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Newcomer Defeats Espada in Primary

October 7, 2010

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STATE SENATOR PEDRO ESPADA, JR. TALKS TO THE MEDIA AFTER CONCEDING (PHOTOS: A. TALWAR)

By ALEX KRATZ and JAMES FERGUSSON

Gustavo Rivera, a 34-year-old first-time candidate buoyed by an army of local, institutional and political support, defeated incumbent 33rd District State Senator Pedro Espada, Jr. in the Sept. 14 primary.

A career-long Democratic operative, the tall, goateed Rivera easily defeated Espada, taking nearly two-thirds of the total votes (62 percent to Espada’s 32 percent).

That night, Espada gave a defiant concession speech at La Luna Lounge in Tremont, blaming the media and “outsider millionaires” for toppling him. Rivera, meanwhile, thanked his supporters at the Monte Carlo Room across from the Kingsbridge Armory and told voters they had made the right decision.

“For far too long, our community has been ill-served by corrupt politics,” Rivera said. “We’ve been the brunt of jokes and the object of ridicule. Well, tonight you had a choice. You had a choice between progress or patronage. You had a choice between honest policy or the politics of ‘me.’ You had a choice between ethics or indictments. Tonight, I am here to report that the people of the Bronx made the right choice!”

Since taking office in January 2009, Espada had used the thin Democratic majority (32-30) in the Senate to his advantage, leveraging his support for Democratic leadership to gain increasingly powerful titles and positions.

Last year, he sided with Republicans, effectively shutting down state government for more than a month in the so-called Senate coup. He switched back to the Democrats after they made him majority leader and enacted reforms that gave more power to committee chairs.

Espada’s actions drew the ire of the state Democratic Party and Senate colleagues, many of whom endorsed Rivera — as did a long list of unions and progressive advocacy groups. His inaction on pro-tenant bills as housing committee chair (and cozy relationship with powerful landlord organizations) made him a target for the city’s numerous pro-tenant organizing groups.

On top of that, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo filed a civil suit against Espada for allegedly bilking his chain of nonprofit health care clinics for $14 million. (Espada’s defenders say the suit was politically motivated and point to the lack of criminal charges as proof.)

Sensing Espada’s vulnerability, Democratic challengers, including Rivera and Kingsbridge lawyer Dan Padernacht jumped into the race.

In July, millionaire political activist Bill Samuels, who vowed to spend $250,000 to defeat Espada through his New Roosevelt group, announced his support for Rivera, and slowly more and more anti-Espada groups began coalescing around Rivera’s candidacy.

Padernacht stayed in the race until the week before the primary. His name appeared on the ballot, but a week before the primary, he threw his support behind Rivera, and Democratic leaders hailed him as a hero. He still took in 5 percent of the vote.

On top of New Roosevelt’s spending spree and vast network of volunteers (many of them local activists), the Working Families Party, a minor political party with a reputation for fighting hard for their chosen candidates, spent close to $100,000 on the race. On Primary Day, they sent 105 people to the district to campaign for Rivera. Daniel Cantor, the party’s executive director, described the race as the “most important in the state” and a major priority for his party.

“The Senate coup was really a terrible thing he [Espada] did, and so this is payback, recompense,” Cantor said.

Meanwhile, hundreds of 32BJ SEIU and 1199 SEIU members campaigned for Rivera in the weeks leading up to the primary and on Primary Day itself, knocking on doors and handing out fliers.

Haile Rivera, an Espada aide who took time out to work on his boss’ campaign, said the unions played a role in Espada’s defeat, but that other factors were also at play. He says “an overwhelming number of voters [at the polls] confused” Gustavo Rivera with Jose Rivera, the well-known and long-serving assemblyman.The near constant bad press also hurt Espada, Rivera said, especially with white voters in the northern end of the district.

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ON PRIMARY NIGHT, GOV. DAVID PATERSON (RIGHT) STOPPED BY TO CONGRATULATE RIVERA (LEFT)

While Espada promised a political comeback, two days after the primary, a tired but happy Rivera said he wanted to be accountable to the people who elected him. “I always said this was about serving the constituents of this district,” he said. “[Espada] is somebody who forgot about who he worked for.”

In what is a heavily partisan district, a victory in the Democratic primary is tantamount to winning the general election on Nov. 2. Rivera faces Republican John E. McCarthy and Green Party candidate John Reynolds.

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