Activist and businessman says political status quo needs a shakeup
In running for the recently vacated 17th district city council seat that represents Melrose, Morrisania and Hunts Point, Julio Pabón finds himself in a familiar role: anti-establishment outsider.
The 63 year old, Puerto Rican born Pabón made his first run for office in 2013, when he tried to unseat then-Councilwoman Maria del Carmen Arroyo in the Democratic primary, coming much closer than anyone anticipated to toppling the incumbent by garnering just over 30 percent of the vote.
Pabón’s volunteer campaign crew had found that Arroyo’s staffers had forged hundreds of signatures to get their boss on the ballot, prompting him to file with the board of elections to oust her from the ticket. Ultimately, however, Arroyo prevailed after a protracted legal tussle, with longtime Bronx Democratic County Committee counsel Stanley Schlein beating back his challenge.
Now, two and a half years later, Pabón contends that the borough’s political machine is continuing to stymy the democratic process by anointing its own handpicked candidates. In the non-partisan, special election, he is calling his party line “The Bronx is Not for Sale.”
Well before he headed to the committee’s headquarters on Dec. 15 for an interview to try and persuade the Bronx’s highest ranking Democrats that he should be their pick, Pabón says, he heard rumors that they had already decided Community Board 2 District Manager Rafael Salamanca would be their choice.
“The County had been saying a lot of rhetorical things about transparency,” said Pabón, who now works as an interpreter in the Bronx courts a mile from the150th Street guest house he owns, and from which he runs his campaign. “I thought they were going to clean house.”
Pabón says he told his interviewers that endorsing him would represent a new day for Bronx Democrats.
“Imagine if you endorse me; I’m a known activist. Heads are going to turn,” he recalled telling the contingent, which included County Committee Chair Marcos Crespo. But he said that when Crespo asked him after the interview, “If for some reason we weren’t to select you, would you drop out and support our candidate,” that served as confirmation that the process is rigged.
In a phone interview, however, Crespo said that Pabón’s criticism is inaccurate, and that it selected Salamanca on the merits.
“We had a process that allowed us to hear their visions,” Crespo said, calling the process “open and transparent. We feel we chose the best candidate for the job.”
Pabón, who first entered politics in the early 1980s to run Rep. Jose E. Serrano’s State Assembly campaign, said he is confident his populist approach to politics will resonate with South Bronx residents.
“People thought we weren’t even going to make the ballot,” he recalled of the 2013 primary. “We ran against the mighty empire.”
Like many of his opponents, Pabón has a background in community organizing, but tangling with power structures is a particular point of pride for him. In a 2013 interview with the Hunts Point Express, he pointed to his days as a radical organizer who worked with the Black Panthers, sneaked South American revolutionaries out of the city to avoid arrest and led a takeover of a Hostos Community College building to protest budget cuts that would have caused many Latinos to drop out. More recently, he rallied Mott Haven residents to pressure city officials to allow them to monitor a new intake center for the homeless on Walton Ave., to minimize impact on the neighborhood.
Despite his history fighting for left-leaning causes, Pabón’s more recent ventures have taken on a more bourgeois complexion, including writing a regular column for Hoy, co-founding the National Puerto Rican Business Council and selling sports memorabilia. He is quick to point out he is now more of a conciliator than a revolutionary, saying that, if elected, he would fight for small businesses, which are struggling to survive against major development projects and franchises.
Affordable housing, too, is an area where Pabón says change is needed. The messages of other candidates, he contends, amount to rhetoric.
“Let’s develop cooperatives to take over properties instead of waiting for a developer,” he said. “Can’t we be creative and do smaller projects, rather than this ridiculous thing about affordable housing, where people can’t even get apartments” because the formula to deterimine affordability excludes local residents.