What will become of South Bronx Rep. José Serrano’s legacy?
Rep. Jose Serrano, D-N.Y., will be retiring from Congress at the end of his term. Here, he is accompanied by Resident Commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon, left, who represents Puerto Rico as a non-voting member of Congress. Serrano was speaking about Puerto Rico statehood during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Oct. 29, 2019. | Andrew Harnik / AP

NEW YORK—The 15th Congressional District in New York’s South Bronx is the poorest and most densely populated in the nation. It is one of the few majority-Latino (60%) districts and probably the most Democratic.

Since 1990, its Rep. José Serrano has held one of Congress’s most progressive voting records, and not just on domestic issues. He calls his native Puerto Rico a “colony” and refers positively to Cuba, Venezuela, and their leaderships. Serrano has earned the highest marks from liberal and progressive organizations and terrible ratings from conservative organizations, military-industrial firms, and their lobbyists.

However, he will soon be retiring because he has Parkinson’s disease. What will become of his legacy?

A special open seat

An open congressional seat is a rare find, but this one is exceptional. Winning the most votes (no majority required) in the Democratic primary on June 23 nearly guarantees a general election victory. Combining a seat this safe with the “normal” incumbency rate means this job is practically lifelong. So it is not surprising we have about 12 contestants.

This many, however, is haphazard due to the presence of one: New York City Councilman Rev. Rubén Díaz, Sr. Since 2001, he has been elected to the City Council or the state Senate in districts largely within the congressional map. His name might be the most familiar to the primary voters. A typically low turnout election with that many choices means the winning number can be quite low.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, left, and New York Congressman Jose Serrano greet community members as they arrive at the “Point Community Development Corporation” in New York’s South Bronx neighborhood, Sept. 17, 2005. | Jennifer Szymaszek / AP

Who is Rev. Rubén Díaz, Sr.?

The evangelical minister is a self-described “conservative Democrat” with a long history of statements and actions against LGBTQ equality, stem cell research, abortion rights, sexual harassment protections, and his own Democratic Party and its liberal and progressive leaders. He would be the opposite of Serrano.

For example, he charged that the 1994 Gay Games would increase the spread of AIDS, thinks the City Council is “controlled by the homosexual community,” opposed the expansion a high school for primarily LGBTQ students, led an anti-marriage equality rally at the county courthouse, and cast the only Democratic vote in the state capital opposing gay marriage.

While opposing stem cell research, he compared it to Nazi Germany’s manufacture of soap from human corpses. He likened being pro-choice with Hitler “choosing” to send Jews to death camps.

Last year, Díaz said he would not report staff members who engaged in sexual harassment, conflating sexual harassment with giving “compliments” to women. In a special out-of-touch moment, he wrote that most men would be in the “basket of deplorables” based on the way they speak to each other about women.

His electronic newsletter, “What You Should Know,” is reproduced in several Bronx local web publications. In it, the minister routinely criticizes progressive and liberal elected officials and commends more conservative and often corrupt ones.

Then-State Senator Rev. Ruben Diaz, Sr., March 15, 2013. | Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit

His newsletter merely reflects his lack of party discipline. He played a key role in the 2009 New York State Senate leadership crisis in which a few Democrats conspired with the GOP to give them control of the chamber despite an elected Democratic majority. In a later incarnation, Díaz wrote admirably about the leader of the “Independent Democratic Conference” that caucused with the Republicans to again stymie the elected Democratic majority. Both periods bottlenecked all liberal and progressive legislation passed by the Democratic-controlled Assembly.

Along those same lines, he refused to endorse Democratic Party mayoral nominee Fernando Ferrer in 2005 (over the issues of abortion rights and marriage equality). Four years ago, he hosted Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz’s visit to the Bronx. Indeed, he has run simultaneously on the Conservative (once) and Republican (four times) party ballot lines.

Special circumstances, special threat

Of all candidates, Díaz has the longest election history, and in mostly overlapping election districts. Conventional wisdom is that Díaz harnesses enough evangelical votes in typically low turnout contests. His New York Hispanic Clergy Organization, comprised of 150 evangelical ministers (though some not from New York), plays a helpful role.

His name recognition has been boosted by a cult of personality of sorts and patronage. His Christian Community Benevolent Association created the “Rev. Rubén Díaz Plaza,” the “Rev. Rubén Díaz Apartments,” and the “Rev. Rubén Díaz Gardens,” all providing low-income housing. In 1977, Díaz helped create the Christian Community Benevolent Association, the “parent” organization for various programs that by the mid 1990s “had become among the largest employer in the Bronx” serving more than 5,000 senior citizens in Bronx County.

Other prominent opponents

Four other elected officials with progressive and liberal backgrounds of different strengths have also entered the fray. They and the community activist candidates will unavoidably fracture the more liberal and progressive voters. Will the division be so bad that Díaz can sneak through?

State Assemblyman Michael Blake originally won his seat in an open election in 2014 without the support of the Bronx Democratic Party. In re-election campaigns, unions, the Working Families Party, and environmental organizations have endorsed him.

