Special election: Three candidates vie for open State Senate seat

Former State Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr.’s former seat up for grabs

A special election next Tuesday, April 24, for a seat on the State Senate will pit a veteran Democratic lawmaker against two underdogs hoping to put a dent in the county machine. The now-vacant seat in the 32nd senatorial district was previously held by Ruben Diaz Sr. from 2003 until Diaz abandoned it to run for City Council last fall. The district takes in parts of Hunts Point, Longwood and Melrose, as well as Claremont Village, East Tremont, Soundview and Parkchester.

The prohibitive favorite to win the seat, Assemblyman Luis Sepúlveda has represented the 87th Assembly district, which includes Parkchester, Castle Hill and West Farms, since 2012. The race’s only incumbent says the issues facing the South Bronx are similar to those he has confronted in those neighborhoods. Public safety, housing, education and economic development are chief among them. He is most proud of the work he has done in the Assembly on criminal justice reform, particularly for young people, and universal pre-k. 

Sepúlveda, a civil litigator who worked as chief of staff for then-Senator Diaz, says that as an Assemblyman, he has “fought like hell to secure smart boards [and other educational necessities] for some of the poorest schools in the district.” Even though “kids in charter schools are doing remarkably,” he says, he is equally supportive of public schools. The Parkchester resident favors mayoral control of schools, saying that, in their day, “school boards were a mess.”

Castle Hill resident Pamela Stewart-Martinez, Sepúlveda’s opponents running on the Reform ticket, has no love lost for the Bronx Democratic machine. She is a plaintiff in a class action lawsuit filed against the Bronx Democratic County Committee in 2016, alleging systemic corruption.

“School boards have a vested interest in their communities,” said Stewart-Martinez, 49, a mother of seven and president of the Bronx High School Federation.

The district has “the highest number of struggling schools,” in the city, she said. “We’re not getting resources. The DOE goes down the list of everything there’s a shortage of resources [in the district], but you go to other [neighborhoods] and you’d never know there was a shortage.”

“A lot of our families live in shelters,” she said. “Many are not from our community.”

She shrugs off Sepúlveda’s boast that he raised $4 million for schools. “Sepúlveda talks about how much money he’s poured into schools, but here’s the thing: he’s supposed to do that.”

The two are familiar foes. Stewart-Martinez received more than 27% of the vote when she ran as a Democrat against the then two-time incumbent in the 2016 Assembly primary.

Running on the Republican ticket, lifelong Longwood resident Patrick Delices, 47, calls himself a “rational Republican,” in the age of Trump. Delices, whose father immigrated from Haiti to play soccer for the New York Cosmos and escape the Duvalier dictatorship in the 1960s, ran as a Republican for a City Council seat to represent the South Bronx last year. He got just 3 1/2 % of the vote.

Decades of Democratic dominance have done nothing to improve living standards locally, said Delices.

“The Democratic party has failed the people of the South Bronx,” he said, pointing out as an example that St. Mary’s Park, the borough’s biggest park, is perpetually littered with hypodermic needles from drug abusers. “No one’s talking about why the parks aren’t like the others [in the city]. Who’s holding the sanitation and parks department accountable?”

The Cardinal Hayes High School graduate, who has worked as a research fellow and adjunct professor of Puerto Rican and Black studies at Hunter College, says that his experience makes him the best choice to push educational reform.

“Being an educator, I know how to fix it,” by “recruiting teachers from the neighborhood. Children in the South Bronx need to see productive citizens such as myself.”

Delices says he would appeal to South Bronx-bred public figures like Colin Powell and J. Lo to visit their home turf, “to see what resources they could bring in.”

All of the candidates recognize the urgent need for affordable housing.

“Gentrification is starting to creep up,” said Sepúlveda, adding that he has been working on a bill to reform Area Median Incomes to take the pressure off residents of the district whom landlords are pressuring to leave.

And all of the candidates take issue with the city’s plan to build a jail in Mott Haven, though Sepúlveda says that the city will “have to put [inmates] somewhere]” when it eventually mothballs Rikers Island. “There’s a lot of NIMBYism going on,” pitting neighborhoods that don’t want a new jail built against one another. However, he added, taking a page out of the Bronx borough president’s book, “where the mayor’s people went wrong, we weren’t consulted the way we should have been,” when the mayor announced the plan in February.

The Assemblyman sees a possible solution to that impasse by building two small jails—-one near the criminal courthouse on E. 161st Street, as has been suggested by City Councilman Rafael Salamanca Jr., and another in an “isolated area.”.

Delices hates the jail plan unequivocally and scoffs at the city’s assurance that building another jail in the South Bronx is the best way to ensure that inmates’ relatives can visit loved ones hassle-free.

“They’re playing games with us,” said Delices, suggesting that the city instead build a jail in midtown Manhattan, where Bronxites can easily travel, if convenience is a genuine concern of the mayor’s. “People can take the 5 or the 6 train.”

Stewart-Martinez says that instead of building a jail in the district, the city should invest in mid-size, Bronx-based companies. “How about we have a boiler company in the Bronx where workers can be trained in welding” and other skills, she said. That way, those workers and companies would have a nearly endless supply of work making and servicing boilers in public housing complexes, to replace the broken down boilers now in service.

Some have questioned whether Sepúlveda, if elected, would join his friend State Sen. Jeff Klein on the Independent Democratic Conference, which has voted with the Republicans in the State Senate. Although Sepúlveda says he “wasn’t going to vilify them—-they’re friends of mine,” the issue seems moot for now, since the group announced earlier this month that they are returning to the Democratic fold.

While the New York State Board of Elections shows Sepúlveda to have amassed $71,365 for his campaign from 136 contributors, the database shows no contributions for his opponents, who are financing their own campaigns.

Whoever wins the special election will hardly have time to get their seat warm. Another election will follow in the fall, for the two-year term that starts next January.

Go to the NYC Board of Elections site to find your poll site.