Joann Otero

Joann Otero hopes experience will woo voters in special election

Joann Otero, who was chief of staff for Maria del Carmen Arroyo during Arroyo’s 10 years as city councilwoman, is hoping her decade of service will help carry her into office to replace her mentor in the Feb. 23 special election.

Joann Otero
Joann Otero

Former Arroyo chief of staff says political savvy gives her an edge

Joann Otero, who was chief of staff for Maria del Carmen Arroyo during Arroyo’s 10 years as city councilwoman, is hoping her decade of service will help carry her into office to replace her mentor. Otero announced in December that she will run in the special election scheduled for Feb. 23 to fill the 17th district council seat representing Melrose, Longwood, Hunts Point and Morrisania, held from 2005 through 2015 by her former boss.

Otero, 47, has held fundraisers to kickstart her campaign in Longwood and Mott Haven, in her first bid for elected office. So far, nine candidates have announced. 

Arroyo resigned on Dec. 31, two years short of the end of her third and final term as councilwoman, to take a lucrative position as vice president of administration with the Acacia Network, a Bronx-based nonprofit that provides transitional housing for the homeless and treatment for drug users around the city.

The other candidates who have declared so far include Rafael Salamanca, district manager of Community Board 2, whom the board chose over Otero when selecting a new district manager in 2010; Mott Haven small businessman and community activist, Julio Pabon; Rep. Jose E. Serrano’s district supervisor, Amanda Septimo; Reverend J. Loren Russell of Crotona Park; Helen Foreman-Hines, a political project director of SEIU 1199. the health care workers union and a member of Bronx Community Board 9; businessman George Alvarez; banker Marlon Molina; and most recently, a former Assembly candidate Carlton A. Curry, who garnered 8 percent of the vote in Latoya Joyner’s west Bronx district in the 2014 Democratic primary.

Otero is a lifelong South Bronx resident who grew up in the Moore Houses near St. Mary’s Park, attended PS 5 and now lives with her 20 year old daughter in Morrisania. She rose through the ranks as Arroyo’s right hand, starting as a receptionist at the Neighborhood and Family Health Center on 149th Street. When Arroyo ran for the council seat in a special election in 2005, she hired Otero to be her chief of staff.

In an interview in early January, Otero remembered her time working on the 2005 campaign and then as a fledgling council staffer.

“Maria said, ‘If I get elected, I’m going to need a chief of staff.’ I said, ‘What is that?’” Otero recalled with a laugh. “I could write a manual now.”

Ten years serving constituents, Otero says, gives her a leg up on her opponents. During that decade, she had a chance to hear directly from constituents about their most pressing concerns. The lack of affordable housing led that list, she said, pointing out that eighty percent of the residents who came seeking help at Arroyo’s 149th St. council office complained about substandard maintenance and repairs or the lack of a home of their own.

“People think about the homeless on the streets, not the aunts and uncles who sleep on the couch [of family members] because DHS tells them they have a place to sleep,” she said.

Otero said that, if elected, she will continue pushing for funding for groups that advocate for embattled tenants in court and teach financial literacy, and points out that she collaborated with such several organizations over the years.

Though the fall in the borough’s jobless rates is encouraging, she said, South Bronxites have the tools to keep pushing those numbers further downward. Although residents of the area often lack the know-how to overcome bureaucratic hurdles, they don’t lack skills, she said.

“They’re very creative,” she said. “That’s why the worker cooperative idea is so valuable. They know how to write, how to blog, to cook, to make stuff, they babysit each other’s kids. How do we get the resources so they can take those skills and make a living from it.”

Along with her experience hammering out budgets, Otero said, she presents voters another advantage only two of the other eight candidates in the current pool can match: As a woman, she says she is best positioned to understand the unique issues facing her gender. Only 14 of the 51 current city council members are women.

Wanda Salaman, executive director of Longwood-based advocacy group Mothers on the Move, agrees the obstacles women face need more attention in the council. Salaman is working with other local advocates to arrange a forum on those issues so local women can voice their concerns well before the Feb. 23 vote and get those topics on the agenda.

“They don’t know about women’s issues,” Salaman said of the male candidates running for the open council seat. “They say ‘I have a mother, I have a sister,’ but at the end of the day, that’s not the same,” she said. “We need more representation from women.”