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City Councilmember-elect Pierina Sanchez during her campaign, at a rally in City Hall Park supporting female candidates, July 13, 2021.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Progressive Latina Leaders Succeed Conservative Councilmen in Bronx Power Shift

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SHARE Progressive Latina Leaders Succeed Conservative Councilmen in Bronx Power Shift

In an election that brought women 29 of the City Council’s 51 seats — the first-ever female majority — three Bronx Latinas are poised to transform what leadership in their districts looks like.

Pierina Sánchez, Amanda Farías and Marjorie Velázquez, all Democrats, ran for open seats in Nov. 2 contests after their male predecessors became term-limited or chose not to run again. 

Each of the women identifies as a progressive — and each will replace a Council member with roots in the borough’s evangelical Christian or business communities: Council members Fernando Cabrera, Ruben Díaz Sr. and Mark Gjonaj. Cabrera was term-limited, while Díaz and Gjonaj chose not to run again.

The political climate change is already gusting through Bronx politics. This week, another Latina aspiring politician, Democrat Jessica Altagracia Woolford, announced a run against longtime Assemblymember Jeffrey Dinowitz (D-The Bronx).

“I think almost 30 years of anybody in elected office, it just doesn’t reflect the growth and the change that happens in the community,” Woolford, who is of Dominican descent, told THE CITY. 

The former communications staffer for Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand said she relishes “the chance to really show someone from Kingsbridge and to show kids from Kingsbridge that you can grow up and be a lawmaker.”

Reflecting The Bronx

Women are now set to hold five of The Bronx’s nine Council seats, up from two — four of them Latina. One of those current two Council members is term-limited Democrat Vanessa Gibson, who just elected to be the first woman to serve as Bronx borough president.

The new leadership more closely reflects the population of the Bronx, where nearly 53% of residents are women and more than half identify as Hispanic or Latino, according to the latest census data.

“Latina representation of City Council members in The Bronx is really important, especially with the lack of Latino representation that we’re seeing in citywide or statewide office,” said Farías, 32, who was elected in the 18th Council District, representing Parkchester and Castle Hill. 

Amanda Farías, pictured her during primary campaigning in May, will replace Rev. Ruben Diaz Sr.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

She promised “a very different leadership style” for her constituents than the brand practiced by her predecessor, Díaz — a minister who courted evangelical voters and gained national notoriety for anti-gay comments that included a claim that the Council is “controlled by the homosexual community.”

Farías, who campaigned on issues of environmental and transit equity, promises to channel concerns from a broad range of constituents.

“I’m actually really excited about having a majority-women Council,” she said. “I think we bring a different type of intentionality to our policymaking. I think women are more in tune with being solution-oriented and at creating the steps to make sure things are successful.”

Confronting Hunger

While the Board of Elections won’t certify the election until Nov. 30, after all absentee ballots are counted, Velázquez is the presumed winner in the 13th City Council District, leading in-person votes by 10 points in the borough’s closest race.

She is all but set to represent City Island and Throgs Neck — areas where Republican mayoral candidate Curtis Sliwa prevailed in many election districts despite losing citywide. Democrats represent 61% of registered voters in the district, lower than the city’s 68% average. 

“This district has never seen a person like me before, and now to be representing them in this fashion is huge,” Velázquez told THE CITY. Her immediate predecessors were Gjonaj, a local businessman, and before him James Vacca, both centrist Democrats. 

She challenged Gjonaj in 2017 in the Democratic primary and lost by just 400 votes. Velázquez ran in the general election that year as the candidate of the labor-aligned Working Families Party. 

Bronx City Councilmember-elect Marjorie Velazquez spoke at a rally in City Hall Park this summer supporting female candidates.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Her chance to finally win the seat came when Gjonaj decided not to run for reelection this year. She received endorsements from leading Bronx Democrats, including Rep. Ritchie Torres, Sen. Alessandra Biaggi and Borough President Ruben Díaz Jr.

Velázquez, 40, is a local Democratic Party district leader and longtime Bronx Community Board 10 member with a background in corporate finance and accounting. She previously worked on successful campaigns to elect Torres to City Council and Darcel Clark as Bronx district attorney.

