Sanders candidacy lights a spark among Bronx voters

Assemblyman Luis Sepulveda (left), meets with Bronxites in Crotona Park to strategize on getting out the vote for the Sanders campaign.

The borough’s political establishment stands behind Clinton

James Duarte remembers an incident at a 2008 presidential campaign event that helped shape his views of the political process. A 17-year-old political novice at the time, Duarte was holding up an Obama sign at the Jerome Avenue event, when Bronx Assemblyman Nelson Castro, hoisting a Hillary Clinton sign, confronted him.

“He was really talking down to me. He told me Obama was inexperienced,” Duarte said. “I didn’t blame him for being in line with the establishment, but it was a weird experience for a young person trying to get involved in the political process.” 

The following November, Duarte was on the winning side, locally and nationally. That year, and again in 2012, the Bronx turned out the highest percentage of Obama voters from the five boroughs, even though the county’s Democratic establishment overwhelmingly supported Clinton.

This year, the borough is seeing a similar pattern. Elected officials overwhelmingly favor Clinton, while the hearts of  many vocal and politically engaged Bronxites are with her opponent.

“If you have 100 people in the Bronx, one says they’re for Donald Trump, two say they’re for Hillary Clinton and everyone else is for Bernie Sanders,” said Bronx resident and Sanders booster William Noqueras, 50.

“Wherever I am, I’m campaigning for Bernie,” said Carlos Suarez, 65, who hosts meetings with fellow supporters at his apartment in Crotona Park.

“This year’s election doesn’t feel sincere, it’s all games,” said Morrisania resident Fred Hasty, 30. “But Bernie is different. You could ask him a question and he’d give you a real answer.”

The divide between the borough’s politicians and residents over the two Democratic presidential candidates runs deep. Assemblyman Luis R. Sepulveda is the only Bronx elected official endorsing Sanders. The Bronx County Democratic Committee, Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr.  have all endorsed Clinton. In a candidates’ debate a week before the special election for a new City Council member in District 17, just one of the six candidates said he supported Sanders.

“A lot of our members already had worked directly with Hillary Clinton when she was senator here in New York,” said Anthony Perez, executive director of the County Committee. “We assume she can get things done and bring results for our residents.”

Even so, Perez said, Bronx Dems are aware the Sanders campaign’s momentum is in the ascendant.

“Many people have started to get into the Bernie campaign here, but we urge those people to consider Hillary Clinton’s track record and proven results,” he said.

Sanders boosters say the candidate’s focus on issues of social inequality has resonated with Bronx residents. They cite his push for a $15 minimum wage and his criticism of soaring incarceration rates among black youth. One in three Bronx residents lives below the poverty line, according to a report by The Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness. More people are arrested in Crotona Park and Morrisania than anywhere else in the city, according to a 2014 report by the NYC Department of Corrections and Department of Health and Mental Hygiene 2014.

“The South Bronx is synonymous with the kind of campaign Bernie is running,” said Samelys Lopez, who grew up in the borough and volunteers for the candidate.

“Bernie is for my kind of people. We struggle,” said Melinda Degros, who lives on the Grand Concourse. “His benefits will be for us.”

Some pundits are surprised by the candidate’s attraction in a borough where 43 percent of residents are black and 54 percent are Hispanic. Nationally, Sanders has had trouble wooing minorities.

“I was floored at how much support there is for Bernie in the Bronx,” said Melrose-based blogger Ed Garcia Conde, who writes the Welcome2TheBronx blog. “Although he might represent an older and white establishment, he represents the issues in the Bronx.”

“The support Hillary has with minorities, you’re not seeing that here,” said Crotona Park resident Omar Suarez, 25. “We’re not Alabama.”

Despite the enthusiasm for Sanders in the borough, an Emerson College poll taken in mid-March shows Clinton holding a commanding, 48 percent lead in New York State, while a poll of voters citywide, conducted earlier in the month by the Siena Research Institute, found Clinton leading by 25 percent. In a NYC1/Baruch College poll conducted in February, however, Clinton’s lead was just 10 percent, and Sanders held a huge lead among voters under 30. The New York primary is scheduled for April 19.

The tilt toward Sanders is evident in social media. There are several active Facebook pages for Sanders-backing Bronxites, like The Bronx 4 Bernie Sanders, with 1,585 likes, and The Bronx is Berning, with 214 members. In contrast, there is only one group dedicated to his opponent: Bronx for Hillary Clinton. At press time, it had just one post.  It reads: “I am with her if she is the nominee.”

A spokesman for the Clinton campaign, Harrell Kiristein, contended that the candidate has not neglected the Bronx on her campaign trail.

“One of our first organizing meetings in New York was in the Bronx with Assemblyman [Michael] Blake,” Kiristein said. “With the stakes higher than ever the campaign is increasing its efforts in the Bronx. A dedicated local organizer is connecting supporters.”

Despite Sanders’ popularity among Bronx voters, however, local campaigners who preach the gospel of Bernie warn that there are obstacles in rallying a constituency that has long been outside the political process. When the Sanders campaign sent Noqueras a list of 10,000 Bronxites to contact, he found that just 300 were registered voters.

“You have people born and raised here who’ve never voted in their life,” he said. “But Bernie Sanders is giving them a reason to vote.”

On March 16th, a day after Sanders lost primaries to Clinton in five states, a group of his supporters rallied at Hostos Community College.

“Bernie isn’t going anywhere, and even though the mainstream wants to paint Clinton as inevitable, we will be taking this to the convention,” said Duarte. “The Bronx movement is growing by the day.”

The Sanders camp announced that their candidate will make a whistle stop at St. Mary’s Park on Thursday at 4 p.m.

“We need to build a progressive coalition in The Bronx,” said Suarez. “This is just the beginning.”

Assemblyman Sepulveda, who has offered his office for phone-banking and regularly attends the meetings at Suarez’s apartment, said this year’s election is the most rewarding he has experienced in his 25 years in politics, even as his colleagues regularly chide him about his support for the underdog.

“They say, ‘So you endorsed Bernie Sanders. Where is that getting you?’”