all of the benefits of organized labor such as health benefits and pensions.”

Elisa Crespo, who would be the first openly transgender member of the City Council, has faced transphobic smears from the New York Post en route to becoming a frontrunner. 

Crespo has also amassed a coalition of endorsements ranging from establishment liberal lawmakers like former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito to progressive groups including Sunrise Movement and TenantsPAC. As well, she’s received support from prominent figures from the Democratic Socialists of America such as State Senator Julia Salazar and Bronx-based organizer and former congressional candidate Samelys López who ran to the left of Torres in their primary.

Crespo’s fundraising momentum has been matched by the more establishment-leaning Bravo, who is backed by a number of unions including the electoral powerhouse 1199SEIU; national players like 2017 Women’s March Organizer Tamika Mallory; and New York power brokers ranging from progressive luminary State Senator Alessandra Biaggi to Diaz Jr.

Gopal, a first-generation Guyanese American community organizer who recently served as national distributed organizer for the Bernie Sanders 2020 presidential campaign, has advocated for a participatory budgeting process for the district. She also vocally backs the NY Health Act, which would create a single-payer health coverage program through the state, and a Green New Deal for New York to halt the fossil fuel industry’s growth, shift to publicly and democratically controlled utilities, and prioritize low-wage workers and communities of color for a just transition to clean energy jobs.

However, despite her ties to the Sanders campaign and the DSA Gopal has been unable to coalesce wide organizational backing or high fundraising numbers at the same level as her left-leaning peers. Her campaign is supported by a few organizations including The People for Bernie and the Grassroots Law Project, as well as a smattering of leftist figures like former Sanders surrogate and environmental activist Josh Fox.

The conservative field is similarly crowded by John Sanchez, District Manager for Bronx Community Board 6 and the fundraising front-runner; Oswald Feliz, a tenant lawyer; and Kenny Agosto, the Deputy Chief of Staff to Sen. Jamaal Bailey. Bernadette Ferrara, Troy Blackwell, Lilithe Lozano, and Altagracia Soldevilla round out the ballot.

Gopal and Crespo both opined that while ranked choice voting should be a boon for the democratic process, the Board of Elections has placed the onus on candidates to explain the new ballots to voters.

“A lot of the time when we’re knocking doors or on the phone with people, we are the first source that is informing them that their ballots are going to look different,” Gopal said.

“Seventy percent of the voters came out and voted for ranked choice voting,” Crespo said. “Now let’s put some money behind the public information campaign. Let’s make sure people understand that this system exists, because the people who are going to suffer the most are the communities of color, immigrant communities, people who don’t speak English as a first language.”

In southeast Queens’s District 31 special election, an early example in the cycle where no candidate received a majority of first-place votes, nine rounds of vote tallying recently allowed a winner to be called nearly a month after ballots were cast.

As of the last financial disclosure filed before the primary, Sanchez leads the pack in private funds, having raised about $62,000, followed by Bravo and Crespo. Sanchez, Bravo, Crespo and Feliz have reached the maximum public funding, while Gopal trails halfway toward the $142,500 limit. 

Sanchez has also had a sizable burden lifted from his shoulders by some surprise guests. 

Two outside spenders have entered the race: New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany, set up by pro charter-school advocacy group StudentsFirst New York, and Voters of NYC, Inc, buoyed by a handful of real estate firms. New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany has dumped a whopping $91,000 on mailers, internet video ads, and get-out-the-vote phone calls for Sanchez, and Voters of NYC, Inc has splurged $71,000 on its own set of pro-Sanchez mailers.

One series of mailers and video ads by New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany declare that “Housing is a Human Right,” an increasingly common slogan popularized by housing justice advocates. In fact, none of the ads paid for by the PAC, which represents a lobbying group launched by Success Academy Charter Schools co-founder Jenny Sedlis, mention education or schools. Alice Walton, heiress to the Walmart fortune and the richest woman alive, dumped $75,000 into the pro-Sanchez ads. 

Voters of NYC’s mailers tout Sanchez’s endorsements and platform, without mentioning that the group’s treasurer is Jeffrey Leb, founder and managing partner of NYC-based government lobbying firm Capitol Consulting, or that the PAC has received tens of thousands of dollars in contributions from real estate executives and firms like WLZ Properties, which is owned by the real estate scion William Lie Zeckendorf.

Billionaire real estate tycoons and charter school operators are pouring money into a race to represent one of the poorest communities in the city.

Leb, who once served as Chief of Staff to Queens City Councilmember James Gennaro, also registered Common Sense NYC, Inc, the independent spender that dropped over $220,000 on a recent Queens special election to prop up Gennaro and attack progressive activist Moumita Ahmed. That PAC, which received a $1 million check from real estate mogul Stephen Ross, may have at least $1,200,000 on hand to pour into contests across the five boroughs.

“At the end of the day, real estate is the name of the game in New York,” said  López, who was endorsed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Courage to Change PAC during her run for Congress. “So I think that the real estate developer community is getting fearful that people are rising up and organizing..”

“I think charter schools are interested,” Gopal added, “because, looking at the City Council budget, where are we going to put our funds towards education and how are we going to balance that? I think charter schools specifically are really interested in getting a larger piece of that pie because they receive both public and private funding.” 

“Real estate developers are looking at the Bronx because there’s space to develop things,” she added. “There’s attention around, okay, are we building condos or building units that are market price that people here cannot afford? We have the average median income already for affordable housing where that is unfairly set for many Bronxites. And so people are already priced out of housing.”

“Frankly,” Crespo said, “the people who are behind [these groups] should be using that money to be investing in ending our homelessness crisis, to be investing in building more supportive housing, and to be investing in our education system and health services and creating jobs for marginalized communities. It’s the reason why so many people in communities like mine are very skeptical about politics, because they feel as though their voices aren’t being held to the same degree or aren’t as loud as wealthy political donors.”

Outside spending isn’t only coming in from the right. Our City, an independent expenditure committee helmed by Justice Democrats alumnus Gabriel Tobias to support candidates aligned with progressive policy platforms, has spent about $7,000 on scorecard-style mailers that laud Crespo, Bravo and Gopal, and criticize Feliz and Sanchez for standing with corporate interests. In addition, 32BJ SEIU, the Laborers’ Union, and New York Women Lead, funded by the pro-choice nonprofit Eleanor’s Legacy, have invested a total of $15,000 in mail ads for Bravo.

On Tues., March 23, voters in District 15 will decide what all that money adds up to. Polls will be open from 6 am-9 pm. Early voting concludes on Sunday. For more, click here.

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