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Council Member Baez Gears Up For Fight of Her Life

August 21, 2009

Rivera and Baez


Jose Rivera, the Bronx assemblyman and former chair of the Bronx Democratic Party, remembers the first time he met Maria Baez, the two-term Council member who is seeking reelection this fall.

The year was 1982, and Rivera, having just been elected to the Assembly for the first time, was taking inventory in his district office when he received a rude awakening.

“Twenty women, black, white, Hispanic, they stormed in,” he recounted recently.

An 11-year-old girl had just been hit and killed by a car on the Grand Concourse at 183rd Street, and the women wanted the driver held accountable. 

Rivera told them his powers were limited; he was freshly elected, he’d yet to hire any staff, he didn’t even have a typewriter.

But they persisted, and turned to one of their own, a twenty-something Maria Baez, for a solution. “They said, ‘we’ve got your secretary, you get the typewriter,’” Rivera said. “I said OK, so I hired her.  It was a two-people operation. And the rest is history.” 

A Single Mom on Welfare

Baez was born in Brooklyn and moved to the west Bronx with her family at age 10. As a teenager, she attended J.H.S 82 in Morris Heights, and later Walton High School, where she fell in with the “wrong crowd” and dropped out, just shy of graduating.

“[After that] I literally did nothing with my life for a while,” Baez said, during an interview last month at her campaign office on East 181st Street.

It was a difficult time: her marriage, which had given her a daughter, soon failed, and money was tight.

As an unemployed single mom, Baez relied on public assistance and the kindness of a local church, Love Gospel Assembly on the Grand Concourse, which provided her with children’s clothes.

Slowly, though, she began to get to her life together. She helped start a block association on 183rd Street and Creston Avenue, near where she lived. And she enrolled at Monroe College, where she earned her GED and a secretarial certificate.

Baez had not long graduated when she found herself standing in Rivera’s office, with several of her friends and neighbors. She became Rivera’s receptionist – it was the first paid job she ever had – and eventually, when he was a councilman, his chief-of-staff. “Honestly, at the time, he saw potential in me that I didn’t see myself,” she said.  “He afforded me that opportunity and I will always be grateful, because I was able to blossom.”

Baez later became the executive director of the Housing Workshop, an affordable housing group that was based on Fordham Road (it’s now defunct); and, in the late 1990s, the chief clerk of the Bronx Board of Elections (the first Latina to serve in that capacity).

In the spring of 2001 Baez says she reached out to Rivera and Roberto Ramirez, the then-Bronx Democratic Party chairman, to ask if they would support her if she ran for City Council in the 14th District, which covers much of the west Bronx.

The men were stewing in a Brooklyn jail at the time, along with Al Sharpton, the civil rights activist, and Adolfo Carrion, the 14th District council member who was running for borough president. (The so-called Vieques Four had been convicted of criminal trespass after protesting the U.S. Navy’s use of Vieques, a Puerto Rican island, as a bombing range.)

That fall, with Rivera and Ramirez’s backing, Baez won the primary and then the election. She was reelected in 2003, and again in 2005, when she didn’t face a primary opponent.

In many ways, Baez’s story – she’s calls it her “Cinderella story, without my prince charming” (she’s twice-divorced and currently single) – is inspiring. Thirty years ago she was on welfare; today, as a veteran councilwoman and the dean of the Bronx council delegation, she’s one of the most prominent Latina politicians in the city, and has the honor of representing a community she says she loves so much.

But is it all about to come crashing down?  With the Sept. 15 primary fast approaching, the Bronx Democratic Party, under new chairman Assemblyman Carl Heastie (who ousted Rivera last fall), has thrown its weight behind political rookie Fernando Cabrera, a pastor and college professor. So too has the Working Families Party, several influential unions, and Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr.

To make matters worse, Baez has been hit by a tidal wave of negative press these past two years, raising questions about her work ethic and honesty.

Scandal Upon Scandal

Baez brushes off the criticism. Her dismal attendance record at mandatory Council meetings and hearings? “I’ve been very ill,” she says, but won’t elaborate, aside from saying she’s recovered and that her illness never affected her ability to bring money into the district.

Her attempts to fund a non-profit, the recently disbanded Alliance for Community Services on East Burnside Avenue, despite the city having deemed it unfit to receive public money?  They provided a stellar service, she said, and she wasn’t aware of their problems.

Her initial refusal to support a housing bill – the since passed Tenant Protection Act – which allows tenants to sue their landlord for harassment, if the landlord is trying to force them out with the aim of bringing in higher-paying tenants?  “I was trying to be fair to everyone,” says Baez, who co-sponsored a rival bill that would have enabled landlords to sue tenants for harassment, as well as vice versa.

