Labor unions are throwing their weight behind Councilmember Marjorie Velázquez as her competition aims to capitalize on her eventual support for a housing development that won her points with labor and City Hall while angering some constituents.
Labor Strong — a coalition of the city’s most influential unions that is comprised of SEIU-32BJ, DC37, New York State Nurses Association, Hotel Trades Council and Communication Workers of America District 1 — and the New York City District Council of Carpenters (NYCDCC) have both backed Velázquez for what they characterize as her strong prioritization of union jobs as seen in her crucial support last October for the controversial Bruckner Boulevard rezoning in Throggs Neck.
These labor unions play major roles in municipal elections, and with hundreds of thousands of members available for tried-and-true door-knocking — as well as coffers to support advertising and outreach — they can help bring a candidate across the finish line.
Since there are fewer competitive local elections this year than in 2021 — when Velázquez eked out a narrow win in a crowded field while collecting less than 10,000 votes — and turnout is expected to be even lower than it was then, labor unions are poised to have even more influence.
“They don’t have to spread their resources far and wide. In this election cycle, labor organizations can be even more strategic with their vast resources,” said Eli Valentin, founder of the Institute for Latino Politics and Policy. “Having a couple hundred soldiers out there in a low turnout affair — that could make a huge difference for Marjorie.”
That support may be key in a race where some of Velázquez’s challengers have out-fundraised her. Currently, she has just over $25,000 in her campaign coffer; some of her opponents have at least four times that amount.
The carpenter’s union has had around 100 members canvassing for Velázquez each week since April, according to NYCDCC political director Kevin Elkins, who said the union is backing the Council member because she’s backed labor — most notably with her 11th-hour support of the Bruckner rezoning.
“She was under pressure from a lot of different angles. But she held firm that she was not going to support something unless she got ironclad commitments to help her district,” Elkins told THE CITY last week. “And one of those things was that the project would create good jobs for her constituents for those who are in a union, but also for those who want to join a union.”
After that, he said, “Jesus Christ could have come in for an interview and we’d still pick Marjorie.”
The Latino population in District 13 has risen to 44% of the population, up 17 percentage points since 2000, according to the latest census figures. Yet, Valentin notes, just 33% of the voters in last year’s general election were Latino, while 40% were non-Latino white.
The people vying to unseat Velázquez’— including Democrat Bernadette Ferrara and Republicans Kristy Marmorato, George Havranek and Samantha Zherka — have focused their campaigns on their opposition to various plans to further develop parts of the district and add additional housing, while hitting the incumbent for allowing a plan to build affordable housing to proceed.
“We’re providing them with housing that they deserve, that’s not falling and crumbling around. We’re actually providing infrastructure needs, like better streets, safer streets,” Velázquez told THE CITY in a conversation earlier this month.
“As a Latina, I’ve been dismissed many times so I know what it is to not have my voice heard. And my promise to this community that is heavily Latino, that their voices are also going to be heard and they are going to be at the table as well where, historically, they haven’t.”
Turnout Could Swing Race
While labor support could prove crucial for Velázquez, low turnout could potentially favor Republicans who are steady voters in the district, one district insider told THE CITY. Valentin echoed a similar analysis, saying that “faithful” Republican voters will make for a competitive general election.
Registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans in the district by a near 2-to-1 margin, according to state Board of Elections records. But that didn’t stop Republican mayoral candidate Curtis Sliwa from beating Mayor Eric Adams by one point during the 2021 general election and Gov. Kathy Hochul from winning by a less-than-comfortable six points against Lee Zeldin in the 2022 governor’s race.
Velázquez first ran for the Council seat in 2017, losing a five-way primary to Assemblymember Mark Gjonaj after she won endorsements from outgoing Councilmember Jimmy Vacca, who was term-limited out, the New York Times and the Working Families Party.
Four years later, she cruised through the primary after Gjonaj dropped out, saying that the political climate was “not favorable to a centrist ideology” without acknowledging allegations, which he denies, of engaging in unethical campaign financing that dragged down his support.
After that, Velázquez went on to defeat perennial Republican candidate Alex Mici by just 10 percentage points — in a race where Mici hardly campaigned.
Since a 2017 bid on the Working Families Party line and her 2021 election victory, Velázquez has shifted away from a progressive identity to appeal to the more centrist Democrats in her district. Earlier this year, she and 14 of her colleagues left the City Council’s Progressive Caucus after refusing to sign a new statement of principles that she said did not align with her position.
“If your focus is only anti-law enforcement, you’re just coming in with your own agenda, and it’s not really considering every single person,” she said. “I’ve made it very clear. I need to fund NYPD. I need to fund law enforcement.”
