One thing is certain about the outcome of the Feb. 23 special election to replace Maria del Carmen Arroyo in the city council: the people of 17th district will be better represented now than they have been for some time.
As the district manager of Community Board 2 Rafael Salamanca was an energetic advocate for Hunts Point and Longwood. He was a visible presence at neighborhood meetings that addressed concerns about traffic on the area’s truck-burdened streets and issues of health and housing. He stood with the community in its effort to rid itself of a noxious sewage treatment plant. He is justly be proud of his successful efforts to close the sleazy strip clubs that encouraged prostitution and violent crime.
Judging by his record at the community board, as a council member Salamanca is likely to be visible and active, and to aim higher than feathering his nest. In that regard, he stands in sharp contrast to Arroyo, for whom holding office was a family business. She helped her nephew to a job at a non-profit housing agency, then helped herself to some of the money he stole to pay for a lavish trip to Puerto Rico. Last time she ran, she hired her son as a consultant and paid him $58,540, more than a third of all the money she raised for her campaign.
While Salamanca has shown no signs of personal dishonesty, he is beholden to the Bronx Democratic Party machine, which provided the funds, manpower and endorsements that fueled his victory. He is not likely to buck Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie or Assemblyman Marcos Crespo, who succeeded Heastie as party boss.
This election exposed the absence of a counterweight to the professional politicians. The informal coalition of bloggers, environmentalists and others who hoped to channel grassroots activism through the campaign of Julio Pabon were not only swamped by Salamanca, but were beaten by George Alvarez, who was backed by leaders of the Bronx Republican Party.
Still, there are plenty of opportunities to find common ground. Housing Authority tenants, who felt left out of campaign debates, need a strong voice in the council as it debates the mayor’s plan to sell off some of NYCHA’s assets and seeks ways to stem the deterioration of the projects.
Salamanca comes from a community board that encourages community participation and acts forcefully in the public arena. He is now in a position to nudge Community Board 1, which represents Mott Haven and Melrose in the same direction.
While he will certainly not oppose the borough president on FreshDirect, he can build on his experience of the beautiful new parks that share the waterfront with industry on the Bronx and East rivers in Hunts Point in advocating for recreational access to the Harlem River waterfront.
There is so much to be done to improve life in the poorest Congressional district in the United States, while assuring that the people who make it their home are not displaced as developers continue to exploit the area’s relatively cheap land and its proximity to Manhattan.
Above all, the new council member can listen to his constituents and draw on their strength. As Melissa Esther Lomba-Rivera, director of special projects at Majora Carter Group, LLC, put it in a Facebook post celebrating Salamanca’s victory, “After so many years of carrying social burdens it’s time for us to be the leaders of change within our own community!”
And as Pabon supporter Samelys Lopez, a founder of the cycling organization Velo City, posted in congratulating the winner, “Now the real work begins.”