Why Are Super-Rich Wall Street Donors Targeting Local Bronx Elections?
Independent expenditures tied to a secretive firm have pumped nearly $200,000 into a bid to unseat a popular Assemblymember. It’s not the first time the mega-wealthy have circled The Bronx.
Super-rich political donors are seeking to influence local races in northwestern Bronx neighborhoods for the second election year in a row – this time in a sleepy Democratic primary election against longtime Assemblymember Jose Rivera in Kingsbridge Heights and Belmont.
Moving NY Forward (MNYF), an independent expenditure fund with ties to Jane Street Capital, a secretive Wall Street firm, has so far spent nearly $200,000 to support Emmanuel Martinez, a Democratic state committeeman and the chair of local Community Board 7. That’s far more than the less than $14,000 Martinez’s own campaign has raised through late May, more than half donated by himself.
The Moving NY Forward group is paying for a blitz of mailers and two field staff aimed at the June 28 primary election — as well as a billboard truck plastered with a towering image of the candidate.
Rivera has served the 78th Assembly District since 2001, after an earlier stint in the Assembly in the ‘80s. Popular with his constituents, he was reelected in 2020 with 86% of the vote, and secured the Democratic primary before that by 83% of the vote.
The last time Rivera was forcefully targeted was more than a decade ago, when in 2008 a rebel faction of the county Democratic party – dubbed the “Rainbow Rebellion,” in a nod to its diversity – mounted a successful campaign to unseat Rivera as county Democratic party chair and install Carl Heastie in his place.
Neither Martinez nor Rivera responded to multiple requests for comment from THE CITY. But some constituents spoke up vocally in support of Rivera.
Asked for who she would vote for in the June 28 primary, Maribel Garcia, a “50-something” resident of the neighborhood for 18 years, said in Spanish “as far as I’m concerned, Rivera can stay in office for 30 more years. We have no complaints.”
Moving NY Forward, funded by a single $1.5 million contribution from Michael Jenkins of the electronic trading firm Jane Street, said in a statement to THE CITY that it endorses candidates who “embody the ideals of racial, social, economic and environmental justice and have a proven record of fighting on behalf of marginalized communities.”
Moving NY Forward has also spent more modest sums in support of reelecting Queens Assemblymember Catalina Cruz — who has no opponent for either the primary or general election.
It’s also backing Brooklyn Assembly hopeful Hercules Reid, an aide to Mayor Eric Adams who recently lost a special election for the seat previously held by U.S. Ambassador to Jamaica Nick Perry despite an Adams endorsement. Reid is now running in the Democratic primary.
Moving NY Forward declared its intention to “back candidates across the boroughs committed to improving and expanding affordable housing, reducing class sizes, increasing access to quality affordable healthcare and free full day childcare, closing the digital divide, reducing food insecurity, improving community safety and sanitation, increasing transportation access and advocating for tenant rights.”
Unlike candidates, independent groups can raise and spend unlimited sums, but they cannot coordinate or collaborate with the campaigns.
Democratic Party insiders have been scratching their heads over the secretive expenditure committee, pondering what the group’s goal is and why a Tribeca finance executive is sinking big dollars into low-stakes races.
Jenkins, his spouse and top Jane Street colleagues previously made the maximum contributions allowed to the 2020 congressional campaign of Tomas Ramos, who lost the election to Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-The Bronx) but simultaneously activated a group called Bronx Rising Initiative, proceeding to distribute private funds to local health care providers, student scholarships and other causes.
On Saturday, a billboard truck paid for by Moving NY Forward was parked at the Morris Avenue block party hosted by New Life Bronx Church, the pulpit of former City Council member Fernando Cabrera. Such signs cost between $1,800 to $2,500, on top of an hourly truck rental cost, according to a person who answered the phone at the rental company.
But has the money been worth it?
“I heard of that guy. I know he’s running for mayor,” said one of the block party revelers the following day, who identified himself simply as “O.”
“We see signs everywhere, all these slogans, these promises — but nothing about the issues. Where’s the substance?” Jesús Almonte, 53, said in Spanish in front of a bodega near the site of the block party on Morris Avenue.
Martinez did not respond to requests for comment from THE CITY.
Second Election in a Row
While New Life Bronx Church’s block party was underway, Martinez was one block over talking to potential voters at a “Coffee with Manny” event at New Capitol Diner on West Kingsbridge Road.
A spokesperson for Moving NY Forward said on Monday that the group “was not aware that Martinez was hosting an event in the area, and no MNYF staffers were at the block party.”
On Saturday morning, Martinez hosted a 5-minute Instagram Live video about the Kingsbridge Armory, a district landmark that has seen two major redevelopment plans collapse over the past two decades — and remains vacant.
The candidate asked voters to imagine what the armory could become, declaring that its rebirth would “change the facade of our amazing district and The Bronx as a whole.”
“Let’s be honest, people: This is The Bronx. We should have basketball, we should have soccer, we should have indoor batting cages, things that speak to our people, a community center for our kids. Things that we can connect with that are needed to revitalize our amazing community,” he said.
Moving NY Forward’s executive director Martha Ayon said in a statement that the “proudly Latino-led independent expenditure” identified districts to target “that have never received proper investment.”
Describing the district where Martinez is running, she pointed to its largely Latino population and high levels of poverty.
“Its residents, like so many New Yorkers, are struggling with an affordability crisis,” she said. “This district has had the same representation for decades and during that time has not received proper investment or seen any major capital improvements or quality of life improvements.”
The Jenkins election dollars follow the flow of others into the area.
It’s the second election year in a row that outside super-wealthy individuals have sought to influence voters in that part of The Bronx, with unusually high expenditures for local elections.
In last year’s local elections, where campaign contributions are much more strictly capped than for state races, a group funded by Walmart heiress and charter school activist Alice Walton spent $75,000 on mailers supporting City Council candidate John Sanchez — who lost to now-Councilmember Oswald Feliz in a special election.
Real estate developer William Zeckendorf also spent generously to support Sanchez as well as Eric Dinowitz, who is now the Council member representing the northern part of the area.
Some constituents within the 78th Assembly District who spoke with THE CITY on Sunday were concerned about Wall Street’s investment in the neighborhood.
“It might be all this real estate, it’s everywhere. They might want a piece of that, too,” said a voter who identified himself simply as Carlos. “But I stay out of politics.” He’d received pro-Martinez mailers at his home, he said, but did not bother to check who had paid for them.
Others were not impressed by Jenkins’ largesse.
Garcia, seated on a fold-out chair in front of a Morris Avenue bodega cooling off with añejo rum and coconut water alongside Almonte and a half-dozen other neighbors, rebuffed the mogul’s spending and joked that she and her neighbors were “the millionaires of Kingsbridge.”
“We’re happy, we’re healthy, none of us got COVID, we’re alive, we can have these drinks, we work six days a week and we’re just fine. We may not have their millions but we always have an extra $20 in our pocket. We’re good.”