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YEAR IN REVIEW: Fernando Cabrera Unseats Maria Baez

January 7, 2010

FERNANDO CABRERA

NEW COUNCIL MEMBER FERNANDO CABRERA AT HIS INAUGURATION CEREMONY ON JAN. 6. WITH CABRERA IS HIS WIFE, ELVIA (L), AND CIVIL COURT JUDGE ELIZABETH TAYLOR (PHOTO: A. TALWAR)

By ALEX KRATZ

Less than 18 months ago, Fernando Cabrera was a college professor living in Westchester County who spent his spare time leading the Morris Avenue church he founded two decades ago.

On Jan. 1 he became a New York City councilman.

It’s been a long journey in a short period of time for Cabrera who defeated incumbent Maria Baez by just 70 votes in the September Democratic primary after emerging from a crowded field of challengers. Cabrera easily cruised to victory in the November general election and become the de facto Council member in the district as Baez has not shown up for work (and is reported to be seriously ill) since September.

Cabrera’s victory was a clear rejection of Baez’s leadership, as incumbents are notoriously difficult to defeat in local elections.

Over 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 City Council member. Last fall, she supported Mayor Bloomberg’s unpopular push to extend term limits for the city’s elected officials from two terms to three. Twice before, the public had voted to uphold the two-term limit.

By the time the Council had extended term limits and Baez had announced her re-election bid, Cabrera had already announced his intention to run. He stayed the course even as the crowd of challengers swelled to more than a half dozen.

In the late spring, Cabrera received two critical endorsements – from the Bronx County Democratic Committee and the Working Families Party – that put him in front of the pack of challengers. Soon, nearly every major union had jumped on board the Cabrera bandwagon.

Everyone except Cabrera and Yudelka Tapia, a city auditor and community activist, dropped out of the race to take on Baez in the primary.

All summer, Cabrera fended off attacks from his rivals who claimed he was a Republican (true, he voted in the 2008 Republican primary, but switched parties soon after) and that he lived in Westchester County (true, until he moved into a Sedgwick Avenue condo in August of 2008).

But it was also true that Cabrera had the devoted and relentless backing of his congregation at New Life Outreach International Church on Morris Avenue. The young, relentless and tech-savvy members of New Life were the backbone of his campaign and developed into a political force.

(Also, though he fell short and withdrew from the campaign before petitions were due, Yorman Nunez, a 20-year-old community organizer, built a strong campaign team of young volunteers who are now in the process of creating their own political action committee.)

At the end of a tense primary election night, Cabrera had a slim 90-vote lead that held up after an official recount lasting two weeks. Baez vowed to keep fighting, but hasn’t been heard from or seen since.

In December, Cabrera stepped into the void left by Baez’s absence, attending closed-door negotiation sessions on the fate of the Kingsbridge Armory on West Kingsbridge road. Not yet officially in office, he didn’t get to vote along with his colleagues to defeat the project, but by all accounts his firm stance mattered. (The City Council rejected the proposal because the developer, Related Companies, who wanted to build a mall, wouldn’t commit to making retailers pay employees a “living wage” – $10 with benefits, or $11.50 an hour without.) 

Cabrera says his priority in his first year is to pass living wage legislation so that developers seeking city subsidies will be required to incorporate higher wages into their plans.

Article first appeared in the Norwood News.

Ed. note: Cabrera has opened a district office on the second floor of 107 E. Burnside Ave., near Morris Avenue.  Reach the office at (347) 590-2874.

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