She had reservations about running a second time, until an encounter through her mutual aid network in Throgs Neck with a woman experiencing hunger, she said, inspired her to join the race.

“I showed up, I brought her bag, and she was very grateful,” Velázquez said. “But then afterwards, she texted me and she was like, ‘You don’t know how much this means to me. This was the only food that me and my husband would have for the entire week. We had nothing to eat tonight.’” 

She called the exchange her “turning point.”

Connecting the Dots

Farías, too, had tried and failed to dislodge an incumbent in 2017, in her case Díaz Sr., vying for control of the Council district representing Parkchester and Castle Hill. 

Díaz announced last July that he would retire from elected office at the end of his term ending on Dec. 31. He combined confrontational politics with old-school freebies to woo voters: When running for Congress last year against Torres, Díaz used campaign funds to shower constituents with gifts, including Thanksgiving turkeys. 

In this year’s primary, she narrowly beat Díaz’ hand-picked successor, William Rivera, with 53% of the vote after six rounds of ranked choice voting.

Councilmember Rubén Díaz Sr. (D-The Bronx) spoke during a vote at City Hall to close Rikers Island, Oct. 17, 2019.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Like Farías and Velázquez, Sánchez faces the challenge of selling constituents on progressive policies who are accustomed to conservative-leaning leaders — in her district, Cabrera, an evangelical minister. 

Sánchez, 33, is an urban planner who formerly worked for the Regional Plan Association as well as for the Obama and de Blasio administrations. Voters picked her to succeed Cabrera to represent Morris Heights.

She said that one of the biggest challenges facing the 14th Council District is a lack of civic engagement — noting the dismal voter turnout rates in the borough and her district in both the primary and general elections. 

Just 9% of active registered voters cast ballots in the district, with Sánchez garnering 6,972 in-person votes. 

While her main focus is on quality of life issues and housing, Sánchez’s goal is to educate the community on polarizing but essential issues like policing.

“Say the words ‘Defund NYPD’ in most parts of the district and it doesn’t resonate. It’s like, ‘Wait, no, we can’t do that.’ But when you start a conversation, and you say, ‘Well, what about the after school programs? What about this that we don’t have?’” the reactions change, she said. 

“We’ve never had the conversation of, if we had deeper investments in the civic infrastructure and the foundation of our community, we would be better off and we would be safer.”

‘Generational Shift’

The departure of Díaz Sr. and Cabrera, ends, at least for now, evangelical Christian elected leadership in The Bronx, said Union Theological Seminary lecturer and political observer Eli Valentín.

“More than an ideological shift, it’s a generational shift,” Valentín said, noting that the “55 and over” crowd no longer has a political home.

Faith and community organizer Jonathan Soto, though, noted that former President Donald Trump got more votes in heavily Latino Bronx precincts in 2020 than he did in 2016.

The biggest challenge for The Bronx’s new elected leaders, he said, is to meet voters where they are, including connecting with church communities and their views on issues — especially hunger and poverty.

“Ideologically, there’s a lot of play to poverty from the Democrats, but there’s not a lot of actual delivery,” he said. 

City Councilmember Fernando Cabrera chaired a government operations committee meeting, April 10, 2018.

Emil Cohen/New York City Council

Soto points to the pushback by the party’s left flank on federal COVID recovery bills that fall short of a desired scale of spending — including The Bronx’s most famous Latina leader, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who voted against the trillion-dollar infrastructure bill signed into law this week.

He said religious communities are dealing head on with hunger and poverty within their own networks and tend to have low tolerance for ideology-driven brinksmanship.

“Churches, mosques, temples, synagogues, all of the above, there’s a cultural element of anxiety and pushback against the Democrats,” Soto said. “So the Democrats as a brand has suffered.”

Sánchez said she’s prepared to show what good government can do to improve people’s lives.

“Folks vote for who engages them the most, for those who show up, care and present a vision that they can identify with,” she said.

“For me, that journey was kind of being a daughter of the district — being able to say, ‘These are the things that I was able to accomplish when you took me to an after-school program when I was growing up, when you gave me these opportunities, when you cared about me.”