It was a big moment of change for the Bronx this week when Rep. José E. Serrano announced that he has Parkinson’s disease and would not be seeking re-election.
Serrano is a respected and long-serving city figure, the dean of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, first elected in 1990 to the House, where he has been a reliable ally of his native Puerto Rico and the political left.
He was so far on the blue side of the spectrum that he once described his politics as “to the left of the left.” He called Fidel Castro a “great leader,” and broke with NYC congressional colleagues to vote against the Wall Street bailout of 2008.
Who will come next?
Serrano’s 15th Congressional District is next door to the 14th, where Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s win over Joe Crowley last year represented another big change for the Bronx and Queens: democratic socialism and the Green New Deal over county party politics.
They are two very different districts. AOC’s is whiter and richer, with median income almost double that of Serrano’s, according to recent Census data. Her primary win came on the strength of the Queens portion (including hip and gentrifying neighborhoods), which she won by almost 17 percent, as opposed to her hometown Bronx portion where she won by 5 percent.
But Serrano’s district is much younger, with a median age of 31.4 years compared to AOC’s 38.8, and perhaps some of those young voters will be energized to vote for the updated version of a left-leaning firebreather.
Certainly there are local issues worth crusading on, from opioids to homelessness and poverty. Serrano’s seniority and advocacy helped clean up the Bronx River, but economic conditions in the district have remained difficult.
Who’s in the running?
The field is relatively open because some Bronx heavy hitters seem to be taking a pass, such as Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., who’s focusing on a mayoral run.
Some of the prominent names being floated include Ritchie Torres, a 31-year-old term-limited City Council member raised in Bronx public housing. Torres has been the subject of much media attention and speculation as a rising Democratic star, bolstered by turns leading the council’s NYCHA and investigatory committees.
The role is less of a simple gamble for state legislators, whose own primaries would be held at the same time, meaning they’d have to make a choice. But some Bronx insiders have floated Assemb. Marcos Crespo, the Bronx County party leader who is the chair of the State Assembly’s labor committee, a boon in a district where unions matter. Then there’s State Sen. Gustavo Rivera, who could benefit from progressive traction for sponsoring a state bill to create a single-payer health care system.
Another Assembly member who might be interested is Michael Blake, an able fundraiser and a vice chair of the Democratic National Committee who won the Bronx in his losing February campaign for NYC public advocate.
Who has the upper hand?
The South Bronx district is heavily Hispanic or Latino — 520,380 out of 781,143 residents, according to recent Census figures. Voters may want someone who can continue Serrano’s advocacy for Puerto Rico and Hispanics here.
But if there’s a race featuring various legislators with Hispanic backgrounds, that could benefit Blake, whose family emigrated from Jamaica, because black voters make up another sizeable block in the district.
Serrano’s political strength, however, is his ability to appeal to both Hispanic and black voters, says Bronx-raised strategic consultant Bruce Gyory.
Gyory, who isn’t retained by any of the CD15 candidates, recalls Serrano’s ill-fated but platform-building boroughwide primary against an incumbent for Bronx borough president in 1985.
“That was the race where he became a crossover figure," says Gyory, noting that Serrano’s subsequent support from Puerto Rican and black voters made him “unassailable” in the district for so long.
A candidate who could replicate a crossover appeal of some sort may find a path to build on Serrano’s legacy.