MORRISANIA — The City Council seat in The Bronx's 16th District has been held by African-Americans for more than three decades and is one of only two districts in the borough that is represented by a black council member.
But with a declining black population in some neighborhoods and redistricting potentially ceding a crucial area of African-American support, Democratic leaders are pushing to keep an African-American in the seat, sources said.
To that end, party officials have approached a popular, sitting state assemblywoman, Vanessa Gibson, to run for the seat now held by outgoing City Councilwoman Helen Diane Foster, whose father became the first black city councilman in the borough when he was elected in 1977. Foster is term-limited and can't run for reelection next year.
One would-be candidate, the Rev. Bruce Rivera, who is Hispanic, said local officials have made it clear to him that they intend to get behind an African-American candidate.
“It has historically been a black seat,” said the Rev. Wenzell Jackson, head of Mount Hermon Baptist Church and chairman of Community Board 4, which falls within the district.
“There are certain people who want to keep it a black seat.”
The goal, sources say, is to find an African-American politician with universal appeal. There are several other potential black candidates but none have Gibson's name recognition.
Gibson would enjoy strong party backing and an easy electoral victory if she were to run for the council seat now held by Foster, they say.
“If she were to run, she would emerge as a sort of unity candidate that a lot of people could get behind,” said Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, Gibson’s Bronx colleague who said he had heard her name floated for the seat but had not discussed it with her.
“If she didn’t run,” Dinowitz added, “it’s more likely to be a very splintered primary with many people running.”
Representatives in Gibson’s office said she has no current plans to run for the City Council, pointing out that she won this year’s state primary by a wide margin and intends to be active in Albany next year.
“There are no plans to run,” in the City Council race, a senior staffer said. “There’s no imminent announcement.”
But a Democratic party operative said Gibson has discussed the race with several high-ranking Bronx Democrats, including Assemblyman Carl Heastie, the county committee chairman, and Deputy Borough President Aurelia Greene, Gibson’s longtime mentor.
Gibson's staffers said the assemblywoman meets with many officials to discuss various topics, but would not say whether the council race was one of them.
Officials in the borough president’s office declined to comment.
The Bronx Democratic party, where Heastie referred questions, noted in a statement that council redistricting is still in progress.
“At the appropriate time, the Bronx Democratic County Committee will support the candidate it feels will serve the residents of the 16th District the best,” the statement read.
The 16th District covers parts of the Concourse, Highbridge and Morrisania neighborhoods.
In 1977, after two failed attempts, the Rev. Wendell Foster won the seat, becoming the borough’s first black city elected official. His daughter succeeded him in 2001 and will reach her term limit next year.
It is a “no-brainer” that Gibson should at least consider a bid for that district, which overlaps with some of her Assembly district, the Democratic operative said.
In the city seat, she would receive discretionary funds, but avoid the commute to Albany and issues of seniority that can arise in the Assembly, the operative noted. She would not need to relinquish her state post to run for the council, the operative added.
Word that a party-backed Gibson — who won 90 percent of the vote in this year’s state primaries — could compete in the local primaries next year has already drifted out to the district.
“I was totally surprised when I heard that,” said Jackson, the Community Board 4 chairman. “In essence, she’s probably one of the most liked elected officials in the community. If she ran for this area, I don’t see a successful candidate running against her.”
Rivera — a Community Board 3 member and the executive minister at Christ Church, where Rev. Foster, the former councilman, has been a pastor for more than 40 years — has close ties to the Foster family.
He managed Helen Foster’s winning 2001 campaign, is well-known in the district and has considered running for the council seat.
But Rivera said he recently received word from people “closely associated” with the Bronx Democratic party that he would not get their endorsement.
“We respect the work you’ve done in the community,” Rivera said, summarizing their message. “But we really want to keep this as a black seat.”
A party spokesman did not respond specifically to a question about that claim.
Morrisania became a center of African-American settlement in The Bronx beginning in the 1930s, and eventually housed many significant black churches, as well as jazz and blues clubs, according to Mark Naison, a professor of African and African American Studies at Fordham University.
“Morrisania was the Harlem of The Bronx,” Naison said, adding that adjacent Highbridge became majority black in the 1960s.
But in recent decades, the district’s African-American population has declined as some blacks leave the city, many for the south, while Latinos and West Africans move into the district, Naison said.
For example, in Community Board 4, which includes Concourse and Highbridge, the non-Hispanic black population fell 6 percent from 2000 to 2010, while the Hispanic population grew by 13 percent, according to Census data. In Community Board 3, which includes Morrisania, the number of non-Hispanic blacks rose by 4 percent — but the Hispanic population surged by 27 percent.
Redistricting has provoked further anxiety among some who fear that African-Americans in The Bronx may lose one of their two council seats.
A preliminary map submitted by the city’s Districting Commission carved Concourse Village, a crucial black voting bloc, out of the 16th District.
“It appears that what has happened is that they are dividing and … weakening the black vote in the west side of The Bronx,” Anthony Curry, who opposed Gibson in the state primaries, said at a public redistricting hearing in October.
A revised map, submitted last month, folded Concourse Village back into the district, but has not been finalized.
Though Gibson would be the front-runner if she runs in September’s local primary race, the contest could attract many strong candidates, observers say.
The names of leaders from Community Boards 4 and 5 have also been floated, including the chairman of Board 5, Dr. Bola Omotosho, who said he is considering a run.
The two candidates who have already filed paperwork to enter the race are Walter Newsome, 35, a Morrisania native who founded a youth basketball program but has not held political office, and Felipe De Los Santos, 27, who is originally from Yonkers, but went to high school in Parkchester and now lives in Riverdale.
De Los Santos became a father when he was 16 and scored poorly on his SATs, but after persistent interviews and emails, made his way into Connecticut College, he said. He is now earning a law degree from Seton Hall University, while working full-time at a Bronx healthcare organization.
The son of Dominican immigrants, he said he is well aware of the district’s African-American heritage, but believes he can transcend racial boundaries.
“I’m a big believer in democracy,” he said.