Her attempts to fund a Davidson Avenue tenant association that no longer exists? It still exists, she says. (Nilda Velazquez, a district leader and friend of Baez, says the association, which she heads, morphed into something different in recent years – hence the confusion. It now focuses on organizing trips for local children.)

Her office’s extravagant cell phone bills?  “There was an issue where we had got the wrong plan,” she says.

Her district office’s sky-high rent, allegedly the highest of any council member? “You’re going to tell me I pay the most?” she says. “I pay more rent on the Grand Concourse and 176th Street than someone… in Manhattan?”  

Baez’s friends say she’s been unfairly treated. “It really, really hurts me when I hear about the negative things people say about this person,” said her long-time friend, Elaine Watts, who calls Baez the “best thing that’s ever happened to this community.”

Watts and other Baez supporters use words like “loyal,” “humble,” “caring” and “helpful” to describe the Council member, and they say her district office staff are friendly and quick to offer assistance. At a campaign rally on July 16, Willie Simmons of Morris Avenue said Baez is “not stuck-up” like many politicians. Louella Hatch, a longtime Tiebout Avenue resident said, “The Hatches love her – the whole family – because she will help.” Anna McQuilla of East Tremont Avenue said, “She works very hard and is easy to talk to.” 


And her supporters like the fact that she’s from the community and lives in the community.

Baez says she resides fulltime at 2415 Davidson Ave., an apartment building just south of Fordham Road. It seems an unlikely spot for a politician with a six-figure salary; it’s no Fordham Hill, the gated community a few blocks away. The apartment she rents, moreover, is on the fifth floor of a non-elevator building – quite a climb for someone who’s been too sick to work.

But it seems doubtful that Baez is in the same boat as Pedro Espada, the state senator who owns a co-op in Bedford Park but spends most of his time in Westchester. On a recent visit to her building, several tenants were able to point out her apartment, though some said they’d never heard of her. Certainly, Baez doesn’t seek out attention; she’s more comfortable working behind the scenes, her allies say. One community leader, who holds her in high regard, says she’s shy.

But others say that’s no excuse for missing so many local events, meetings, and press conferences. Indeed, Bronx community groups have long griped about her reluctance to show up, listen to their concerns, offer support, and say a few words – unless an election is around the corner.

Tamara Czyzyk, director of organizing at New Settlement Apartments, an organization that clashed with Baez over the Tenant Protection Act, says she has a good relationship with the councilwoman’s staff, but that Baez herself has been elusive. “Directly, we have not seen her, never ever,” Czyzyk said, speaking earlier this summer.

Desiree Pilgrim-Hunter, a Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition board member and a founding member of KARA (the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance), says KARA is still waiting for Baez to show “leadership.” (She’s been absent from major public hearings at which the Armory’s future was discussed, though see did hold a press conference on Aug. 12 in support of small supermarkets who feel threatened by plans to open a larger supermarket there.)

Pilgrim-Hunter also serves as the president of the Fordham Hill Owners Cooperation; to residents there, Baez has been “invisible” and a “non-entity” she says. “They know a pamphlet shows up at election time, but that’s it,” Pilgrim-Hunter said. “She may be a phenomenally talented woman, but we don’t know that.”

Proud of Achievements

Since being elected eight years ago, Baez, who’s 51, says she’s secured $40 million in capital funds for her district. This is an impressive sum, she says, though she doesn’t know how it compares to her colleagues’ dollar amounts. (When asked, Oliver Koppell, who represents the district north of Baez’s, refused to give even a ballpark figure. He said there are different ways to calculate it, and doesn’t know how Baez is doing her math.)

Major projects to which she’s contributed funds to include: Mount Hope Housing Company’s new community center on Townsend Avenue; the Harrison Circle project, a health center with senior housing that Morris Heights Health Center is building on West Burnside Avenue; and the Bronx Family Justice Center, a multi-service facility for domestic violence victims on East 161st Street, which will open in the fall.

She’s also funded senior centers, local parks, multiple playground renovations at area schools, and the building of several school gymnasiums.

Inside Morris Senior Center, on East 181st Street, she was greeted warmly one recent afternoon, despite interrupting a bingo game. After shaking several hands, she retreated to the back of the room, allowing play to continue. “I got them that,” she then whispered, pointing at the electronic scoreboard. Later she added: “I love showing what I do, it just makes me feel so good.” 

