Council candidates face off at public forum

Courtesy Ana Melendez/Nos Quedamos. City Council candidates Julio Pabon, John Perez, Rafael Salamanca, J. Loren Russell and Amanda Septimo.
Courtesy Ana Melendez/Nos Quedamos. City Council candidates Julio Pabon, John Perez, Rafael Salamanca, J. Loren Russell and Amanda Septimo.

Hopefuls square off to persuade voters they’re for real

Ten candidates for the open 17th City Council district seat that includes Mott Haven and Hunts Point made bids to distinguish themselves from the rest of the pack at a three-hour candidates forum at Pregones Theater on Walton Ave. on Jan. 27.

The non-partisan special election is scheduled to take place on Feb. 23 to fill the seat left vacant when former Councilwoman Maria del Carmen Arroyo resigned on Dec. 31, two years before the end of her final term, to take a high-ranking administrative position with the Acacia Network, a drug rehab and transitional housing nonprofit that recently received a lucrative contract from the city.

All but one of the eight men and three women vying to replace Arroyo came to present their positions on key topics confronting the district, answering questions posed by four panelists and moderator Erin Clarke of NY1.

The forum was organized by Melrose community development nonprofit Nos Quedamos and live streamed on BronxNet. The only candidate who did not attend was Melrose businessman George Alvarez.

Affordable housing, the abundance of homeless shelters, crime and environmental degradation were the basis of numerous questions for the contenders, but the topic that drew the most energetic reaction was the election process itself.

Responding to a question halfway through the forum of whether he would try to root out corruption in his own party if elected, candidate Elliot Quinones, a registered Democrat, said “That should have been the first question we should have been asked. By next week, most of us will be off the ballot.”

Quinones, a Hunts Point accountant, sternly criticized the Bronx County Democratic braintrust for trying to remove opponents of their chosen candidate, Rafael Salamanca, by questioning the validity of residents’ signatures on their petitions.

Rev. J. Loren Russell vowed that “If I’m in office, I’ll go after everyone.”

Community activist and small business owner Julio Pabon said that the most important change voters need is to “clean up the political system.” Pabon, who nearly had Arroyo yanked from the ballot in the 2013 Democratic primary by challenging hundreds of signatures the incumbent’s campaign staff had forged, vowed that if elected his City Council office would operate on a principle of community activism.

“I want to teach this community to fish forever,” Pabon said.

The candidates harked back continually to the themes that have defined their past work and volunteerism.

Joann Otero, Arroyo’s chief of staff for ten years, several times referred to her efforts in the plural, answering the panelists’ questions with “we” to make note of her tenure responding to constituents’s concerns while working under Arroyo. When responding to a question about resetting federal income levels to make housing more affordable for local residents, she said “This is a conversation we’ve been trying to have with the administration for a long time. Our constituents are not afforded the opportunity to live in the new housing.”

John Perez, who served five-and-a-half years in Operation Desert Storm, said that when he returned from military service he was distressed to find “we’re still thinking about the same things,” that afflicted the area when he grew up. Perez, who wore his medal-covered uniform at the forum, proudly told the crowd, “I wear this uniform as often as I can,” and lamented that “young people don’t have any peer counseling.” He said funding programs that stress working more closely with young people, as he does, would be a priority.

Salamanca noted his role as volunteer president of the 41st Precinct’s Community Council and underscored Community Board 2’s role forcing the state to close five Hunts Point strip clubs where crime and gun violence were routine during his five-and-a-half years as the board’s district manager. In addition, Salamanca said Board 2 regularly stands up to threats of gentrification in Hunts Point. “We do not rubber stamp developers,” he said.

Amanda Septimo, Rep. Jose E. Serrano’s district director, made frequent mention of her period as a teen activist at The Point CDC, where joint efforts with her peers to hold polluters accountable helped her understand “the power of community-driven change.” Septimo, who at 25 is the youngest of the 11 candidates, said she would use “discretionary funding to lead the city’s way in investment,” citing educational programs like Per Scholas and the Knowledge House for the technological training they provide for job seekers with weak employment prospects.

Marlon Molina made frequent reference to his years as a volunteer organizer for youth and anti-violence initiatives, and said he would stand alongside community development groups that are struggling to create affordable housing for low-income residents against developers whose main concern is for their investors.

Russell said area churches, including those at which he preaches, could help lead efforts “to fuse cops and youth,” and said  that his experience as a financial planner gave him the expertise to establish a job training program for fast food workers in Morrisania.

Helen Foreman-Hines said her experience as a health care project director for SEIU 1199 provided her the needed seasoning for the job, telling prospective voters, “I have the skills, guys, and I plan to carry them out.”

Melrose-based blogger Ed Garcia Conde, who has announced his support forJulio Pabon’s candidacy on his popular Welcome2theBronx blog, said after the forum ended that the Democratic party’s endorsee, Salamanca’s, arrival at the forum 15 minutes late was a distressing sign.

“He didn’t even apologize,” Conde said.

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