Challenger takes on political establishment in Sept. 13 primary

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             

Amanda Septimo on the campaign trail.

Challenging a longtime incumbent with deep party ties is rarely a formula for success in Bronx politics. But one underdog thinks that Bronxites are fed up enough with the political establishment to break the stranglehold that one such incumbent has held on office for 24 years, in a Sept. 13 Democratic primary. 

Hunts Point native Amanda Septimo will try to unseat Assemblywoman Carmen Arroyo in a face-off that pits a 27-year-old, grass roots organizer against an 82-year-old party matriarch whom the challenger says has long been out of touch with her embattled constituents.

“Electeds are risk-averse and it makes them bad leaders,” said Septimo during an interview near her Manida Street home.

Carmen Arroyo

Arroyo, who was first elected to represent the 84th Assembly District in 1994, did not respond to requests to comment for this story. Earlier this summer Septimo challenged Arroyo to three public debates around the district but the incumbent never responded.

Despite her youth, Septimo is no newcomer to public service. While a teen she served as a community organizer and advocate on environmental and other social justice issues at The Point CDC’s ACTION program to develop young leaders. Her understanding of neighborhood realities impressed Rep. Jose E. Serrano enough to hire her as community liaison soon after she graduated from college. 

Septimo has so far received endorsements from powerful unions 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East and DC37, along with the Working Families Party, the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, and Run for Something.

“Amanda understands the struggles faced by working families in a changing New York,” said 1199SEIU’s political director Gabby Seay in a statement. ”We believe she will fight for the issues important to our members including well-paying jobs, affordable housing, and access to quality education for all.”

Septimo’s first run for office came in 2016, when she ran to replace Arroyo’s daughter, Maria del Carmen Arroyo, in a special election for city council, but returned to community organizing when the Bronx Democratic machine had her tossed off the ballot over a technicality.

So far Septimo has raised over $50,000, pointing out that “everyone that gave to me, I know personally.” At press time two weeks before the primary, almost all of those funds remain in her war chest. Arroyo, meanwhile, has reported raising just over $40,000, of which almost $10,000 has been spent so far. 

In Arroyo’s last primary challenge in 2016, she beat a young political outsider, Jackson Strong, who tallied a surprising 32 percent of that vote.

After spending the summer campaigning in the district—-which includes Mott Haven, Highbridge and parts of Longwood and Hunts Point—-Septimo has found that “people don’t know who [Arroyo] is,” and “are thirsty for an advocate.” They face converging crises and tricky policy decisions that demand immediate attention in Albany as well as City Hall, she said. Topping that list is the affordable housing crisis, as rents rise even while thousands of new apartments are built across the district. 

“All development has to take community in mind,” she said. The challenge for elected officials is “how to guilt and tax and argue these [developers] into doing the right thing,” to ensure new housing is affordably priced for the area’s mostly low-income residents. 

Septimo says she would push for legislation to change the federally-set Area Median Income (AMI) so that Bronxites’ incomes would be weighed separately from those of wealthier areas such as Manhattan and suburban counties, to determine how high rents can go in given areas. Currently the New York City area’s AMI formula does not differentiate the incomes of those economically distinct areas when deciding what’s affordable. 

Other quandaries that confront the area include Mayor de Blasio’s decision to build a new jail in Mott Haven despite overwhelming popular opposition; the mayor’s choice of Longwood as the site of a new safe injection site for intravenous drug users; and NYCHA’s continuing budget and infrastructure disasters. 

“All of these crises are hitting home at once,” she said. “There’s disarray on the federal [as well as local] level. There’s a mess here, a mess there—-it doesn’t feel that far away,” but the issues are too complex for soundbites, and demand politicians get their hands dirty addressing complex topics. 

“Right now the jail conversation is so nuanced due to the Rikers anti-humanitarian crisis,” said Septimo.

NYCHA is a “bad landlord” that overcharges many of its powerless tenants in exchange for almost no services in “a district with the biggest digital divide in the city. In any other home, landlords would be held accountable.” 

At the same time, market rate apartments are mushrooming within sight of some of the city’s most broken down public housing. “It’s so destructive to the people who live here.” 

Proactive policies to serve area residents will require “creative ways to fill gaps,” such as adopt-a-school programs, ramped-up training for green and tech jobs, and letting community centers stay open late to keep young people constructively engaged. “You’ve got to speak up for people who have grown up in these communities and watched these policies fail.”

While returning to her Manida Street home on the Hunts Point peninsula after a recent day of campaigning, the candidate noticed a 29-year-old neighbor cleaning up in front of his home. The neighbor, whom Septimo has known for years, explained that the family was moving because they can not keep up with the rising rent. His mother is moving in with other family, and he was going to move into a shelter. 

That encounter, Septimo said, helps illustrate how “people in our neighborhoods cannot afford to wait for policies and structures to change, because life doesn’t allow for it. At 29, someone should be facing challenges on how to grow their career, not chasing low-wage jobs that don’t pay them enough to afford something as basic as a stable place to live.”

Elected officials have to take the blame for that, she said. 

“The establishment thinks there are lessons to be taught in patience, but misses the point that there’s urgency in our community.”