New borough chief will bring change

Assemblyman Ruben Diaz Jr., surrounded by supporters, announcing his candidacy for Bronx Borough President.

Diaz emphasizes spending on schools and green jobs

By Caroline Linton
[email protected]

The Bronx Borough President’s race was all about the numbers: 21; two; $200; $270,000; three and 149.

Twenty-one was April 21, the date of the special election to replace Adolfo Carrión, Jr., now a member of the Obama administration.

Two was the number of candidates in what was once expected to be a crowded , competitive contest, but turned out to be a one-sided match between Democratic Assemblyman Ruben Diaz, Jr., and Republican Anthony Ribustello, a Board of Elections employee.

Two hundred is the mere $200 the Ribustello campaign had in its warchest, while $270,000 was the amount Diaz raised.

Three is Third Avenue in Mott Haven, which Diaz singles out as a model for the rest of the neighborhood’s development.

And 149 is the Mott Haven connection: “I went to Clark Junior High School 149,” Diaz said. “Mott Haven has bounced back well. I think Mott Haven is going to be in pretty good shape.”

In a pre-election interview, Diaz said improved schools were his top priority. He pointed out that he was a member of the Assembly’s education committee, and said he understood how important education funding is.

As borough president, he said, he will use more of the money at his disposal for education projects.

Diaz’s emphasis on schools would mark a policy change from Carrión, who in this year’s budget had $50 million in city funds at his disposal and used half of it for housing initiatives.

“Affordable housing is important, and we will continue to do that, but we are also going to look into the school system,” Diaz said. “That doesn’t mean we won’t advocate for the city and state to do what they need for Bronx schools,” he added.

The new borough president said he wanted to increase the number of computers in schools. Diaz also said he wanted to fund what he called the little things that can make a big difference.

Showing a command of the particulars, he cited projects such as rehabilitating the auditorium at Junior High School 123 in Soundview and the cinematography lab at Fanny Lou Hamer High School in Morrisania as the sorts of projects he would like to fund in the future.

Another top priority, Diaz said, is to put more money into community centers, so they can become job opportunity centers.

“We are going to teach folks how to prepare themselves and how to be job ready,” he said. “We’re going to work with elected officials at all levels of government and where we can partner up, we will.”

Diaz said he also wants to encourage environmentally-sound development, especially in Mott Haven, which has been slated by city planners for new high-rise apartments buildings and business development.

“I want to make sure the money that we use, when we speak to developers, is used so that they want to have green buildings,” Diaz said.

He also pledged to work to retain the residential feel of Mott Haven, where city planners hope to encourage a development of a large supermarket, an influx of new retail business and construction of a convention hotel.

“Obviously we’re going to continue to push businesses, but we want to keep the character of the neighborhood,” Diaz said.

As a veteran member of the Assembly and the son of State Senator Ruben Diaz, Sr., Diaz said his legislative experience would be valuable for the Borough President’s office, since he has built up relationships with elected officials in Albany, including Gov. David Paterson.

Diaz announced his candidacy on the steps of Borough hall, only a few months after a bitter fight within the Democratic Party ousted longtime leader José Rivera.

Diaz played an important role in the coalition that toppled Rivera and replaced him at the helm of the Bronx Democratic Party with Assemblyman Carl Heastie. One of the consequences of the coup was to weaken Rivera’s son, Councilman Joel Rivera, who had been gearing-up to run for borough president, but chose instead to sit the race out.

In the Bronx, electoral contests between Democrats, rather than between a Democrat and a Republican, are decisive. With no Democratic opponents in this race, Diaz is all but guaranteed the seat at the April 21 special election.

He will have to run again in November for a full four-year term, and could, conceivably face a primary challenge then. But a confident Diaz said he plans to continue in office. He said he wants to guide the area through the difficult times ahead.

“Bronxites are resilient; we know how to make a dollar out of 15 cents,” he said. “This was the borough where the crack epidemic was often highlighted; this was the borough that was often stepped on in the past. We’ve had dark clouds over our heads before, and look where we are now.”

A version of this article appeared in the Spring 2009 edition of the Mott Haven Herald.