Photo: Griffin Kelly. Amanda Septimo (left), alongside a resident filling out a census form and register to vote E.138 Street in September.

Young progressive looks to revive hope for local Assembly district in trying times

Assembly candidate Amanda Septimo is hoping her third run for office is the charm

Two weeks before Election Day Amanda Septimo was sitting in Bronx afternoon traffic on her way to her mother’s house in Mount Vernon to prepare campaign flyers. The 29-year-old candidate for New York State’s 84th Assembly District was relying on family to help her get the word out about her growing presence as a force to be contended with in Bronx politics.

Fueled by a family-oriented approach to her campaign, Septimo is hoping that her third stab at elected office is the charm. Prior to the current race, she made unsuccessful runs for the same Assembly seat two years ago and for city council in 2016.

The Democratic candidate’s climb has been an eventful one. In May, she sued to have Carmen Arroyo, the longtime incumbent, disqualified from the Democratic primary for falsifying petition signatures. After Arroyo appealed, an appeals court judge agreed with Septimo’s challenge, creating an opening for her as the party’s candidate for the seat.

But Arroyo, who turned 87 last January and in 1994 was the first Hispanic woman ever elected to the Assembly, remains defiant. Refusing to pull out of the race despite the judge’s ruling, she is running on a third-party ticket, The Proven Leader Party.

Arroyo’s office did not respond to multiple requests from The Herald for comment.

Septimo’s stated progressive platform policy leanings—she is running on the Working Families ticket as well as the Democratic—include emphasis on public investment for more reliable bus service, affordable housing, ratcheted-up repairs for public housing, and universal after-school programs. 

The drama in the borough’s Democratic field this year is a far cry from the predictability of the last few years. In 2018, Septimo got 30 percent of the vote in losing to Arroyo. It was widely presumed that other representatives of the political status quo were on to loftier challenges. 

But in January, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. shocked the political establishment by pulling out of the mayoral race and pledging to leave politics altogether to spend more time with his family. Assemblyman Marcos Crespo, widely considered the top contender for Diaz Jr.’s position, stepped down as both incumbent Assemblyman and chairman of the Bronx Democratic Party shortly afterward. Congressman José E. Serrano, for whom Septimo worked as district director, declared in 2019 he would not seek re-election this year due to Parkinson’s disease.

It was not the first time that the Arroyo family campaign was embroiled in charges of campaign malfeasance. In 2015, Arroyo was charged with potentially funneling campaign money into family-run nonprofit organizations, but charges were dismissed by the attorney general’s office. In 2009, her grandson was sentenced to a year in jail for embezzlement while administrating a South Bronx nonprofit. State campaign finance records identified Arroyo as the recipient of illegally diverted political donations in the case, though she was never charged.

Neighborhoods in the 84th Assembly district Assembly, including Mott Haven, Hunts Point and parts of Highbridge, are often referred to as the poorest congressional district in the nation for years–a reality that community leaders say affects residents’ priorities when voting.    

South Bronx activists say the time for political change locally is long overdue.

“The creativity, strength and logic of the candidates will figure highly in the minds of our constituents when they vote,” said Monxo Lopez, a Mott Haven-based activist and community land trust board member with South Bronx Unite. “As an activist, I attend meetings in other parts of the city, and the quality and preparedness of the representatives in other districts compared to ours makes me feel ashamed.”

Lopez cited elected officials’ handling of COVID-19 and police brutality, as well as their failure to stop the city’s plans to build a jail in Mott Haven, as top issues in upcoming local elections. The Adjunct Professor of Puerto Rican/Latino Studies is also keeping watch on the Assembly candidate’s willingness to support community land trusts as an innovate approach to address environmental and criminal justice issues. 

“We need politicians to understand the community and come up with new solutions,” said Wanda Salaman, executive director of Longwood nonprofit Mothers on the Move. “The old solutions didn’t work for us, with COVID and the economic crisis.”

Salaman says that prices for common food items and cleaning supplies have more than doubled. Lack of food access and affordability, coupled with the skyrocketing unemployment and health disparities in the neighborhood, are issues of grave concern for local voters, she added. 

Salaman touted Septimo as the best candidate for both COVID-specific challenges and endemic poverty and lack of equitable access to nutritious food, healthcare and affordable housing.

“She was outspoken. She knew what the hell she was talking about and she’s not giving up on the community,” said Salaman, who has known Septimo since the candidate was a teen activist for The Point Community Development Corporation, when she organized Hunts Point residents on initiatives to alleviate the area’s infamous environmental problems. For Salaman, Septimo’s resilience stands out. The neighborhood’s high rate of COVID-related infections, deaths and unemployment cry out for “young blood” in local leadership.

Septimo says that, if elected, her main priorities will be helping residents recover from COVID and combating the poverty, which the pandemic has deepened. The district will struggle more than others to overcome the massive cuts to essential services like sanitation that may result from the budget crisis.

“At the forefront of my mind now is, how do we move into a world where people who are on the frontlines of impact get to be on the frontlines of policy-making, so that we’re not stuck in this cycle where we rage and repeat?” she said.