Not Just Bruckner: Housing a Hot Button
Two years later, with Council members running again after maps were redrawn following the 2020 U.S. Census, Velázquez is facing primary and general election candidates lined up to her right — almost all of them aiming to take her down by focusing on her vote for the Bruckner plan that helped earn her labor’s support.
The race has focused on housing development plans —and candidates’ opposition to them.
Most immediately, the field is united in attacking a proposed Just Home facility to provide housing for formerly incarcerated people with complex medical needs including cancer and congestive heart failure.
That plan, which doesn’t need to go through the City Council’s land use process, has angered residents who baselessly say the complex on the Jacobi Medical Center campus that would include 70 apartments, including 20 prioritized for local residents, would make their neighborhood more dangerous.
At a chaotic Bronx Community Board 11 public hearing last September, opponents drowned out neighbors trying to speak out in support of the plan.
A district insider told THE CITY that they expect Velázquez’s opponents to tie her to the Just Home plan, which she opposes, by noting her reversal on the Bruckner rezoning.
The first-term Council member made waves last October when she dropped her months-long opposition to the Bruckner rezoning project, a 349-unit housing development in the Throggs Neck neighborhood expected to include 168 affordable apartments. In the previous eight years, fewer than 60 units of affordable housing had been built in the district, according to Velázquez
The shift came as Mayor Eric Adams publicly advocated for the deal as part of his “City of Yes” agenda and City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams brokered negotiations between the carpenter’s union behind the scenes to push the deal forward in the midst of a housing crisis.
Velázquez’s last-minute support was crucial since the local member, by long-standing tradition, has sway to block any plan in their district that requires the Council’s approval. Her reversal drew a stinging rebuke from Vacca, who said he was “outraged” with the current Council member after spending years working to “downsize practically every inch of my former council district to protect us from overdevelopment.”
“The Bruckner fight was really tough, but I fought for 100 units for seniors with wraparound services with a senior center on top of that” which all ended up in the plan, Velázquez told THE CITY last week at a Starbucks coffee shop in Throggs Neck. “I got 25 units for veterans and their families. That’s huge. And I also got a homeownership component to it.”
“I can sleep at night knowing that I brought back an opportunity for folks that have literally been going to Westchester and Long Island because they are not able … to stay here. They don’t have an opportunity to buy and the apartments are ridiculously expensive.”
Asked if the mayor pressed her to support the rezoning, Velázquez said only that, “he knew where I stood. I defined what my parameters were.”
Candidates and Coffers
Unlike in most of the 51 Council seats up for grabs this year, District 13 in the East Bronx is expected to have both a competitive primary and general election.
In her primary, Velázquez must get past Bernadette Ferrara, who previously ran an unsuccessful primary bid in a special election in neighboring District 15. Ferrara, who has also qualified for public matching funds, regards herself as a conservative Democrat, telling the Bronx Times in February that while her platform doesn’t align completely with the Republican Party, it is “very comparable” to it.
Assuming Velázquez triumphs in the Democratic primary on June 27, she will face the winner of a Republican primary.
Marmorato, who’s well known in the district, has already been endorsed by City Council Minority Leader Joe Borelli (R-Staten Island) and the Bronx GOP, which is led by her brother Michael Rendino. Her husband is Gino Marmorato, the Republican commissioner in the borough for the city’s Board of Elections.
Havranek is the president of the Spencer Estate Civic Association, having lived there for six decades, a former member of Bronx Community Board 10 who led the opposition to the Bruckner upzoning. Zherka is an insurance and construction business owner and former State Senate candidate.
Marmorato and Havranek have qualified for matching funds under the city’s campaign finance system. Havranek has the most left to spend at $144,640, with Marmorato not far behind with $106,157.
The next campaign filing deadline for the city’s campaign finance board is May 26, after which a new set of public matching funds will be doled out to qualifying candidates, which should give a boost to Velázquez who has just $25,531 on-hand ahead of that filing.
Labor Strong has already committed to spending $1 million on City Council elections this year, according to the Daily News.
Not trailing far behind, the carpenters’ union is also planning to cough up $500,000 towards City Council contests through its super PAC Carpenters for Progress, according to City and State.
The United Federation of Teachers also endorsed Velázquez this week.
Velázquez will use her labor support to amplify her messaging about why she deserves a full four-year term.
She touted $20 million she’s helped allocate in City Council funding to district needs in her first six months, half of which went to replace the hyper bariatric chamber at Jacobi Medical Center. She also highlighted the roughly 28 officers she helped add to the 45 Precinct, and the passage of a bill she sponsored to reduce plastic waste.
“We’re just beginning. We’re delivering for folks and making them feel proud of their neighborhood as one of the safest, one of the ones that has the most resources and that they have a champion in that,” said Velázquez. “And at the end of the day, don’t let a vocal minority make you fear where you live, make you feel that this community is not there for you, make you feel that this community is less than.”