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Rising Stars Battle to Become First Uptown State Assemblywoman

By Jill Colvin | September 12, 2012 7:45pm | Updated on September 12, 2012 8:33pm

INWOOD — Two women are battling it out to represent Upper Manhattan in the Assembly in the shadow of dueling Senate candidates Assemblyman Guillermo Linares and Sen. Adriano Espaillat.

Mayra Linares 34, is hoping to follow in her father, Guillermo Linares’s, footsteps, running in Thursday's Democratic Primary to take over his 72nd Assembly district seat, as he runs for state Senate.

Her top challenger is Gabriela Rosa, who is also running under the wing of an elder statesman, State Sen. Adriano Espaillat, who is now locked in a brutal campaign with Linares Sr. to defend his seat.

For Mayra Linares, politics is in the blood.

“I always knew it was something I wanted to do,” she told DNAinfo.com New York.

She began her political career at age 5 handing out fliers at PTA meetings.

“I would be so discouraged when they wouldn’t take them,” she said.

She landed her first job at the age of 15 on one of Rep. Charlie Rangel's campaigns, and was elected to the Democratic County Committee at the age of 18. After college, she spent eight years working at a non-profit before launching her own government and community affairs consulting business. Then, last year, she was appointed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo as a special assistant — a dream job, she said.

Then, suddenly, the unexpected: Spurred by new Congressional district lines that made Latinos a majority, Espaillat announced that he would make a run for Rangel’s Congressional seat. That opened the door for her father, Guillermo, to run for Espaillat’s seat, leaving his Assembly slot up for grabs.

“I was like, 'Now? OK,'” said Linares, speaking shortly after she announced her plans to run.  “It happening now was a surprise.”

(Espaillat wound up losing to Rangel in the Congressional race, which is why he is now back running for reelection in the state Senate.)

Two months later, Linares said the experience has been exhilarating. Speaking to voters, she stresses her deep roots in the neighborhood, her leadership experience, and her focus on the issues she says matter most to voters: affordable housing, small businesses and education.

"Every day that goes by, I get more and more motivated,” she said, speaking outside the 190th Street A train station as she greeted voters Wednesday morning on their way to work.

Her chief opponent, Rosa, 45, is also well-known in the district, having worked the past 12 years in the office of Assemblyman Denny Farrell, helping solve constituents' problems. She began her political career years before becoming an American citizen, serving first as a City Council staffer and then moving to the state legislature.

Rosa said, for her, the No. 1 issue in the district is affordable housing, followed closely by the challenges facing small business owners. She said her experiences also give her a unique understanding of the struggles residents face.

“I think I am more than ready, not only because of the time that I've been working in the same body that I want to be part of, but also my experience as an immigrant, as a mother, as a woman,” she said, while on her way to P.S. 98 Wednesday afternoon.

As an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, Rosa would become the first Dominican-American woman elected to the Assembly.

"Girls will see me as a role model,” she said, stressing the need to put a woman office. “We need a woman’s balance."

But both women have also had to navigate the challenges of being a female candidate in a neighborhood where men have historically dominated elections.

Linares, for instance, was campaigning Wednesday when she was confronted by an angry voter who accused her of relying on her good looks instead of running a substantive campaign.

“It’s offensive that somebody would try to play with people who say, “Ooh, I want to look like her, she’s so pretty,'” said the woman, 54, who gave her name at Liz Jenny, referring to campaign mailers that included numerous photographs of Linares and her 7-year-old daughter.

Linares — dressed in a knee-length orange dress and navy blazer, with impeccable makeup and perfect hair — calmly tried to convince the woman she was more than a pretty face.

"I think my candidacy has a lot more than a glossy photo,” she said. "Although it looks like I don't have brains, I do.”

Another issue is the relationship between Linares and her father, who have faced criticism for attempting to forge a political dynasty uptown.

“I think that there is a great discontent in the neighborhood with the way he has handled this,” Espaillat said during a debate this week, calling the move "outrageous."

Rosa echoed the frustration, accusing Linares of being handed her father's seat.

“I consider myself a grown woman, and I am so proud that nobody has handed out anything to me,” she said.

Mayra, however, insisted she’s running on her own terms.

"No one’s gift wrapping anything," she said, pointing to the weeks she's spent campaigning non-stop. "We've worked really hard to have separate campaigns."

Still, she said it would be "a dream" to serve by her father's side.

"At the end of the day, we're in solidarity, doing it together," she said.

Two other candidates are also vying for the seat: Ruben Vargas and Melanie Hidalgo, who has worked as a tax auditor and for the United Nations.