With Rep. José Serrano retiring, candidates vie for South Bronx congressional seat

Since Bronx Rep. José E. Serrano’s announcement that he will retire in 2020 due to a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, elected officials and political newcomers have jumped into the candidate pool to fill his seat.

Serrano, a Democrat, has served in Congress since 1990. He currently represents New York’s District 15 in the South Bronx, one of the poorest districts in the country, according to Census data. 

The Democratic primary, which will be next June, will likely determine who will win the general election in November. 

Here’s a look at the candidates running in the primary.

Declared candidates

Michael Blake 

Blake, a Bronx assemblyman, kicked off his campaign for Congress in April, writing in an email to supporters that he wants to be a “fighter” for the people of District 15. 

“With a member of Congress in Washington fighting for better-paying jobs, fighting for affordable housing, fighting for better health care coverage and education for children, fighting to protect the dignity of immigrants and our South Bronx families, and fighting for the funding and resources that our neighborhoods need, we will accomplish extraordinary things together,” he wrote. 

Blake previously worked in President Barack Obama’s administration, and in February, he made an unsuccessful run for New York City public advocate.

Blake’s Assembly district includes parts of Morrisania, Melrose and Crotona.

Marlene Cintron

Cintron, a Bronx native and community activist, announced her intention to run for the NY15 Congressional seat on Aug. 8. 

Cintron describes herself as “one of the leaders of the Young Lords,” a civil and human rights organization, and she serves as the president of the Bronx Overall Economic Development Corp., which helps businesses in the borough and works to attract companies. 

“As President of BOEDC, I have helped get Bronxites back to work in the county with the highest unemployment rate in New York State,” Cintron said in a news release announcing her run for office. “I was able to help drop the unemployment rate in the Bronx from a reported 14.1% to 5% and brought in thousands of jobs; however, I know that so much more can and must be done.”

Ruben Diaz Sr. 

Diaz, a current Bronx City Council member, announced his candidacy in April, calling himself “the opposite of (Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) in the South Bronx” in an interview with Patch

He further explained this comparison in an interview with the Norwood News. “I am not progressive, I’m a conservative Democrat, and a conservative Democrat has no voice,” he said.

The councilman, who previously served in the State Senate, has made his share of controversial statements, including in February, when he said the City Council is “controlled by homosexuals.” His words resulted in the City Council dissolving a subcommittee that he chaired. 

Diaz represents Soundview, Castle Hill, Parkchester, Clason Point and Harding Park.

Melissa Mark-Viverito

Mark-Viverito, the former City Council Speaker, announced her run for Congress in an interview with THE CITY and a column in The Bronx Free Press on Aug. 6. 

Citing the recent “revolution” in Puerto Rico, where she was born, as a motivator, Mark-Viverito wrote, “the government must serve you and NOT corporations, hedge funds, and special interests.”

“I won’t be working for corporate interests or real estate developers,” she wrote. “I will be a people-driven candidate who will focus on being accessible to you and every corner of the district, from Mott Haven to University Heights.”

Mark-Viverito, who represented part of the South Bronx and Upper Manhattan in the City Council between 2006 and 2017, touted her record as the first Latinx Speaker in the Council. 

“We pushed for innovative policies like city-wide criminal justice reforms; the clearing 10 years of warrants hanging on the backs of working people; and the first legal fund for unaccompanied minors to protect immigrant children,” she wrote. 

The former Speaker made an unsuccessful run for New York City public advocate in February. She was the first woman to enter the District 15 congressional race.

Jonathan Ortiz

Ortiz, a financial counselor for a community organization in the South Bronx, launched his campaign for Congress in April. The Bronx native is critical of elected politicians who run for office before their terms are over, saying at his campaign launch that it makes them “unavailable” to the community.

“I’m not a politician,” he said in an interview with BronxNet. “I’m just someone that really cares about the community, someone who has been here from the beginning.”

Issues he said he would prioritize include affordable housing and student loan debt.

Tomas Ramos

Ramos, a program director for children’s arts and science workshops at the Bronx River Community Center, announced his campaign in April. 

The first-generation Dominican American was born in Washington Heights, but when his father was arrested for selling drugs, his mom moved him and his siblings to Pennsylvania and eventually to the Dominican Republic when his dad was released, according to his campaign website.

He moved back to the Bronx after graduating from Temple University in Philadelphia and now works at the Bronx River Community Center.

“For the last several years I have been educating, empowering and inspiring our youth in the Bronx,” he says in his campaign video

Issues he highlighted in his video include education reform, sustainable housing and criminal justice reform. 

Ritchie Torres

Torres became the youngest member of the City Council when he was elected in 2013. He was also the first openly gay elected official from the Bronx.

He has hinted at higher political aspirations and on July 15, he officially announced his run for the District 15 seat in a campaign video that highlights his experience growing up in public housing in the Bronx. 

“I was raised by a single mother who had to raise three children on minimum wage and I lived in conditions of mold and vermin, lead and leaks,” he says in the video. 

Torres goes on to say that as he was living in “slum conditions,” the Trump Gold Links was being built “across the street” with $100 million in city funding. 

“I remember asking myself, why would the city spend $100 million on a golf course, rather than on the homes of struggling New Yorkers like my mother,” Torres says. “I knew at that moment that I had to fight for people like me.” 

Torres represents Bedford Park, Fordham, Bathgate, Belmont and other central Bronx neighborhoods.

Might run

Eric Stevenson

Stevenson, a former Bronx Assembly member who was convicted of bribery in 2014, said in a statement to media that he is planning to run in the Democratic primary.

“I plan on exceeding the good work of Congressman Serrano by making sure that social justice, poverty, mass incarceration and other socioeconomical ills are on the front burner in Congress,” he said, according to the Norwood News.

However, as of Aug. 8, he was not listed as a declared candidate by the Federal Election Commission

Two other Democrats — David Philip Franks and Frangell Basora — are on the FEC list, but they have not yet announced their bids or campaigned. 

No longer running

Gustavo Rivera

State Sen. Rivera, who represents parts of the west Bronx, was initially among the potential candidates who filed exploratory committees, but in a Gotham Gazette column on July 12, he said he was not going to run. 

Rivera said the new Democratic majority in the State Senate and its role as a check on “the great national threat from Washington, D.C.” influenced his decision not to seek the congressional seat. 

“Representing my community in the State Senate has been the greatest honor of my life, and it is exactly where I believe I can best serve for the foreseeable future,” he wrote. 

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