Ayala, Rodriguez locked in dead heat in Council primary

Diana Ayala, right, declared victory in the Sept. 12 Democratic primary, but her opponent, Robert J. Rodriguez, insisted that there are still votes to be counted.

A photo finish in the Sept. 12 Democratic primary for City Council left Mott Haven and Port Morris unsure who will be running in the general election this November.

With 99 percent of the votes counted in the South Bronx section of the 8th City Council District and 95 percent of the votes tallied in East Harlem, first-time candidate Diana Ayala had a razor-thin, 125-vote lead over Assemblyman Robert J. Rodriguez, 3,705 votes to 3,583. 

When absentee ballots are counted next week and a winner is eventually declared, one of the two will go on to run as a heavy favorite in the Nov. 7 general election. If Ayala hangs on and prevails in November, she would replace her boss, Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who is term limited out after 12 years representing the district. Ayala, who is Mark-Viverito’s deputy chief of staff, and Rodriguez, who serves Assembly District 68 in Manhattan, are both East Harlem residents.

East Harlem small business owner Tamika Mapp received just under 10 percent of the vote, while Israel Martinez, a former assemblyman and the only Bronxite of the four candidates, received less than five percent.

The close vote was no surprise, as the major candidates split high-profile endorsements. While Rodriguez was backed by Governor Andrew Cuomo, Congressman Jose E. Serrano, Assemblywoman Carmen Arroyo and fellow assemblyman Marcos Crespo among others, Ayala received endorsements from Mark-Viverito, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. and Councilman Rafael Salamanca. Both candidates were endorsed by numerous unions.

Bronx voters are to thank for Ayala’s slim lead. She easily outdistanced the assemblyman by a 1,752 to 944 vote margin in the Mott Haven, Port Morris and Highbridge half of the district, whereas voters in East Harlem preferred Rodriguez. He drew more than 2,600 votes to Ayala’s 1,900 there.

For most of the evening, Ayala’s lead hovered around a mere 100 votes. In a statement, she cautiously declared herself the winner just before midnight, but added that “it is incumbent upon all of us to ensure that each and every vote is counted.” That prompted Rodriguez to issue a statement of his own shortly after midnight, stating that “This race is far too close to call right now, and it is premature for anyone to declare a victory.”

A spokeswoman for the NYC Board of Elections said “we don’t declare a winner until every vote that was cast is counted,” which will include “absentee, military, overseas and specials. We begin counting those next week.”

On the evening of the 12th, many residents shared the reasoning behind their votes. One Mott Haven school aide said that she decided on Ayala when she met the candidate campaigning at her church recently, and took an instant liking to her.

“A lot of people come with game, but you can tell when a person has a heart” said Felicia Willis, 53, while pushing her grandson’s stroller on East 141st Street. “You have to vote on the needs of the people.” Willis said she came close to being left homeless recently, and after speaking with the candidate, felt confident she could relate to her.

Clarisa Alayeto, who works for a youth nonprofit, said she voted for Ayala because she experienced her effectiveness first hand. When Alayeto, 35, needed to find help for her mother, a public housing tenant in East Harlem who was having trouble with her apartment, she called Mark-Viverito’s office. Ayala “came to the house, saw what was going on and immediately with my mom, went to court and got results,” as she did with Alayeto’s grandmother, who had a similar problem. “That’s what drove me to go vote for her today.”

Carmen Luisa Rosario, 44, said she voted for Ayala because Diaz Jr. and Mayor de Blasio—both of whom Rosario voted for in their respective primaries—backed the candidate.

Reducing crime was the key concern for many constituents. Mill Brook Houses resident Isabel Santiago, 59, said that issue and the urgent need for repairs in public housing drove her to vote for Rodriguez.

“My daughter is afraid of my apartment, and she hasn’t come up to my apartment for a year,” said Santiago as her daughter drove by to hand her something. “This place needs to be cleaned up.” Roaches and rats are so prevalent in her building that she won’t allow her grandson to visit.

Birgem Rivera, 59, a cook who lives in Mott Haven, said Rodriguez got her vote because she believed he would fight for needed funds for parks and public housing.

A 52-year-old, longtime resident of Mott Haven Houses, George Perez, said that although he is registered to vote in another district, Mapp’s call for raising the minimum wage to $20 was a unique idea among the candidates that would have made her his choice if he were voting locally.

One great-grandmother  said she would have voted for Tamika Mapp because of her stance on mandatory counseling for children of divorced parents, but last year’s presidential election caused her to stop voting.

“I’m so upset with the whole thing with Trump. When I see that man’s face on the TV, I turn it off. That’s not a president,” said Doris Mendez, but she added that she will probably vote again—some day. “I am interested, don’t get me wrong.”

At P.S. 277 on East 148th Street next to St. Mary’s Park, the early afternoon crowd consisted of about 20 poll workers and just three voters. But although prospects for a robust turnout seemed grim, polling floor coordinator Nydia Lopez was optimistic that would change during the afternoon. Lopez, who has worked as a polling coordinator for 15 years, recalled that when Barack Obama ran for president, the line to the polls stretched around the block all day long. Poll workers were so busy they couldn’t break for dinner.

Since then, Lopez said she has seen voter enthusiasm taper off, especially for local elections, but widespread anxiety over last November’s presidential election has raised urgency levels.

“I feel that what happened now is people are waking up,” she said. In the past, “we’ve had primary elections here, where the day feels like it’s three months long. We get maybe 10 people in one whole day, if that.”

But on Tuesday, about 250 voters had already cast their vote at P.S. 277 by mid-afternoon.

The winner will face Republican Daby Carreras in the general election on Nov. 7.

Contributing reporters: Trevor Boyer, Allyson Escobar, Yueh Ho, Scarlett Kuang, Sarah Matusek, Avery Miles, Paula Moura, Carmen Reinike, Kalah Siegel, Kaitlin Sullivan, Andee Tagle, and Reece T. Williams.