Then there’s her legislative record. Over the past eight years, Baez has been the primary sponsor of six bills that became law, more bills, she says, than any other Bronx Council member. Not that the competition has been fierce. Helen Foster and Annabel Palma, for instance, have just two bills to their name; Joel Rivera and Larry Seabrook just one apiece. Typically, Council members representing other boroughs have had much more success, according to the City Council’s Web site.

Dick Dadey, the executive director of the Citizens Union, a good government group, said Baez’s record as a lawmaker is underwhelming, in substance and in number. “She has been a Council member who has not distinguished herself,” said Dadey, who also pointed to Baez’s failure to attend Council meetings and hearings. (In the 2009 fiscal year, she showed up just 56 percent of the time, according to the New York Post, a worse attendance record than any of her colleagues.)

Baez is unfazed, and in recent weeks her campaign has been gaining traction. At the July 16 rally, she was endorsed by City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, and several Bronx politicians, including Assemblyman Rivera, to whom Baez owes so much. On Aug. 17, former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer endorsed her.

She’s also raised more campaign money than her two opponents, Cabrera and city auditor Yudelka Tapia, according to the latest filings from the Campaign Finance Board.

Baez insists she’s confident of victory, and is looking forward to another four years in office.

“I’ve heard remarks saying we need change,” she said. “No, this district needed change a long time ago and I’ve provided that.”


7 Responses to “Council Member Baez Gears Up For Fight of Her Life”

  1. juanquintana on August 21st, 2009 12:14 pm

    Maria Baez is lying her head off. She does not live in Davidson Avenue. She lives with her daughter in Throggs Neck and in the Poconos. She claims that she is ill, and yet this profile failed to point out that she did not have a medical excuse in all of her absences, with the exception of 1%. She claims she has brought a lot of monies, and yet Joel Rivera has brought in almost twice as much into his district. She has not brought in new monies. This is sad in a district rampant with a 19% unemployment and lack of services. We don’t even have one youth center in the district. Is she out of her mind, trying to give more rights to landloards?! It just shows you how out of touch she is with the community. Maria Baez is being investigated for her handling of tax payer monies. She had a $17,000+ phone bill per month and she tries to say that she just had the wrong plan? It just show how poor of a leaders and what a grand liar she is.

    I believe Fernando Cabrera is the right man for the job. This is why the Bronx Democratic Party, all of the major unions, local elected officials and community leaders endorsed Fernando Cabrera. We need NEW leadership in District 14 and Cabrera will bring it on.

  2. anthony rivieccio on August 21st, 2009 7:30 pm

    Well, for starters, I thought it was a great profile and I hope the newspaper other profiles on the candidates will be just as comprehensive. But I think it is fairly simple to say, partly based on this profile, that if Maria Baez, does not show up to The Bronxnews Network/Bronxnet TV Debate to both, answer questions in regards in this profile or tell the comunity how she will bring fortune to the 14th Council District

    Northwest Bronx Democratic Club

  3. Posts about news as of August 22, 2009 - Video Blog And Arcticles on August 22nd, 2009 1:36 am

    [...] 19 at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, of injuries sustained from a non-combat related incident. Council Member Baez Gears Up For Fight of Her Life – mounthopemonitor.org08/21/2009Jose Rivera, the Bronx assemblyman and former chair of the Bronx [...]

  4. BronxLos on August 22nd, 2009 4:06 pm

    Queue the Violins James…

    Very nice profile. Her scandals and non-existence is far more unsettling than her rags to riches story. I wish we had seen and heard more from her, but the fact is she’s never around. Her major boast is that she brings money into her district…but all councilmen do.. That’s like getting fired from Taco Bell and saying, “but I made tons of taco supremes for my district.” That’s your job.. Don’t boast about doing your job. How come she doesn’t boast about what she’s done with the money? Where has all the money gone? What has visibly changed in this district? Why are we still the poorest in the city? Cmon Maria! Give us a better reason to vote for you.. because right now, It aint gonna happen..

  5. Thruth seeker on August 23rd, 2009 8:11 am

    Interesting–Illness caused her to miss her sessions at the City Council?

    Yet, she is always available for the November Somos El Futuro Conferences in Puerto Rico.

    With leadership like hers, that area of the Bronx will never improve. Unfortunately, those running against her are not any better.

  6. YEAR IN REVIEW: Fernando Cabrera Unseats Maria Baez : Mount Hope Monitor on January 8th, 2010 8:35 pm

    [...] the past few years, she had come under fire for a series of controversies, including the fact that she held the worst attendance record of any [...]

  7. Norwood News on December 14th, 2010 12:40 pm

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