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Incumbents and PAC-Backed Candidates Win Big in The Bronx

By Patrick Wall | September 11, 2013 9:38am
 The borough faced some poll-site problems, with a chunk of its votes still uncounted Wednesday morning.
2013 Primary Elections in The Bronx
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THE BRONX — Every Bronx incumbent won in Tuesday's primary election, as did almost every Bronx candidate backed by political action committees, which flooded the local races with cash from beyond the borough.

Some voters and poll workers reported problems at Bronx voting sites and, by Wednesday morning, the votes from a large swath of the South Bronx had yet to be tallied — by far the largest uncounted zone in the city.

In the mayor’s race, most voters in this overwhelmingly Democratic borough cast their ballots for Bill Thompson or Bill de Blasio, the biggest mayoral vote-getter.

“I think he’s more capable, more experienced, and he goes against Bloomberg,” said Concourse resident Emma Pizarro, 49, after stepping out of one of the old-fashioned voting booths reinstated  for the primary election. There, she flipped the switch and pulled the lever for de Blasio, while her white Shih Tzu, Star, wiggled under her arm.

The incumbents kept their jobs in a borough whose historically low voter turnout tends to benefit sitting politicians.

Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. was reelected, as were the incumbent City Council members Andy King (District 12), James Vacca (District 13), Fernando Cabrera (District 14), Maria del Carmen Arroyo (District 17), Annabel Palma (District 18) and Melissa Mark-Viverito (District 8), whose East Harlem territory extends slightly into Mott Haven.

Arroyo, whose sprawling South Bronx district extends from Yankee Stadium to Hunts Point, secured a third term despite fraud allegations against her campaign’s paid petition-gatherers. A judge had called Arroyo’s failure to better supervise those workers “clearly negligent and troubling.”

Vanessa Gibson beat out six opponents — the most candidates of any Bronx race — to snag the 16th District seat, which includes parts of Concourse, Highbridge and Morrisania. While Gibson is not a city council incumbent, she is a party-endorsed, state assemblywoman who must now relinquish her Albany post.

The 16th District race not only attracted a large group of upstarts hoping to replace Councilwoman Helen Diane Foster, whose family has held the seat for 35 years, but also a diverse group: the candidates were African American, Latino and West African, a burgeoning segment of the local community.

In another crowded race, Ritchie Torres bested five other contenders to take over the 15th District seat — which includes Belmont, Fordham, East Tremont and West Farms — from the term-limited councilman, Joel Rivera.

Torres, a longtime Vacca staffer, is openly gay, which some have said would be a first among acting Bronx legislators — a bit of history-making that Torres chose to downplay during the campaign.

“We talked about building more affordable housing, fixing long overdue NYCHA repairs, strengthening our public schools and creating more high-paying jobs,” Torres said in a statement after the race was called Tuesday night.

Like every other victorious Bronx candidate (except for Arroyo), Torres received money from a political action committee — a group unaffiliated with a candidate that can spend unlimited amounts on his or her behalf as long as it does not coordinate with the candidate’s campaign. (The only non-victor to receive PAC support was Joel R. Rivera, who was backed by City Action Coalition, which reportedly aimed to defeat gay candidates.)

The biggest-spending PAC was Jobs for New York, a group bankrolled by real estate and development firms, which poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into five Bronx council races. Union-funded PACs also supported some candidates.

Jobs for New York spent more than $267,000 on Torres, over $191,000 on Gibson and nearly $188,000 on Andrew Cohen, the 11th District winner, as well as thousands more opposing their rivals, according to the Campaign Finance Board. Some critics called on the PAC-supported candidates to denounce the outside spending.

While the candidates and their crews encouraged Bronxites to vote Tuesday, some who tried had difficulties.

At the Bronx County Building poll site on East 161st Street, Eric Brown said he had to vote on a paper ballot because his name wasn’t on the register, even though he was at the right spot.

Velma Richards left the site in a huff when she found that, due to redistricting, she could not vote for her chosen council candidate.

“That’s a freedom,” Richards said, “but it wasn’t a freedom for me tonight.”

Darryl “Jay” Johnson, the poll coordinator, said both problems occurred throughout the day: voters who arrived at the right site were not on the rolls and voters who were confused by redistricting and went to the wrong site.

“Because of restructuring and realigning of the election districts, they may have switched your side of the street and you don't live in the district any more," Johnson told voters.

The site itself, inside the century-old Bronx government building, also experienced issues.

Due to a lack of outlets, only one of the nine voting booths had power, which meant no reading lights behind the curtains — a problem for voters with bad vision, Johnson said.

“The Board of Elections was supposed to run an extension cord along the carpets yesterday,” Johnson said Tuesday evening, “but they never showed up.”

That site was one of several in the Concourse, Highbrige and Mount Eden election districts whose votes had still not been reported as of 6 a.m. Wednesday morning. Less than half of that area’s 16th District council votes had been tallied by that time.

The BOE did not immediately respond to questions.