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SPECIAL ELECTION COVERAGE: Joel R. Rivera: I’m the ‘Community’s Candidate’

May 29, 2009

Joel R. Rivera thinks he stands a good chance of winning the June 2 special election for the 77th Assembly seat.  Although a Democrat, he is running as a Conservative because he says he was only informed a few days before the May 13 deadline that he needed 1,500 signatures in order to be placed on the ballot as a Democrat.

Many consider Vanessa Gibson, whom the Bronx Democratic Party is supporting, the stronger candidate, but Rivera is undaunted. He says that he’s the “community’s candidate” not the “machine’s candidate” and that it is “harder to forget about the community when you’ve come from, bled, organized, and rallied with the community.”

Rivera

The seat is available because Aurelia Greene, who has sat in the Assembly since 1982, has resigned so she can take a job as Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr.’s deputy.

Rivera (no relation to City Councilman Joel Rivera) believes his roots in the Bronx, where he grew up, and his history of service and activism will help him to win votes. He has lived in Highbridge for the last thirteen years and his father, Reverend Ray Rivera, has served as a religious and community leader since 1964. Reverend Rivera founded the Latino Pastoral Action Center (LPAC) in 1992, a social services organization that began as a division of New York City Mission Society.

Rivera said he has the support of various churches and community organizations and has been endorsed by Assemblyman Nelson Castro, Bishop Ronald Bailey of Love Gospel Assembly Church on the Grand Concourse, and Bishop Timothy Berkett  of Church of Life on Findley Avenue. He has raised $16,930 according to the New York State Board of Elections Web site, which was last updated in mid-May.

Rivera originally ran for City Council in the 16th Council District but dropped out of the race when the current office holder, Councilwoman Helen Foster, informed him she would be running for a third term.  “The heart of my campaign is about uniting the community,” he said, “and running against Foster [who's black] would divide the black and Latino vote.” Furthermore, his and Foster’s father are longtime friends.

If Rivera, though, was after Foster’s support for his assembly campaign, it hasn’t been forthcoming, at least not publically. And in Gibson he’s up against another African-American. (More on Gibson here.)

One of Rivera’s core interests is education. Through LPAC, he founded SOY (Servicing Our Youth), a non-profit aimed at engaging teenagers in civil service by teaching them about their local government. His experiences have taught him that some youngsters, those who have fallen into gang violence and drug abuse, feel they have no hope. “These are people who if I or my dad don’t tell them we love them, no one will,” Rivera said.

If elected, Rivera wants to engage young people in politics and offer civics and vocation training at the high school level for students who do not plan to attend college.

Rivera studied sociology at George Washington University from 1996 to 2000 but is eight credits shy of a degree. He cited financial reasons for not completing college. During his time as a student, he served as a community liaison for then Councilman Adolfo Carrion and as the director of the Youth Career Initiative Program for the Bronx Council for Economic Development, where he recruited youth for education and career training workshops.

In addition to his current position as director and founder of SOY, Rivera is an active community organizer. Rivera marched with several labor groups last year to fight for the renewal of their contracts; supported workers at the Kingsbridge Heights Rehabilitation Center who had lost their healthcare; lobbied for fair share tax reform in Albany; and helped coordinate a protest in Highbridge in April 2008, to bring attention to what he considered the unjust acquittal of the police officers who killed Sean Bell.

Recently, Rivera has been fighting to have New York State’s vacancy decontrol laws repealed. Under the current law, landlords who own rent-regulated buildings are able to deregulate individual apartments if there’s a vacancy and the monthly rent is above $2,000.

If elected, Rivera said he would continue to fight for education, healthcare, housing, and workers’ rights. “I’m not just talking about what I’ll do, it’s what I’ve already been doing,” he said. 

UPDATE: According to Chance Haywood, president of the Bronx County Young Republican Club, the Republican candidate is Barbara Bowland.  Bowland doesn’t appear to have done much fund-raising or campaigning, however.

By REBECCA CHAO

Editor’s note: Visit Rivera’s campaign Web site here.

