Hopeful successor to Mark-Viverito touts non-political cred

Diana Ayala, at right, on the steps of City Hall earlier this year. Photo courtesy of Friends of Diana Ayala.

Council Speaker’s staffer Diana Ayala hopes she’s the people’s next choice

In her first-ever run for public office, City Council candidate Diana Ayala finds herself in a rare spot for a Bronx Democrat. Although she has gotten the endorsement of her powerful boss, Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, the borough president, Councilman Rafael Salamanca and a number of unions, the County machine have thrown their weight behind one of her opponents, Assemblyman Robert Rodriguez.

Ayala, one of five candidates appearing on the Democratic ticket for Mark-Viverito’s soon-to-be-vacated District 8 seat, shrugs off the political intrigue, saying she is not a conventional politician.

“I consider myself a grassroots candidate,” said the 43-year-old hopeful, who has been Mark-Viverito’s deputy chief of staff for the last two years. Previously she spent nine years as the term-limited incumbent’s constituent affairs liaison. Despite all that time working for one of the city’s most well-connected elected officials, she says “Where I come from, politics is a dirty word.”

Born in Puerto Rico, Ayala’s family moved to the Lower East Side when she was five. Although she grew up in a rat-infested, fifth-floor walkup, “We were happy there.” Her hardscrabble younger years included moves with her family between shelters and public housing, and, at 16, a relationship with an abusive man, with whom she had the first of her four children. Those stark early days, she says, helped her develop an innate understanding of the difficulties faced by her potential constituents.

Ayala met her future mentor, Mark-Viverito, while working with seniors in East Harlem 11 years ago. When the Councilwoman recognized a spark and asked the political novice to join her staff, Ayala was reluctant, confessing that she was “not necessarily politically astute. I’m a very behind the scenes kind of person.”

Asked about the most pressing issues in the South Bronx half of the district, Ayala responds without hesitation: Housing, housing, housing. In recent years she has helped tenants organize against greedy landlords, while trying to stop a flood of evictions. Residents “are right to be worried” about gentrification, she said. “It’s happening—in the level of harassment of existing tenants.” She favors legislation that would make it more difficult for landlords to buy out tenants, so that “when a landlord makes you an offer, you can decline, and any subsequent offer would be considered harassment.”

The candidate says she has worked with residents and local organizations to seek solutions for the glut of methadone clinics near the Hub. But confronting the social issues that have mushroomed due to the upsurge in opioid availability and abuse on the mean streets was “like peeling an onion, because it was so complicated.”

She is proud to point out that out of the nearly 600 contributions her campaign has received so far, most are small donations from area residents and unions.

“My preference is not to accept developer money,” she said.

Reflecting that choice, the $72,988.17 she has amassed pales compared with Rodriguez, who has tallied more than $134,000 in donations so far, according to the NYC Campaign Finance Board.

The candidate bristles at the notion that East Harlem will receive the lion’s share of her attention, at the expense of the South Bronx, if she is elected, and that some Mott Haven residents say the Speaker and her staff don’t spend enough time in the eastern part of her district.

“I go to all the meetings,” she said. “I’m everywhere. I don’t see everybody there. Where are they?”

Her opponents in the Sept. 12 Democratic primary, along with Rodriguez, include Tamika Mapp, Edward Gibbs and Israel Martinez. Daby Carreras is running uncontested as a Republican, and Linda Ortiz is on the Conservative party ticket.

The story was corrected on Aug. 4 to note that Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. endorsed Ayala, as well.