In Bronx BP Race, a Favorite Son

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With Adolfo Carrion's departure to join the Obama administration voters will head to the polls a week from tomorrow, for a non-partisan special election to fill the Bronx Borough President's seat. And the favorite son appears to be Assemblyman Ruben Diaz Junior. He comes from one of several prominent political families that continue to gain clout in the borough. WNYC's Elaine Rivera reports.

DIAZ JUNIOR: Remember to come out and vote in the special elections on April 21st...

REPORTER: Ruben Diaz Junior spent a recent afternoon campaigning at a subway stop in the Fordham section of the Bronx. But most people will ask - why bother? Diaz faces no Democratic rivals and a challenge from one Republican candidate, Anthony Ribustello, an actor who is running for office for the first time. And he's only raised $200 compared to Diaz's nearly $300,000. But the 35-year-old Diaz says he's not taking any chances and he wants people to know why he's out campaigning.

DIAZ JUNIOR: I want to be borough president because we're in an ideal situation here where we have friends in Washington, D.C. with Adolfo Carrion are working for Obama, our friendships that we have in the state and I think it's an opportune time now that we can take the Bronx to the next level where we can create jobs, green jobs, jobs that stay here, get people to be job ready and when all is said and done you'll see the borough of the Bronx will be borogh thats gone from ruins to revitalization to now leading the nation.

REPORTER: Diaz, who has held public office for the past 12 years, is the son of another Bronx politician, State Senator Ruben Diaz Senior. The Diazes' are one of several Bronx families who have had more than one member elected to office. They include the Riveras, the Arroyos, the Fosters, and the Serranos. Like many of the other politicians, Diaz Junior bristles when people say the Bronx political machine is rife with nepotism.

DIAZ JUNIOR: It's amazing that the media say that about some families but they don't say it about others you have the Kennedys - no one said that about Caroline Kennedy when she was aspiring to be U.S. Senator.

REPORTER: And his father puts a finer point on it saying it's about race. At a fundraising event last summer, State Senator Diaz said some people just don't want to see Latinos and blacks gaining political power.

DIAZ SENIOR: The whites, the Irish, the Italians and the Jews they have played the same system that have worked for them is now working for us - we're finally are getting into the system and getting our own but they're saying oh, the system is no good.

REPORTER: But that system has gotten too insular for some, like political activist and writer Ramon Jimenez. He says the Bronx is unique when it comes to politics as family business.

JIMENEZ: The contrast, the nepotism, and the corruption is greater than any other boroughs. You don't have this many families vying for power in any other borough than any of New York City's five boroughs.

REPORTER: The U.S. Attorney's office recently dropped an investigation into whether the Diaz's used workers from a non-profit to campaign for them. The investigation found no evidence of wrongdoing. This is how Diaz Junior sees it:

DIAZ JUNIOR: Political hits, that go nowhere, it's unfortunate. But some people feel that's the way to do politics, but that's behind us now. We're moving forward...

REPORTER: The Riveras have weathered their own charges of nepotism and cronyism. But what's gotten more attention in the past year, is the political strife BETWEEN the families.

As longtime Bronx County Democratic Chairman, Jose Rivera ran the county with an iron fist. But he was ousted in December by a candidate that the Diaz family supported. It was called the "Rainbow Rebellion" because the Diaz coalition included white, black and Latino Democrats. Veteran Political consultant George Arzt says that contingent is now supporting Diaz Junior for Bronx Borough President.

ARZT: I just think the days of The one-man machine operating in the boroughs are out, the constituencies in the boroughs are too varied and you need to get everyone included.

REPORTER: But most likely, the majority of registered voters won't participate in next week's special election for Bronx borough president. Last fall, in a primary race for a countywide civil judgeship, only about 10 percent of the nearly 471,000 registered Democrats cast votes.

Community activist Mary Blassingame says since there's no serious competition to replace Adolfo Carrion, most people see no reason to pay attention.

BLASSINGAME: Is there a race - what race?! There's no race! What I gather it's a done deal. No dialogue, no opposition - everyone is just going along. It's not a good sign for democracy.

REPORTER: Other Bronx residents, like Jose Ferrer, say they are paying attention. He says Diaz represents the future for a borough that has long been maligned.

FERRER: He would make a good candidate he seems to be very progressive in his long career and he certainly I think would be a fresh voice for the Bronx, so I wouldn't have a problem with that.

REPORTER: If Diaz wins the Bronx Borough presidency next week, he'll have to run again in November to keep the job, and it's unclear if other Bronx Democrats will challenge Diaz in a September primary. For WNYC, I'm Elaine Rivera.