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Crowded Race for a Bronx City Council Seat Heats Up as Election Nears

By Patrick Wall | August 19, 2013 9:32am
 Seven candidates remain in the 16th District race, where some have tried to bump opponents off the ballot.
Bronx District 16 City Council Race
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MORRISANIA — A packed race to replace a city councilwoman whose family has held the seat for 35 years has intensified as next month’s primary approaches, with some candidates jockeying to knock others off the ballot.

The contest in the 16th District has attracted a diverse crowd of candidates hoping to win the seat occupied by Councilwoman Helen Diane Foster, whose 11 years representing the district followed 24 by her father, the Rev. Wendell Foster.

The lesser-known of the seven contenders face long odds in their electoral fight against frontrunner Vanessa Gibson, a popular state assemblywoman whose council bid is backed by the Bronx Democratic Party and other borough heavyweights.

“We’re all scrambling for the support that we can get,” said one candidate, Dr. Bola Omotosho. “It’s crunch time.”

On Thursday, one upstart candidate beat a ballot challenge backed by one of her opponents.

The city Board of Elections had moved to disqualify Naaimat Muhammed, a former staffer in Foster’s office, due to an error on the cover sheet of the petition that all would-be candidates must file.

When Muhammed appealed the board’s decision, Gibson’s lawyer Stanley Schlein, a powerful Bronx attorney connected to the borough’s Democratic County Committee, jumped in to back the board in keeping Muhammed off the ballot.

Last week, Muhammed won her appeal and stayed on the ballot.

“I feel vindicated,” she said.

Still, because of the challenge, the city’s Campaign Finance Board had held up her public funding, which meant campaign workers had gone unpaid and Muhammed had used her own money to hire a lawyer.

She took the experience as proof that a party-backed Gibson would represent more “politics as usual.”

“We need a change,” Muhammed said.

Gibson’s campaigner manager, Venancio Catala Jr., defended their joining the ballot challenge against Muhammed, noting that the campaign had filed general objections against all their opponents’ petitions, which would allow them to file specific claims later if they found any errors.

“That’s a standard practice,” Catala said. A lawyer working with Bola’s campaign also filed a general objection against Muhammed’s petition.

He also said that the other candidates only criticize the Democratic “machine” because it isn’t backing them.

“If given the opportunity, each and every one of them would take that support,” he said.

Meanwhile, another candidate, Carlos Sierra, tried to bounce a different opponent off the ballot.

Sierra argued — unsuccessfully — in court that candidate Pedro Álvarez actually lives at a property he owns in New Jersey, not the district address he listed on his petition.

He also claimed Álvarez does not qualify to live at that district address, which is an affordable apartment building with some units reserved for homeless families.

Although a Bronx Supreme Court judge dismissed the ballot challenge, Sierra repeated the charges during a recent debate on the local cable show, BronxTalk.

“We have a housing crisis [and] you’re occupying a unit that belongs to the working class,” he said to Álvarez.

Álvarez said he has lived in the affordable housing building since 1996, when he was still a recent immigrant taking night classes and just launching his now-thriving accounting business.

“That’s why I’m advocating for affordable housing: because that gave me the opportunity to succeed, to set up my business and move ahead in life,” he responded on the program.

When Wendell Foster was elected in 1977, becoming the Bronx’s first black city councilman, African Americans were the largest racial group in much of the district, which includes parts of the Concourse, Highbridge and Morrisania neighborhoods.

But in recent decades, Hispanic residents have become the majority group and many African immigrants have settled in the area.

These demographic changes have been an undercurrent in the council race, which some Bronx political leaders reportedly urged Gibson to enter partly in order to keep an African American representative in the seat.

“Some of the establishment have argued that this should be a black seat,” said Andrew Lisko, Sierra’s campaign manager. “Now it should be a Latino seat, because the Latinos are underrepresented” in the district.

Meanwhile, four members of the district’s expanding African community entered the race, though two have since dropped out.

More than 30 Bronx African leaders converged earlier this year to vet the candidates, eventually choosing to endorse Bola, an infectious-disease researcher at Montefiore Hospital and a community board chairman.

“The African community believes that Dr. Bola is the most electable candidate for District 16 among all candidates,” said Sheikh Moussa Drammeh, one of the organizers of the unprecedented leadership coalition.

Still, Gibson remains the candidate to beat.

She won 90 percent of the vote in the 2012 state primaries; part of her assembly district overlaps with the council district, giving her wide name recognition; she has collected more campaign contributions than the other candidates; and she is supported by the Bronx Democratic leadership.

“She’s the county candidate,” a party insider said. “I think she’ll win.”