clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Dominican Leaders Trounce Super-Rich Outsiders in Bronx Special Election Influence Battle

Bronx District 15 City Council candidate Ischia Bravo speaks with a voter on election day, March 23, 2021.
Bronx District 15 City Council candidate Ischia Bravo speaks with a voter on election day, March 23, 2021.
Ischia Bravo for City Council Dist. 15/Twitter

Tuesday’s special elections in the northwest and central Bronx remains undecided, as the Board of Elections awaits thousands of absentee ballots that could determine the outcome — including whether the contests move on to a ranked-choice instant runoff.

One likely loser: the world’s richest woman and other wealthy donors, who spent $356 per vote to promote a candidate who came in third in the in-person balloting, notching just 693 first-place votes.

Voters in the 15th District — which includes Bedford Park, East Tremont, Allerton and West Farms — cast a mere 3,431 in-person ballots in the race to replace former City Councilmember Ritchie Torres, who was elected to Congress last year.

Oswald Feliz emerged as an early front-runner with 973 of all first-choice votes, giving him 28% of the vote. He held a 235-vote lead over Ischia Bravo, who received 738, according to the city Board of Elections.

The board sent 1,120 absentee ballots to voters, and will begin its absentee count no sooner than March 30.

Feliz, a state committeeman and tenant lawyer, attracted endorsements from major Dominican elected leaders in The Bronx, notably Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-Manhattan/The Bronx).

“We’re very proud of the campaign that we ran, and also of the people that we had on our side — we didn’t have a billion unions, we didn’t have PACs setting aside $200,000 a week before election day,” Feliz told THE CITY. “But we did have a strong team who hit the ground with us every single day, so that we could take our message directly to the voters.”

The race attracted a host of outside spenders — most aggressively Walmart heir and charter school advocate Alice Walton and prominent Manhattan real estate developers, including William L. Zeckendorf and Larry Silverstein.

Super PACs they helped sponsor spent $246,751 on promotions boosting John Sanchez, who came in third among in-person voters. Major labor unions, such as the United Federation of Teachers and 1199 SEIU, threw their support behind Bravo and Elisa Crespo.

An image from a promotional flyer paid for by the group New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany, backed by Walmart heir Alice Walton.
An image from a promotional flyer paid for by the group New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany, backed by Walmart heir Alice Walton.

Support and Success

Meanwhile, in the north Bronx’s 11th District, covering Kingsbridge, Bedford Park and Riverdale, voters cast 6,994 in-person ballots in the race to replace former City Councilmember Andrew Cohen, who was elected to a state Supreme Court judgeship last year.

Eric Dinowitz notched about 2,940 of all first-choice votes in early and special election day voting. That gave him a 1,164-vote lead over Mino Lora, who received 1,776, according to the city Board of Elections. All told, Dinowitz received 42% of the in-person vote.

Like Sanchez, Dinowitz got promotional help from the real estate-backed group Voters of NYC, which is financed in part by Zeckendorf. The support included mailers that paired him with a competing candidate, Daniel Padernacht, urging voters to rank them No. 1 and No. 2 on the ballot. In all, the duo benefited from $55,000 in promotions from the super PAC.

Bronx City Council candidate Eric Dinowitz
Bronx City Council candidate Eric Dinowitz
Eric Dinowitz for City Council

“We feel good about where we are as the early results come in, and I remind everyone that every vote must be counted,” Dinowitz said in a statement sent late Tuesday. “I have worked throughout my career to expand voting access and empower voters, and it’s imperative that all voices are heard.”

“As we saw in Queens over the last few weeks, the ranked choice process will take some time and I encourage everyone to be patient while our democracy is at work,” he added.

Tiny Turnout

Voter turnout was anemic in both contests: less than 5,000 voters either cast ballots or requested absentee ballots in the 15th District, out of more than 80,845 eligible. No candidate in the 10-person race received more than a thousand in-person votes.

