Julio Pabon, who campaigned as a political outsider and called for a revolution in the South Bronx, finished a distant third in the Feb. 23 special election for the 17th district of the City Council, but the tone at his concession speech was upbeat.
Though Pabon garnered just 15 percent of the popular vote, defeat did not hang in the air at the candidate’s election night party at Yolanda’s Restaurant on the Grand Concourse. Close to 100 supporters gathered around the Mott Haven entrepreneur, chanting “Pabon!” as he stood on a table to speak.
“We did not lose this campaign. We took on a very powerful Bronx organization with roots all the way to Albany, and we survived,” said a defiant Pabon. The Bronx County Democratic Committee endorsed the eventual winner, Rafael Salamanca, in January.
“They want to make this the new Dumbo or SoHo, and we exposed them,” said Pabon, who ran on the party line The Bronx is Not for Sale.
The candidate went on to catalogue the obstacles his campaign faced during the rugged campaign, which was compressed because of outgoing Councilmember Maria del Carmen Arroyo’s surprise resignation, which she announced a few days before Thanksgiving. That left the candidates just two months during the holiday season to campaign and fundraise. Pabon said his campaign was broadsided by County’s challenges to his petitions; its attempts to persuade his endorsers to shift their loyalties to Salamanca; and what he called ConEd’s “mysterious” power shutdown at his campaign headquarters on election day.
Ed Garcia Conde, who writes the Welcome2theBronx blog and backed Pabon, said he witnessed several instances of questionable poll practice while volunteering as a poll worker at the Michelangelo Apartments. Most suspiciously, he said, a gate that is always kept open was mysteriously closed for much of Election Tuesday after management workers arrived in the morning, he said. That forced security guards to show would-be voters the long way around to the voting booths.
“That was an added layer of difficulty that shouldn’t have been there,” Conde said.
Still, Pabon’s backers appeared more energized by their support than discouraged by setbacks.
“The campaign was really grassroots, and the people in the community really wanted a change,” said Pabon volunteer Lizette Colon, adding, “but the system always works against the people who don’t have the machinery behind them.”
“Many times, he went out by himself,” said Yvette Martinez, another campaigner, who was impressed with the candidate’s 15-hour days spent knocking on doors with voter registration forms. “He was really, really committed.”
In an interview with the Express, Pabon said he wished his campaign had raised more money. In all, the campaign collected $15,813.29, and only qualified for the Campaign Finance Board’s matching public funds last Thursday – five days before the election.
“Most of our donations were $10,” Pabon said, adding that was a reflection on his populist message. “More people donated to our campaign than any other.”
There were laughs when the party attendees recalled that the chairman of the Bronx County Democratic Committee, Marcos A. Crespo, called their candidate a Communist, and they expressed anger over a comment Salamanca made in a televised Feb. 15 debate on BronxNet, saying voters “don’t want an ideologist. They want true results.” In that debate, Pabon argued for his accomplishments, listing his collaboration with other local organizers to pressure the city to construct a long-demanded elevator at the East 149th Street/Grand Concourse subway, as well as his efforts to create Discovery for Justice, an advocacy initiative that provides legal counsel to young people facing criminal charges.
“I was grateful I didn’t have to debate him,” said Hunts Point-based accountant Elliot Quinones, who abandoned his own bid for the Council seat to back Pabon.
“He’s better than Bernie Sanders,” said Torin Williams, a campaign volunteer.
In his speech, Pabon touched on symbolic victories. He cited the first poll numbers to come in on Tuesday from Michelangelo Apartments, where he garnered 61 votes to Salamanca’s 30, and he emphasized that his hard feelings after coming in third lay not with the winning candidate but with the political establishment that backed the victor.
“If I was a regular person and he was a regular person, I might even endorse him,” Pabon said.