LONGWOOD — Julio Pabón, a South Bronx activist, businessman and bed-and-breakfast operator, recently had a house built near the beach in Puerto Rico. At 61, he'd been eyeing retirement.
Or, he was, until he saw that no Democratic challenger had emerged to oppose incumbent City Councilwoman Maria del Carmen Arroyo in her bid for a third term.
Convinced that Arroyo, the party-endorsed daughter of a state assemblywoman, was more concerned with keeping her job than transforming her district, Pabón decided to postpone beach bliss and enter the race.
“If you look at elected officials, they seem to be part of the problem,” Pabón said at his campaign kickoff Tuesday outside the Hunts Point Library.
“We need to flip that," he added. "We need to be part of solving the problems.”
Born in Puerto Rico, Pabón moved with his family to The Bronx when he was 4.
As an adolescent during the borough’s rough years, he watched fires rage from his bedroom window and tossed stones at burned-out buildings. At 16, he joined the Young Lords, the radical Puerto Rican political group.
He has served as an aide to elected officials, but has not held office — a fact he brandishes at “career politicians.” He insists he harbors no political ambitions beyond City Council, even claiming he would retire after one term if he accomplished his agenda.
His 17-point plan for the district includes proposals to create a neighborhood technology center, offer free public Wi-Fi and open school gyms to the community in the evenings.
“I want to go from being the burned-out borough to being the brand-new borough,” he said.
Arroyo, who is also Puerto-Rican born, defended her record in the City Council, citing causes she has championed including affordable housing, parks, after-school programs and increased security at NYCHA buildings.
For example, she put $1.1 million towards cameras at the Mott Haven Houses as part of her goal to add cameras to every public housing development in the district and helped fund a soon-to-be-complete affordable apartment building, she said.
She also suggested that Pabón’s work in the offices of other politicians belies his rhetoric of change.
“I don’t know anyone who’s more old-school politics than that gentleman,” she said.
Arroyo worked as a receptionist at a Bronx health clinic before graduating from college after she turned 30 and eventually becoming the clinic’s executive director.
In 2005, at age 47, she was elected to City Council to represent the 17th District, which includes Mott Haven, Melrose, Hunts Point and Longwood.
Her mother is Carmen Arroyo, an assemblywoman first elected to state office in 1994.
Both Arroyos have raised eyebrows by hiring relatives for political positions.
Carmen Arroyo’s grandson and former chief of staff, Richard Izquierdo Arroyo, pleaded guilty in 2010 to embezzling $115,000 from a housing nonprofit, according to federal prosecutors.
He also diverted another $20,000 to the elder Arroyo’s office and campaign and to fund interns for her and his aunt, Councilwoman Arroyo, according to the indictment.
Neither woman was accused of any wrongdoing.
Councilwoman Arroyo uses donated funds to pay her son, Ricardo Aguirre Jr., to act as her campaign consultant, filings show — an arrangement Pabón appeared to allude to in his speech Tuesday.
“My children don’t need me to get elected to get a job,” he told the crowd.
In an interview Tuesday evening, Councilwoman Arroyo denied any wrongdoing in the case of Izquierdo Arroyo.
She also defended her decision to hire her son, noting that he is paid with private donations and insisting that he is a “very serious, smart young man” who “who happens to be doing an excellent job.”
“He’s also developing a skill that he can use in the future and is no longer unemployed,” Arroyo said, adding that he “will also protect my interests in the process.”
With just a few months to go before the Democratic primary, any path to victory for Pabón would be steep.
Arroyo won 97 percent of the district’s votes in the last election and is backed by the Bronx Democratic party.
She has amassed $55,599 in contributions — though she has spent $701 more than that, leaving her campaign in the red, filings show.
Pabón has brought in just $11,239, according to filings. But, he noted, he only began fundraising in February, while Arroyo has been at it for more than a year.
“I don’t think we’ll have a problem with fundraising,” he said.