Assemblyman Michael Blake. | Mike Groll / AP

Of all candidates, only his district lies entirely within NY-15. In a special election for the citywide public advocate seat in 2018, Blake came in fourth with 8% citywide but carried the Bronx with a thousand more votes than the winner. He has won major union endorsements, among others, and at a half-million dollars, has raised the second-largest amount of donations.

City Councilmember Ritchie Torres was the youngest member of the Council and the first openly gay member from the Bronx. Endorsed by the WFP, labor unions, and the Stonewall Democratic Club, his concentration has been on the issue of housing, reflecting his concern over people who live as he grew up: a single-mother household in dilapidated public housing.

Much of his district lies within NY-15, and he has won prominent union and LGBT endorsements for this election. With over $1 million, he has overwhelmed the others in fundraising.

Former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito served her district in East Harlem and the South Bronx (the portion that overlaps with NY-15) for a bit more than a decade. In January 2014, she was the first Black, Latino, and Asian Caucus member to be elected Speaker of the Council.

Mark-Viverito finished third (ahead of Blake) in the 2019 Public Advocate race, with 11%, though she came in fourth in the Bronx’s tally. She was the founding co-chair of the council’s Progressive Caucus. A variety of progressive organizations have endorsed her, and her quarter of a million dollars raised is third best.

City Councilmember Ydanis Rodríguez was elected to a Manhattan City Council seat in 2009, so there is no overlap with NY-15. He stresses his activist background, is still looking for key endorsements and has raised about $100,000, less than Rev. Díaz. He is the most prominent Dominican candidate in a district that might have a Dominican plurality of residents though maybe not yet of voters.

Criticisms are directed at real estate development within each of the four districts, though some contest that this development and gentrification has not been evenly divided. I think some or even many voters could be forgiving towards even lopsided growth under various candidates. Donations are also being scrutinized. However, with virtually no spending limits, it is simply unrealistic to expect all candidates to choose small individual donations only or avoid any moneyed contributions. The recipients of the union endorsements may reveal more than what the average voter might know.

Still more opponents

These four elected officials are joined by as many as eight others running in the Democratic Party primary. The three most prominent, as well as some others, self-describe as activists or community leaders.

Samelys López was formerly associated most closely with local and state affiliates of Our Revolution. Of special notice are her endorsements from the left. She has the endorsement of Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s Courage to Change PAC and the Democratic Socialists of America. Tomas Ramos, a program director at a community center, prioritizes criminal justice, education, and housing reform. Brand New Congress has endorsed him. Chivona Renée Newsome was a co-founder of Black Lives Matter Greater New York. These three represent the newer activism, probably more of what is to come in the future.

Samelys López has the endorsement of AOC’s Courage to Change PAC and the DSA. | López for Congress

Neither these three nor the remaining candidates have held elected office; some have not yet reported any contributions; and some are not really campaigning. Some might mean well, but regardless, this many additional ballot choices probably function for only one purpose: to make it easier for Rev. Díaz to win the plurality in the Democratic Party primary.

Some disagree that the quantity of candidates necessarily makes a Díaz victory more likely. I’ve even heard the view that Díaz would have an easier time with one or fewer candidates, even though such a race would require the winner to capture a much greater share of votes than this primary will. Despite the recognition that in 2016 then candidate-Trump won many crowded Republican primaries with less than half the vote, some observers fail to see the same dynamic at work in NY-15 this year.

The extraordinary number of candidates is a mathematical puzzle. Every candidate will draw some share of votes, but the elected officials will probably draw more votes than the others. The lesser-known candidates, who likely won’t win the plurality of votes, will fail in scoring victory but succeed in lowering the threshold for the winner. If that is Rubén Díaz, Sr., the people of NY-15 will be misrepresented for at least two and probably more years.

Who’s progressive?

A different problem centers on the legitimacy of the progressive label. Some seem to equate it with social democrat / democratic socialist, which would exclude many members of progressive causes throughout the country. I don’t think the balance of power today allows for such a narrow definition.

Or others insist that unless one refuses to accept any contributions from corporations and real estate interests, one cannot be a progressive. I will eventually agree with this position, but I don’t think it applies to the current moment. Very few elected officials are safe enough to not obsess over fundraising. And when the rules allow practically unlimited spending, is it realistic for all candidates who have liberal to progressive records to ignore the situation and willingly be outspent by opponents? To think that better candidates in any election can win, even if completely outspent by worse ones, seems naïve.

If Rev. Rubén Díaz wins the primary, the progressive movements and the people of the district will be in an especially tough situation. Knowing that possibility in advance would hopefully have forced more people to fear the crowded primary. None of the candidates are (ever) perfect, but none of them would seem to be as bad a choice as Díaz.


Michael Arney
Michael Arney

Michael Arney is active in the Working Families Party. Before that, he helped lead the Bronx Progressives, a local affiliate of the New York Political Action Network (Our Revolution). For twenty years he volunteered at his children’s schools, and he is a regular platelet donor.