BY HEATHER DUBIN | Pastor Richard Del Rio is ready to don a new hat. After serving the Lower East Side and the East Village communities for 31 years as a spiritual leader, Del Rio is running for the District 2 City Council seat.
District 2 includes the East Village, part of the Lower East Side, Union Square, Gramercy and the Kips Bay neighborhoods.
Del Rio, founder of Abounding Grace Ministries, has been a presence in the neighborhood since 1992. In a recent phone interview with The Villager, the senior pastor discussed why he decided to run for elected office.
Within a day of Hurricane Sandy’s arrival last Oct. 29, Del Rio and his church members organized a relief effort. Food and supplies were ultimately distributed at the Dry Dock Playground, at E. 10th St. and Avenue D, because the city refused to allow Del Rio to use the nearby P.S./M.S. 34 school building, at E. 12th St. and Avenue D, where the church rents space to meet for its worship services. People were forced to stand outside for hours while they waited for provisions.
Frustrated by that experience, Del Rio, 61, decided to enter politics.
“I felt that the system had failed us,” he said. “The system failed the community. The politicians failed the community.”
Del Rio is a strong supporter of allowing churches to hold worship services in New York City public schools, which Mendez strongly opposes.
A resident of the Lower East Side since 1996, he has spent his career working in the community.
Del Rio’s top priorities, if elected, would be youth, senior citizens, affordable housing and economic development. He wants to create an intergenerational community that would connect seniors with young people to explore job training and form supportive relationships.
“I’ve been really working all my life toward empowering the next generation,” he said.
Del Rio believes in the talent and abilities of contemporary youth but feels they are often overlooked.
In addition, he thinks more can be done to take care of seniors. He recently visited a New York City Housing Authority development in the district where one of the buildings did not have a handicap-accessible ramp.
“Elderly people can’t come out because they can’t do the steps,” he said. This issue — along with the threatened closing of senior and community centers in NYCHA complexes — also prompted Del Rio’s bid for City Council.
“I want to have a culture where we can value every person and turn around the distress in poor areas, specifically,” Del Rio said.
He stressed the injustice of NYCHA’s “infill plan” to build luxury apartments on playgrounds, parking lots and parks at 14 leased sites at eight housing projects in Manhattan, most of them in the East Village and Lower East Side. Del Rio questioned why current Councilmember Rosie Mendez, his rival, did not put a stop to the plan sooner.
“She’s chairperson of the housing committee, and she’s been at the table all these years,” he said. “It’s been happening on her watch.”
Mendez chairs the Council’s Committee on Public Housing, which oversees NYCHA.
Del Rio also questioned Mendez’s record on backlogged repairs in NYCHA housing, and rats in public housing spaces, like the old, disused bathhouse on the grounds of the Baruch Houses on the Lower East Side.
He objects that Mendez is running for a third term, adding that he does not believe in a third term for anyone.
Del Rio was also critical of Mendez’s approval of New York University’s 2031 mega-development plan on the university’s South Village superblocks.
“Even with that one, Rosie would stand and protest against it, and when it came time to vote, she voted against the community,” he said. “That kind of thing gets me.”
According to Del Rio, Mendez’s absence rate from City Council meetings was 25 percent one year. He acknowledged that she had family issues, and that the next year her absence rate improved to 18 percent. But he claims she missed meetings when NYCHA was on the agenda.
“We need leadership we can trust, and leadership that can show up,” he said.
Formerly a registered Republican, Del Rio registered to switch parties nearly two years ago, and became a Democrat in November 2012.
“I came to the conclusion that the Republicans were disconnected from the people,” he said.
Calling his work the “compassion industry,” he said he felt he could better align himself with his community as a Democrat. His life of service includes antiviolence work, such as outreach to gang members engaged in gang wars, as well as consoling local families after murders of loved ones, plus aiding the community after 9/11 and his relief work after Hurricane Sandy.
“If I toed the line as a Republican,” he said, “I couldn’t do the work I do.”