A community activist looks to upset Arroyo
When Julio Pabón made his initial foray into politics in the early 1980s as Jose E. Serrano’s chief of staff, he focused on getting out the vote among tenants in South Bronx housing projects.
Serrano was elected to the State Assembly, paving the way to his later career as an influential member of Congress.Thirty years later, Julio Pabón is hoping that same grassroots gumption will help him win his own election.
Pabón, 60, announced in March he will run for City Council, opposing incumbent Maria del Carmen Arroyo, who was first elected to serve the 17th council district, which includes Hunts Point and Mott Haven, in 2005.
“The problem is that there’s a serious gap between what our community wants and what our elected officials are giving us,” said Pabón, who started his career as a teacher at Bronxland Junior High School in Melrose in the 1970s, where, as a Latino among Anglos, he was assigned to the toughest classes.
The son of a migrant farm worker from Puerto Rico, Pabón has worn many hats over the years: writing a column for the Spanish-language newspaper Hoy, co-founding the National Puerto Rican Business Council and launching his own line of sports clothes, among them. He now runs a mail order sports memorabilia shop featuring Latino athletes from his single-family home near Hostos Community College. Latino sports heroes are well represented in photos and collages on the walls and shelves of his home office.
But although the lifelong South Bronx resident and Lehman College graduate remains skeptical of party politics—he didn’t vote until he was 28—he says he’s decided to run so he can “focus on root causes” he thinks many incumbents have forgotten.
“Is it fair to say the main issues are affordable housing and violence?” he said. “I will work on all of those, but my main function will be to organize my community.”
The candidate says he often rides his bike to get an up-close view of the issues in the area he would represent if elected. Recently, he rode near the Hunts Point Terminal Co-op Market and was struck by the lack of planning in the industrial waterfront.
“I want to challenge the image of Hunts Point as being all about prostitution and car parts,” he said, adding that he envisions a hotel for truckers, breaking up their long drives to and from the three food markets.
In Mott Haven, Pabón says residents, not businesses or elected officials, should decide how the Harlem River waterfront should be used.
“FreshDirect is not a good one for our community. This is the asthma corridor,” he said of the city’s plan to use subsidies and tax breaks to entice the online grocer to move to Port Morris.
“A woman whose kids have asthma has more rights than FreshDirect,” he said, siding with residents who argue added truck traffic would make pollution worse.
Pabón recalled his days in the 70s as a “staunch radical,” hobnobbing with militant groups like the Black Panthers. In 1975, he was a core member of a group of Hostos Community College students and faculty who, along with local community groups, occupied a building on campus for nearly a year to protest proposed budget cuts they said would have forced many Latinos to drop out.
He says the FBI maintained a file on his activities, which included transporting South American revolutionaries north from the city, to avoid arrest.
When Serrano hired him to run his campaign three decades ago, he said, he relied on the strategy he knows best—engaging the underserved.
“I was doing it for the left; now I was doing it for him,” he said. Still, he added, one year as chief of staff was enough. “I did not want to take it a step further,” he said. “We won that battle. The issues here are different, block to block.”
Congressman Serrano declined to comment on Pabón’s candidacy.
Five years ago, Pabón and his neighbors forged a grass roots campaign to force the city to downsize an intake center for the homeless it had planned to build. Amy Moran, a schoolteacher and member of the group, says Pabón is an astute leader well suited to represent the neighborhood.
“His personability makes him really connect with people here,” she said, adding his “combination of passion and compassion are the kind of attributes we look for in our leaders. He’s so down to earth, yet so experienced.”
Rather than singling out issues, the candidate sees a tangle of problems that need addressing, saying, “We have the worst in every social indicator.”