In a surprise victory, first time candidate Gustavo Rivera defeated Pedro Espada, a man powerful enough to emerge from a party-switching coup last spring and demand a leadership position in the Democratic party. He was given the title Senate Majority Leader and had authority to forward or table legislation.
Espada, who still has the bearing of the boxer he once was, was an unrepentantly pugnatious candidate. He courted voters in his northwest Bronx district with free fruit, vegetables and school supplies and angrily dismissed the multitude of corruption investigations against him as politically motivated.
Days before the election he told WNYC's Bob Hennelly, "This is really a case of colonialism in the 21st century, where you have outside millionaires and the mainstream media and many others heavily invested in my defeat."
Espada has been investigated for not living in the Bronx, for siphoning $14 million from the non-profit health clinics he runs and for running a sham janitorial jobs training program. He has not been convicted of anything.
Often appealing to ethnic pride in his heavily Latiino district--Espada is the highest ranking Latino in the state and his 2009 coup had ethnic overtones--Espada's late campaign literature urged voters to "defend what's ours."
Instead they voted him out, electing Gustavo Rivera, a political activist who has worked on a series of Democratic campaigns. Rivera was a field organizer for powerhouse union SEIU's work on behalf of candidate Obama in 2008 and served as chief of staff for State Senator Andrea Stewart Cousins, a Westchester Democrat. He was endorsed by many of the city's unions and received the logistical support of the Working Families Party, but was not generally well known in the district. LIke Espada, many of his campaign contributions came from outside the Bronx.
The race to unseat Espada initially attracted a wide field of candidates. Desiree Pilgrim-Hunter, a longtime neighborhood activist who emerged from the battle over redevelopment of the Kingsbridge Armory was the early favorite of reformers. Fernando Tirado, president of Community Board 7 threw in his hat in the spring, as did David Padernacht, who has been active in the Kingsbridge Heights neighborhood. But by the time the ballots were printed, only Rivera, Padernacht and Espada remained. Rivera's victory Tuesday night is notable, since the anti-Espada vote was split. Padernacht withdrew from the race in the beginning of September, but his name remained on the ballot.
An ebullient Rivera said from his victory party on Jerome Avenue that he won by hard work and by connecting to the very real needs of the people in the district, where the median income is $25,000 a year and 40 percent of children live in poverty. "We did it the classic way, we talked to voters everything single day about what is important to them," he said.
In the last days of the campaign, Rivera garnered endorsements from former borough president Fernando Ferrer, former comptroller Bill Thompson, Al Sharpton and others who recorded phone messages on his behalf. Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr endorsed him. He also benefitted from motivated residents who were embarrassed by Espada. Rivera's election-day posters read, "A state senator we can be proud of."
But the Bronx Democratic establishment never exactly threw its weight behind Rivera. Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, who is chair of the county committee, endorsed Rivera, but took pains to say he did so as an individual, not as a representative of the county party. Former party boss Assemblyman Jose Rivera, no relation to Gustavo, whose daughter is also an assembly member and whose son is a City Council member, backed Espada.
Jack Marth, a Kingsbridge Heights resident who volunteered on Rivera's campaign and initially helped organize Pilgrim-Hunter's bid, was delighted by the election's outcome. "It's just fantastic. It is a real repudiation of Espada," he said. "And hopefully it sends a message to the machine as well. Hopefully this means Gustavo can have a little bit of independence from the party leadership."
"I told Gustavo though, this doesn't mean we are going to be complacent constituents. We'll be on you," Marth said.
That sentiment was shared by a number of reformers who worked on behalf of Rivera. They knew they wanted to be rid of Espada, but are reserving judgement on Rivera and promise to watch the new senator closely.
Despite living in the district, Rivera is considered something of an outsider by some reform-minded voters, who note that much of his support came from Brooklyn activists. He was undoubtly lifted to victory by the depth of anger at Espada. Citywide unions and tenant groups in particular poured money and manpower into Rivera's campaign, because they saw Espada as having sabotaged the long-sought after Democratic majority in the state senate. Espada has been a force in Bronx politics for a generation.
He first ran for office in 1988 in a race for the Democratic nomination to a South Bronx Congressional seat. He lost. But in 1993 he was elected to the state senate, representing the 32nd district, where his Soundview Health Clinic operated. He lost that seat to David Rosado in 1996, then regained it and served in 2001 and 2002. He ran unsuccessully for Borough President in 2001, and for City Council in 2002. In 2008 he moved from his power base in Soundview and the South Bronx to the 33rd state senate district to challenge incumbent Efrain Gonzalez, who was under indictment for looting a nonprofit with which he was associated. It was that seat Espada was defending in Tuesday's primary.