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Black, Latino Legislators Concerned About Effects of Scandals

By Jeff Mays | April 5, 2013 7:50am
 Bronx Assemblyman Nelson Castro leaves his apartment April 4, 2013, after resigning his office. Castro cooperated with federal investigators to coordinate a sting that led to the arrest of Assemblyman Eric Stevenson.
Bronx Assemblyman Nelson Castro leaves his apartment April 4, 2013, after resigning his office. Castro cooperated with federal investigators to coordinate a sting that led to the arrest of Assemblyman Eric Stevenson.
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DNAinfo/Nigel Chiwaya

NEW YORK — Before state Sen. Malcolm Smith was charged Tuesday with trying to bribe his way to a shot at becoming New York City's next mayor, he was one of the state's most notable and powerful African-American legislators.

Nelson Castro, an assemblyman from The Bronx, bucked the Democratic machine and became the first Dominican elected official from the borough.

And Bronx Assemblyman Eric Stevenson, a former aide to Council Speaker Christine Quinn with a grandfather who also served as a Bronx assemblyman, has deep family roots in the borough's politics.

Over the last week, all three men have been ensnared in separate, wide-ranging corruption scandals the U.S. Attorney's office says typify a mercenary culture of corruption in Albany.

In a state where no African-American or Latino holds statewide elected office, leaders of both groups are concerned the recent slew of corruption charges facing their ranks may hurt that cause. And with Castro's admission that he was involved in multiple investigations, the prospect of more arrests loom.

All of Albany has been rocked by this week's arrests, but Lupe Todd, vice president of George Arzt Communications, which represents several prominent black legislative leaders on the state and federal level, said the scandals are especially "weighing heavily on black and Latino legislators."

One visitor to an assemblyman's office said the official and his staff seemed like they were in shock after watching news of the indictment on television.

Harlem City Councilwoman Inez Dickens said elected officials, including many politicians of color in Harlem and the Bronx, spent Thursday "asking about associations."

Larry English, a defense attorney and former chairman of Community Board 9, said the black elected officials he spoke with expressed a sense of embarrassment.

"That people who are representing our community are betraying us at this level is amazing," he said.

Brooklyn Assemblyman Nick Perry, chairman of the New York State Association of Black and Puerto Rican Legislators, said the charges affect the perception of black and Latino leadership.

"Developments like this have some impact on leadership in our community because it increases the challenge to the respect and trust people place in us," he said.

Smith, 56, despite past hints of scandal, emerged as chairman of the Senate's Democrats after they took control in Albany for the first time in four decades in 2008. After concerns about chaos during his tenure, Smith made waves again last year when he broke off to caucus with a group called the Independent Democratic Conference, who are aligned with Republicans.

Smith then announced he was considering plans to run for mayor as a Republican.

Lawyers for Smith have said he is innocent and that he has no plans to resign.

Federal prosecutors allege Smith hatched a plan to bribe City Councilman Dan Halloran, the head of the Bronx Republican party Joseph Savino and the vice chairman of the Queens Republican party, Vincent Tabone, to get the necessary permission to run for mayor as a Republican.

Behind closed doors, the conversations about Smith from the black elected political establishment are much more blunt, said Basil Smikle, political strategist and adjunct professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

"The conversation people are having privately is that you wasted your opportunity. You wasted our time and the prayers we sent up for you. You wasted our votes," Smikle said. "We wanted to put you in a better position to help our community and you squandered it."

Latino legislators are equally concerned. Just last year, Latino leaders waged an effort to have the country's first Dominican congressman elected to the then 15th congressional district that spans Harlem and The Bronx. 

State Sen. Adriano Espaillat, who has already made history as the first Dominican-American elected to a state Legislature, ran a tough campaign but lost to incumbent Rep. Charles Rangel in the Democratic primary by 990 votes. Castro, 42, was Espaillat's former chief of staff.

One political operative said Castro's resignation is a serious blow to the legislative hopes of Dominicans, especially for the community that is still licking its wounds after the 2009 corruption scandal saw City Councilman Miguel Martinez imprisoned for five years after facing fraud charges.

"He loses a Dominican in the Bronx that would support him for his run for congress," the source said of Espaillat. "Now you can't anticipate who they would put in that seat. Adriano is losing a strong ally in the Bronx."

Espaillat did not respond to requests for comment.

Castro was also viewed as a potential future star. But in 2009, just seven months after he took office, he was indicted for perjury for lying under oath about an investigation into the nine people registered to vote using his one-bedroom apartment in the west Bronx.

Unbeknownst to his colleagues, Castro wore sound and video recording equipment for the federal government and has participated in "various investigations aimed at rooting out public corruption," he said in a statement.

If this week's arrests lead to more charges and convictions, they could further thin out the ranks of black and Latino elected officials around the country.

In 2009, the National Conference of State Legislators found there were 628 African-American state legislators in the country, or 8 percent of the total. There were only 242 Latino state legislators, or 3 percent of the overall number.

In New York, Brooklyn Assemblyman William Boyland is facing federal bribery charges just a couple of years after being acquitted of federal bribery charges, former Queens state Sen. Shirley Huntley pleaded guilty earlier this year to federal fraud charges and former Bronx Councilman Larry Seabrook was convicted last year of corruption charges.

Pedro Espada, the former state senator, was found guilty, too, of four counts of theft last year.

"Not only are we underrepresented in New York statewide politics but there are very few African-Americans or Latinos who have led state and city legislatures around the country," Smikle said. "There is still a significant gap in leadership that's not going to get solved because of this."

That leaves the constituents of black and Latino officials vulnerable.

"These elected officials sometimes represent communities on the margin, living from paycheck to paycheck," Smikle added.

A state-of-the-art healthcare laboratory in Jamaica that Smith supported may be in jeopardy after his arrest. Last year, Smith was named to co-chairman of a bipartisan task force on Hurricane Sandy recovery.

"I am concerned and saddened by what may happen to the people of the Rockaways who are without adequate representation as they look to recover from Sandy," said Curtis Archer, president and CEO of the Harlem Community Development Corporation, who served as the former executive director of the Rockaway Development and Revitalization Corporation.

Some African-American politicians began distancing themselves from Smith.

Rangel, who was censured in 2010 for ethics violations, is one of the co-founders of the Congressional Black Caucus. He told MSNBC the arrest was "sad" for Smith and his family but also told Capital that Smith's indictment was a "Republican problem."

Stevenson, who has proclaimed his innocence, represented a district in the South Bronx that is one of the poorest in the city.

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said Stevenson's alleged efforts to draft legislation to help adult day care operators, and now co-defendants, Igor and Rostislav "Slava" Belyansky, Igor Tsimerman and David Binman, place a monopoly on the service in The Bronx and violated his "core duty."

Todd said the "constant interruptions of illegality" overshadow the work members of the black and Latino caucuses have done related to increasing the minimum wage and enacting stiffer gun laws.

Dickens said it's wrong to paint all elected officials as corrupt because there are many who avoid trouble.

"If anyone offered me a dime I wouldn't I take it," she said. "I don't need the money. I don't want the money. I get paid a salary and that's it."