HARLEM — For the first time since 2006, somebody not named Melissa Mark-Viverito will represent East Harlem in the City Council after the November election.
The two front-runners — Mark-Viverito’s political protégé Diana Ayala and state Assemblyman Robert Rodriguez — are both political insiders both equipped with six-figure war chests and long lists of endorsements.
Ayala, who has never held elected office, most recently worked to connect seniors with social services, before moving to Mark-Viverito's office. Although she is grateful for her political mentor, Ayala is ready to stand on her own.
“I think she’s more of a policy person and I’m more of a human-interaction person,” Ayala said of her boss. “I need to know the person, I need to know the issue, I need to know the history. I think that’s where we are a little bit different. But we both end up in the same place, it’s just a different approach.”
Rodriguez, the son of a former City Councilman, lost his previous Council campaign against Mark-Viverito in 2009. He ended up in Albany instead, where he said he evolved as a politician.
“Everything happens for a reason, and that experience was important in helping me develop an understanding of electoral politics and put me in a position where I can represent the community,” he said.
Both candidates are progressive Democrats who oppose the current version of the controversial East Harlem rezoning plan and support affordable housing, prison reform and increasing employment through social programs.
What sets them apart is their style.
Ayala paints herself as a woman of the people and not a policy wonk, who grew up in NYCHA housing, had a baby when she was a teenager, lived through homelessness and has spent years helping residents of East Harlem find solutions to their problems.
“You have to be engaged in your community,” Ayala said during a recent interview. “It’s not just about representing at the city level or in Albany or Washington. It’s about having a presence in the community.”
Meanwhile, Rodriguez bills himself as an experienced leader.
"I have been a collaborator and somebody who works to build consensus," he said. "On a couple of key things we were able to bring consensus, like coming up with affordable housing guidelines."
In Albany, he helped secure funding for NYCHA repairs and the Second Avenue Subway.
“The ability to understand the big issues, how to make things happen in a legislative body and how to bring that experience from day one is what sets me apart,” Rodriguez explained.
Although they have the most money and endorsements, Ayala and Rodriguez are not the only candidates in the Sept. 12 primary.
Tamika Mapp, a local business owner who ran once for City Council and twice for state Assembly, and Israel Martinez, a former assemblyman who last held public office in 1991, have also thrown their hats in race.
Mapp is running for a fourth time — and says she will continue to run if she loses again — because she believes establishment politicians have let East Harlem down by taking money from unions and private interest groups.
“Once they got in, they started following their own agenda,” she said. “Once you get in, people like unions will give you lots of money, and you kind of lose your way and forget about the little people.”
Mapp, who supported Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders for president, has raised $3,779 for the election. Most her 49 donations are for $100 or less, records show.
Martinez could not be reached for comment.