In the 11th District, around 11,000 voters either showed up to early and in-person election day polls or requested absentee ballots, out of nearly 90,000 active registered voters.

And both elections are still weeks away from being certified.

Once absentee ballots are received and counted, if no candidate receives more than 50% of the vote, the ranked-choice counts go to instant run-off. The count will start with a tally of second-choice ranked votes for ballots whose top picks received the smallest number of votes. The count will continue until just two candidates remain.

In all, it will take at least three weeks to declare a winner in either election, according to the city Board of Elections. And then the winners will have to run in the June Democratic primary and again in the November general election to hold on to the seat.

Lora, a Dominican immigrant and former nonprofit executive, told THE CITY she intended to face off against Dinowitz again in the June Democratic primary, whatever the outcome of the special election.

Sanchez initially conceded to Feliz via Twitter late Tuesday night. But Edda Santiago, a Sanchez campaign spokesperson, said in a statement to THE CITY that “it is important to make sure that every vote is counted” and that the candidate intends to run again in the June primary.

“With 10 candidates in a special election race, we anticipated that this would be a close race and that no single candidate would exceed the 50% threshold to win a clear majority on Election Night,” Santiago said. “While John congratulated Oswald Feliz for emerging as last night’s leader with 28% of the votes, the final winner for this race is yet to be determined.”

Bravo and Crespo were not immediately available for comment.

While the count continues, observers also remain unsure of the future of super PAC spending to influence Bronx politics as the June 22 primary approaches.

“Are they going to do that again? I don’t know,” said Gary Axelbank, who hosts BronxTalk and The Bronx Buzz on local cable TV channel BronxNet. “I wonder what that money will mean, in terms of the primary. It’s kind of funny, because it didn’t mean anything in these cases.”

Dominican Power

But unmistakably influential were Dominican elected leaders — not just Espaillat, but also Assembly members Carmen De La Rosa and Victor Pichardo, whose districts overlap with the 15th Council district, and Ydanis Rodríguez, a Manhattan Councilmember representing Washington Heights.

Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-Manhattan/The Bronx) speaks at a vigil in Inwood for several homeless people who were stabbed on the subway, Feb. 15, 2021.
Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-Manhattan/The Bronx) speaks at a vigil in Inwood for several homeless people who were stabbed on the subway, Feb. 15, 2021.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Political observers noted that Espaillat’s support — Feliz told THE CITY he was “one of the people running my election-day operation” — likely helped put him over the top, in a sign of the community’s growing hold on the city’s electorate.

Dominicans are the city’s fastest-growing Latino community. Roughly 700,000 Dominicans live in the five boroughs, according to the latest Census data, with the majority residing in upper Manhattan and The Bronx. They’re narrowly outnumbered among Latinos by Puerto Ricans, population 730,000.

“I think that’s why all the major players in politics, including the unions, need to pay attention to what’s happening in the polls, because you have a new leadership developing, it’s growing in there, and it’s aggressively seeking to establish itself,” Ramona Hernández, director of the Dominican Studies Institute at City College, told THE CITY.

“What’s happening in the Bronx is going to happen in other communities across the U.S., where you have a new population developing and also growing its own leadership,” she added. “I think that in general, the party would be stupid if they don’t pay attention.”

Others noted that Feliz’s lead narrows the future field.

After the county Democratic party declined to make an endorsement in the 15th District special election, Feliz’s performance on Tuesday might push the party behind him in June, said Eli Valentín, a political analyst and lecturer at Union Theological Seminary.

“I think the Bronx Democratic Party will align itself with Feliz, and then in terms of the elected officials, they might remain faithful to whoever they supported in the special” election, he said.

SUPPORT LOCAL NEWS. SUPPORT NEW YORK.

THE CITY is an independent, nonprofit newsroom dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York. Please consider joining us as a member today.

GOT A TIP?

We’re here to listen. Email tips@thecity.nyc or visit our tips page for other ways to share.

Sign up for the newsletter Get THE CITY Scoop

Sign up and get the latest stories from THE CITY delivered to you each morning