SPECIAL ELECTION COVERAGE: Vanessa Gibson Touts her Experience in Albany

May 29, 2009

GibsonAssembly member Aurelia Greene stepped down recently after 27 years on the job, to accept an offer to serve as Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr.’s deputy.

Before leaving, she announced that she’d like her chief-of-staff, Vanessa Gibson, a Morris Heights resident, to run for her seat in the 77th Assembly District, which covers Highbridge, Morris Heights, and Morrisania.

Since then, Gibson, who jumped at the idea, has picked up the support of the Bronx Democratic Party and the Working Families Party, and is considered the favorite to win the special election on Tuesday, June 2.

Because of Greene’s sudden departure, the candidates have had only a few weeks to get their campaigns off the ground. Gibson, 30, has been so busy, she wishes she had “a clone.”  Typically, few people vote in special elections, Gibson says, and so she’s been rushing around the district letting people know there’s an election coming up, and that she’s the Democratic candidate.

Is she confident of victory? Yes, she insists, not least because the Democratic Party is helping to get the word out about her campaign. The party decision to back her shows they have “confidence in my ability to be a leader,” she said.  Also, she says she’s well known in the community for the work she’s done on Greene’s behalf these past few years.

(Turnout is usually low in special elections because voters have no other reason to go to the polls other than to support their chosen candidate. There’s no presidential race, for example, to draw voters out. Expect a vote count in the high hundreds or low thousands.)

Gibson grew up in Brooklyn and did her undergraduate degree at the University at Albany (SUNY) where she majored in sociology. As part of her studies, she interned at the State Capitol and was assigned to Greene’s office. The two hit it off. That was eight years ago. Gibson ended up working for Greene full-time in Albany, and more recently in the Bronx.

She says her years under Greene (whom she calls a “pillar of this community”) and her “Albany experience” makes her a strong and able candidate. “It’s not just about knowing your district, and knowing what your district needs,” she said. “You also have to understand how Albany works. I feel that I have that.”

If elected, Gibson says she would work to ensure landlords and property managers better maintain their buildings. And she’d look to bring more senior housing and middle-income housing into the district. “We need a middle-income housing component, because in order for our neighborhoods to flourish and to have some economic stability and viability… we need more than just low-income residents,” she said.

She said she’d welcome development, particularly development that brings in jobs, and not just retail jobs. “We need more jobs that pay [better] so they [people] don’t have to have two or three jobs to take care of themselves and their families,” she said. 

Gibson, whose career has taken off thanks to that internship in Greene’s office, would also like to see more opportunities for youth to intern and volunteer. And she wants to see a “computer center” built to encourage teenagers to use computers and learn about the Internet. “I’m a huge Internet buff, like Blackberry all the way!” she said. “And so I think we need some sort of computer center [in the district]. If you don’t learn now, technology keeps moving, and if you don’t move with it you will be lost.”

According to the latest campaign filings, Gibson’s campaign had raised $11,100, as of mid-May. Speaking earlier this week, she now puts it “close to 15.” Interestingly, Joel R. Rivera, Gibson’s opponent in the race, has raised more. Rivera, though, was forced to run as a Conservative, which could hurt him next Tuesday. (More on Rivera here.)

Gibson is also likely to benefit from the Bronx Democratic Party’s support – mailings and phone calls announcing her candidacy, for example. 

(According to Gibson, there’s a Republican in the race, but the Bronx Republican Party didn’t return a voice message requesting details. Meanwhile, the State’s Board of Elections Web site makes no mention of a Republican candidate.)

Assuming she wins, Gibson, who just completed a Masters in Public Administration at Barach College, says she’s excited about what she and her fellow legislators will be able to accomplish. “Now that both houses [the Senate and the Assembly] are under Democratic control it really allows a lot of the issues of working families to be addressed,” she said.

UPDATE: According to Chance Haywood, president of the Bronx County Young Republican Club, the Republican candidate is Barbara Bowland.  Bowland doesn’t appear to have done much fund-raising or campaigning, however.

