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Vying for an open House seat in a hotly contested South Bronx district, the Rev. Ruben Diaz Sr. appears to be wooing would-be voters with food and toys, his latest campaign finance filings show.
Since opening his congressional campaign account last April, the controversy-stoking City Council member has spent $31,000 on gifts, gift cards, entertainment and other goodies — around two-thirds of his campaign expenditures so far, according to an analysis by THE CITY.
Overall, the father of Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. has raised $168,686 in the runup to the crowded June 23 Democratic primary to replace longtime Rep. José Serrano. He’s spent $45,883 so far.
“That is what I have always done,” Diaz Sr., 76, told THE CITY Wednesday. “Giving back to the people and trying to help the community. This is nothing new to me.”
Federal Election Commission records show the Diaz Sr. campaign spent $9,990 on Dec. 16, 2019, on “Constituent Gifts — Christmas Toys.”
The campaign laid out $4,000 at Western Beef on Bruckner Boulevard for “Constituent Gifts — Gift Cards” on Nov. 22, record show. Three days later, the campaign returned to purchase another $3,000 in gift cards, just in time for Thanksgiving.
“Constituent Gifts — Thanksgiving Meals” at Barino’s Market in late November ran up a $2,750 tab. And in August, according to earlier records, Diaz spent $1,737 on “Pastries for Senior” purchased from a local resident.
Also on Diaz’s campaign goodies list: Back-to-school haircuts last September and gifts for a veterans’ parade.
Federal election law allows the use of campaign funds to purchase gifts “of nominal value” for people outside of a candidate’s family members, Christian Hilland, a Federal Election Commission spokesperson, told THE CITY via email.
One primary rival delivered some sharp words about Diaz’s spending. “He’s an old-school politician bent on buying votes,” fumed Bronx Councilmember Ritchie Torres.
“He seems to be borrowing from the playbook of his right-wing doppelganger, Donald Trump, who thrives on quid pro quos,” added Torres, who leads the field in fundraising with more than $1.1 million so far.
Election lawyer Jerry Goldfeder raised an eyebrow at the campaign spending. “The use of federal campaign funds for gift cards and toys to potential voters seems pretty iffy,” he said.
Diaz shrugged off any criticism: “People say what they are going to say.”
“They are people that have never done anything, they are people who don’t even know how to help the community,” he added. “I will continue working, continue helping, continue doing for the community whatever I can.”
Diaz is not the only federal candidate to have prompted questions about his largesse to potential voters. Democratic presidential contender Andrew Yang has faced scrutiny for his cash giveaways.
The FEC has been unable to rule on election matters since September, because it lacks enough members for a quorum.
Diaz, a longtime politician distinguished by his cowboy hat and inflammatory anti-gay remarks, is well known within The Bronx for his generosity with constituents, particularly seniors.
“He fully understands constituent services,” said Christina Greer, associate professor of political science at Fordham University.
“He definitely has a complicated race with new people coming in, younger candidates, more progressive candidates,” she added. “But what has served him well thus far is that he fundamentally understands the needs and wants of the primary voting members of his district.”
With low turnout typical in the 15th Congressional District, Diaz’ most devout supporters could prove key.
Heavily represented among his donors are ministers and pastors, who have given about $44,000 to the Pentecostal minister’s campaign so far, THE CITY’s analysis of FEC records found.
“Diaz Sr. no doubt has a strong core of supporters, but it remains to be seen how large that is,” John Mollenkopf, director of CUNY’s Center of Urban Research, said in an email. “Also remains to be seen how big the overall turnout will be. No doubt money will count in terms of mailings and other field activities.”
‘They Know Me!’
Three candidates in the packed race to replace Serrano have raised more money than Diaz: Torres, Bronx Assemblymember Michael Blake and former Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. Much of their spending has gone toward political consultants and travel expenses.
“I don’t have to spend money on consultants so people can know me,” Diaz said. “They know me! I have been here.”
Torres stands well ahead of the pack financially with $931,879 on hand. Blake has raised $501,844, with $164,416 in his coffers. Mark-Viverito has pulled in $251,690 in her bid to be the first woman elected in the Congressional district, with $114,079 at the ready.
Democratic socialist Samelys Lopez; Tomas Ramos, program director at the Bronx River Community Center; and Jonathan Ortiz, formerly a financial counselor at the nonprofit Phipps Neighborhoods, also remain in the race. So do Manhattan Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez and Black Lives Matter-NY co-founder Chivona Newsome.
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