By JAMES FERGUSSON

Editor’s note: visit Gibson’s campaign Web site here.

Opinion: Renew Mayoral Control

May 14, 2009

By JASON LEVY

I am in my fifth year as principal of IS 339 on Webster Avenue, and I am positive that our city’s school system has greatly improved since mayoral control was established.  Sure, we know about the rising test scores and better graduation rates.  Yet I’ve also observed incoming sixth graders from the 15-plus elementary schools we draw from coming in better prepared – academically and socially – over the past few years.  I’ve seen students succeeding in a diverse range of terrific high schools – big and small – as part of our city’s public education renaissance.

It wasn’t always this way.  I started teaching in the Department of Education in 1996, and I remember when phone calls to district offices went unanswered, messages were ignored and help was hard to find.  Everyone used to point fingers, and no one was responsible.  The entire system lacked hope.  And children, families and educators suffered under an incompetent bureaucracy determined to protect the status quo.  Student achievement wasn’t an issue because it wasn’t a priority.

It wasn’t that the system was without quality people – my parents were outstanding NYC public school teachers for over 25 years – but it was a system without direction and continuity.  Most importantly, the city’s school system was without leadership that was tied to results.  When mayors sat idly as the Board of Education shuffled papers and shredded hopes, they were labeled apathetic. When mayors got heated as school crime rose and families blamed the system, they were accused of posturing.

Now the mayor of New York is accountable for its schools and has the ability to lead.  We hold the chancellor – appointed by the mayor – responsible.  And as many positive things as I could list about Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein’s accomplishments, I also believe New York City should provide mayoral school control as an enduring policy, beyond the tenure of the current administration.

When a plane lands in the Hudson, when a crime spree hits, when a family is tragically wiped out in a fire – we expect effective execution by the city’s agencies.  Seamless coordination of care follows a chain of command up through the mayor. All of the vital services in this fine city depend on outstanding leadership, vision and implementation overseen by the mayor and the mayoral appointees.  After city crises – both those that end well and those that don’t – mayoral appointees conduct rigorous reviews of policies and procedures, systems and techniques.  This happens because it is the mayor’s job to care about the quality of life in New York City. 

For Americans, quality of life hinges upon quality of education.  Why we would ever permit a lower standard for our school system than the rest of the city agencies?  Shouldn’t we want – shouldn’t we demand – a mayor willing to be held accountable, responsibly leading our city’s educational system? 

Under mayoral control, the DOE has been more effective and efficient.  Principals have been given unique autonomy in exchange for accountability.  The quality of our educational system has greatly improved – in large part because of the innovative structures and central governance.  And for the first time in our great city, we’re aspiring to a culture of educational excellence.

New York City shouldn’t want a mayor running the city who doesn’t want to control the school system.  We deserve mayors who want to do the crucial work of educational oversight.  For the first time, students from all corners of NYC have the opportunity to thrive at their neighborhood schools.  I know that our state legislators will preserve the bright future for our children made possible by mayoral leadership and accountability.

Levy is the principal of IS 339, a middle school at 1600 Webster Ave.

Editor’s note: The Monitor received this op-ed from Learn NY, a pro-mayoral control group.

Murdered Toddler Remembered

May 8, 2009

By JAMES FERGUSSON

In Mott Haven, recently, 32 children lay down on a sidewalk and played dead.

The “lie in,” on 141st Street at Beekman Avenue was held on April 16 to mark the second anniversary of the Virginia Tech massacre in which 32 people were killed, as well as the third anniversary of a Bronx tragedy: the murder of two-year-old David Pacheco.

The children – tots, teens, and those in between – lay down for just three minutes, to highlight the short length of time it takes to buy a gun in the United States, and speed with which Seung-Hui Cho was able to slaughter his victims. lie down

“You can get a gun so easily and shoot someone for no reason,” said 14-year-old Ryan Bonilla, one of the protestors, when back on his feet. “I really want to stop that because it’s ridiculous.”

Ryan’s mother, Gloria Cruz, has been on a one-woman mission these past few years to rid the borough of firearms. As the Bronx chapter leader of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, she spends her days lobbying for stricter gun laws, organizing marches and protests (including the “lie in”), and reaching out to those who have lost loved ones to guns.

After the “lie-in,” Cruz drove out to St. Raymonds Cemetery, a sprawling Roman Catholic cemetery in the East Bronx. There she offered words and comfort to Joanne Sanabria and David Pacheco Sr., for whom life changed forever on Easter Day 2006.

A smiley-faced boy, David Jr. had been sitting in a minivan his mother was driving when a bullet – the product of a nearby disagreement between two groups of men – tore through a rear door and hit him in the chest at the intersection of West Tremont and Harrison avenues. David was rushed to nearby Bronx Lebanon Hospital, but couldn’t be saved.

Pacheco

Standing by her son’s gravestone three years later, Sanabria gave a short speech. “My little man will always be in my heart,” she said. Afterwards, friends and family released helium balloons into the cloudless sky; among them, yellow ones, the color of David’s favorite toy, SpongeBob SquarePants.

Cruz’s niece, Naiesha Pearson, is also buried in St. Raymonds; it was her death, in 2005, that gave Cruz the impetus to become an advocate.

Like David, Naiesha – just 10 when she died – was killed by a bullet meant for someone else, after gunfire erupted at a Labor Day barbeque in a Mott Haven playground. (“I felt that after the media had died down, [no one] was representing our fallen angels,” Cruz said, on why she set up the Bronx chapter of NYAGV.)

Naiesha’s killer is serving 50 years in prison. But justice continues to elude the Pacheco family.

Police were quick to identify a suspect: 26-year-old Nicholas Morris of University Avenue. Morris was charged with murder, but the case against him fell apart in May 2008, when, during his trial, the defense produced evidence casting doubt on his role as the shooter.

“I’m happy that justice has finally been served,” Morris told the Daily News, after a mistrial was called.

No new arrests have been made, although Steven Reed, a spokesman for the Bronx District Attorney’s Office, says there’s still “an open and active investigation.”

Pacheco Sr. isn’t so sure. When he calls the DA for updates no one gets back to him. “[Everybody] has totally forgotten about my son,” he said.

“My feet, my mouth, my heart”

In the United States, approximately 30,000 Americans lose their lives to guns every year. Most are murdered; others commit suicide, die in accidents, or at the hands of police.

Cruz

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, children in this country are 12 times more likely to be shot to death than their counterparts in other industrialized nations.

Anti-gun groups believe tougher guns laws – such as more stricter background checks on gun buyers – can help stop guns falling in the wrong hands, and ultimately save lives.

Typically, Democrats are more willing to listen to these arguments that Republicans. But so far President Barack Obama has been quiet on the issue. Cruz believes he will act, however. “It’s a subject that’s close to his heart,” she said, because “he’s a father” and he’s from Chicago, a city in which gun crime is rife.

Cruz works out of a small office at St. Ann’s Episcopal Church in Mott Haven, where she’s also a pastoral assistant. Her days are often long; her resources few. “My feet, my mouth, my heart, is all I have,” she said. “Our biggest resource is our heart, our soul, our passion. We don’t have the money the NRA [National Rifle Association] has.”

And she worries about what the future holds. In 2007, thanks to a grant, she was able to quit her job as a human resources manager for Toys R Us, and devote herself to the cause full-time. But those funds will run dry at end of 2009.

“If I have to go back to work one of my greatest fears is that this will die out,” she said.

The night before the “lie in,” Cruz held a meeting in a community room inside St. Ann’s to discuss the “lie-in” and other upcoming events. Of the ten people that showed up, six had lost a loved on to gun violence.

Afterwards, Cruz reflected on the role she plays in bringing grieving families together. “Some of these moms feel that pain is their own, but when they talk to these other moms they realize they’re not alone,” she said.

Swimming Pools/Spray Showers

May 7, 2009

Roberto Clemente State Park’s swimming pools will be closed for renovation this summer. Here are some alternative pools and spray showers in the local area:

Public swimming pools

Claremont Park

Mullaly Park

Crotona Park

Van Cortlandt Park

Spray Showers in Community District 5 

Echo Park (East Burnside Avenue at Ryer Avenue)

Galileo Playground (176th Street at Macombs Road)

Morton playground (Morton Place at University Avenue)

Davidson Playground (West 180th Street at Davidson Avenue)

Mount Hope Playground (East 177th Street at Walton Avenue)

Morris Garden (Morris Avenue and East 181st at Creston Avenue)

Beanstalk Playground (Billingsley Terrace and Phelan Place at Sedgwick Avenue)

Cleopatra Playground (Anthony Avenue at Prospect Place)

Aqueduct Playground (West 183rd Street at Aqueduct Avenue)

Cedar playground  (West 181st at Cedar Avenue)

Slattery playground (East 183rd St. at Ryer Avenue)

Jenny Jerome Playground  (Cross Bronx Expressway at Jerome Avenue.

Half-Nelson Playground (Nelson Avenue between Featherbed Lane and 174th Street)

 

Source: Community Board 5

In Mount Hope, a Nonprofit Collaboration

May 7, 2009

Earlier this year, Covenant House New York (CHNY), an organization that serves at-risk adolescents, closed its community resource center at 81C Featherbed Lane in Morris Heights.  It was a place where youth could receive counseling, legal and medical services, and job training – all free of charge.

The organization also shuttered similar centers in Queens and Staten Island. “We were forced to make a difficult decision,” said Executive Director Jerome Kilbane. “We felt there was no choice.”

CHNY isn’t alone in feeling the wrath of the sour economy.  Indeed, many non-profits have been forced to downsize, as the public and private funding they rely on has started to dry up.

Hoping to avoid a similar fate, a number of Bronx-based community development organizations and social service providers have begun holding monthly meeting at Mount Hope Housing Company’s offices on Morris Avenue, to discuss ways they can join forces.

The collaboration, currently nameless (although the “Bronx Social Profit Coalition” has been floated), is the brainchild of Verona Greenland, president and CEO of Morris Heights Health Center (MHHC), and Fritz Jean, president of Mount Hope’s board of directors.

“My intent is not to create a single, broad non-profit,” Jean told attendees at the first meeting in March.  “We cannot afford to lose the [identity] of our individual organizations.”

Rather, he said, the idea is to share resources, and to work together on certain projects to create leverage.  “It can be as little has buying from the same vendors,” he said. “It strengthens our buying power.” 

(Like CHNY, Mount Hope has had a tough few months. Recently they were forced to lay off seven staff members, as well as implement some salary cuts, says Jean, who became president in February. But it’s also an exciting time for the group – on May 7 they held a ribbon-cutting ceremony to announce the completion of the “New Hope Walton Project” an affordable housing complex at 1775 Walton Ave. Meanwhile, if all goes to plan, their new community center on Townsend Avenue and 175th Street will finally open this summer.)

At the March meeting, representatives from four organizations – Mount Hope, MHHC, WHECO (Women’s Housing and Economic Development Corporation), and VIP Community Services (which provides drug rehabilitation services and affordable housing) – were in attendance. At the following meeting, held in April, reps from an additional 10 organizations were present.

“You are our [our community's] Fortune 500 companies,” said Xavier Rodriguez, Community Board 5′s district manager, at the second meeting. “In these hard economic times, do what you need to do. Even merge if that’s what you have to do to survive.”

At this early stage, specifics are few and far between. Jean, though, in a later telephone conversation, gave a few examples of how the collaboration might pan out. He said certain organizations might agree to apply for grants together, rather than competing for the same dollars.

Or landlords might team up to buy heating oil in bulk, he said, so they can cut costs, and potentially pass the savings on to tenants and other homeowners in the communities they serve.

“I think the potential is tremendous,” Jean said. 

By ARIEL ELGHANAYAN

Editor’s note: The Monitor is published with support from Mount Hope Housing Company. 

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