Bronx Hardball: Gustavo Rivera Fights To Stay In New York State Senate

As New York voters scramble to figure out the summer primary dates, those in the Democratic ranks have watched in confusion as redistricting has changed the former Congressional and Albany scorecard. Think political musical chairs, where some representatives get left without a seat, needing to run in a combined or new district.

Last week I had the opportunity to speak with State Senator Gustavo Rivera, who I knew only superficially from Zoom webinars on healthcare or town halls. In public, he presents as funny and accessible. On our call, he got into the weeds on policy, underscoring his conviction that our system is not working for everyone.

We started with the fact that he had not expected to be in a primary, and that the redistricting process had been “a mess for the entire way.” On his decision to run in NY-33, Rivera articulated his desire to remain as a Bronx lawmaker. Rivera mentioned that his rent-stabilized apartment, where he has lived for twenty-two years, is located 2 blocks west of the line demarcating the revamped NY-33. Rivera will retain fifty percent of his previous district, including his office address at 187 Street and the Grand Concourse.

In the Bronx, perhaps in honor of the Yankees, politics is hardball. Allegiances change and shift. It isn’t always pretty.

One elected official has consistently been including information on the upcoming races in his e-mail updates to constituents, with a “footnote” mentioning that Rivera lives “out of the district.”

Other actions have been more overt, to the point where Rivera had to write a letter to the Riverdale Press, a newly acquired neighborhood for him, flatly stating that he does not support the BDS movement and is a supporter of the state of Israel. His challenger has sent out literature and texts prominently focusing on antisemitism. Perhaps the most flat-footed mailer featured her in a photograph staged in front of the well-known Liebman’s Deli on West 235th Street, the heart of Riverdale. Hebrew lettering from the store signage was prominently featured, as Rivera’s opponent spoke with a male and female, both Caucasian.

In reaction, Rivera commented, “I understand the real fears that exist. Everyone deserves to feel safe. We need to stand with our sisters and brothers.” (We also discussed the uptick in Asian-American hate attacks.) Yet, he was disappointed that valid concerns about antisemitism were being used to cast aspersions on his record.

That record includes a good deal of legislation — sixty-seven bills signed into law over the past decade (including Chapter Amendments). In the current 2022 session, Rivera passed fifty-one bills on the floor, thirty-five of which made it through both the Senate and the Assembly.

Rivera has definitive ideas about lawmaking and budgets. For him, it is about reframing what others see as “expenditures” to his concept of investing in communities and those who are especially vulnerable. His goal is to weave safety nets of stability; target concerns before they become problems that need funds to be alleviated.

It was a point of view that frequently put him at odds with the Cuomo administration’s push for cuts that would trim spending, an approach that proved inadequate when the pandemic hit New York state.

The New York Health Act (NYHA) is closely associated with Rivera; he was the originating sponsor in 2017. “We have to make sure it becomes a reality,” he told me emphatically. “Insurance companies must be excised from medical care. The program we aim to create would be a better product at a lower cost. It’s never been done before.” He added, “With health care as a commodity, you get a system where people go broke.”

The NYHA would include not only dental and vision, but long-term care as well. Rivera pointed to language in the bill dedicated to transitioning employees from the commercial healthcare sector, through training, to the public sector. Rivera acknowledges that it is not just a matter of passing a bill. Instead, it is about changing a mindset. Rivera is the first Bronxite and person of color to head the Health Committee in Albany. If defeated, the Democrats would lose his seniority in the State Senate and his chairmanship. Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins has endorsed his candidacy. It’s not a secret that the business model at play supports entrenched interests. For most wage earners, whether working for a private employer or a union, healthcare has been baked into the job equation forever.

On Bail Reform, Rivera stressed that the national trend for an uptick in crime hit places that did not have recent bail reform actions. “I believe in accountability,” he said. However, he noted that bail can work as a way to “criminalize poverty.” Again, looking to cause and effect, Rivera dug into the connective tissue between crime and its societal origins.

These thoughts led to the topic of gun violence. New York state had laws on the books about concealed carry, which the United States Supreme Court recently overruled. Rivera called the SCOTUS decision “overreach.” The New York Senate responded with a legislative package. “The federal level has to act more aggressively,” he said. Rivera wants to see New York work with other localities to dry up the “Iron Pipeline,” which allows firearms from states with lax gun restrictions to make their way to New York. Rivera referenced the local Bronx Rises Against Gun Violence (B.R.A.G.) program run by Good Shepard Services, an “evidence-based anti-violence model” from Chicago. Action to attack a situation at the roots.

Rivera has voted for Finance Reform and the clarification of information “based on transparency.” He said, “I would be happy to transition.” In response to those questioning his fiscal support from labor and health domains, Rivera maintained that he has stood up to hospitals when he disagreed with them. He called himself an “honest broker” who “abides by the law.” He stated that he does not accept monies from “real estate or charter school PACS.” Ironically, his opponent has started running ads on MSNBC, paid for by New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany. The group is strongly pro-Charter schools and has big money funders, including Daniel Loeb and Jim Walton of the Walmart family.

For Rivera, the most crucial factor is having voters judge him on his accomplishments in the State Senate. He is proud of being part of the group that ushered in the end of the IDC, the rogue Democrats who held up legislation in Albany. He spoke of his demonstrated leadership and service to all the people he represents, guaranteeing that their needs are met.

Some are looking at this contest as a referendum between an “independent-minded reformer” running against the “hand-picked” candidate put forth by the “Bronx Democratic machine.”

Turnout for the first state primary on June 28 was exceedingly light. Hopefully, despite the heat wave melting weary New Yorkers, for the second election (August 23), voters will do their due diligence and then go to the polls.

Photo Courtesy: Office of Gustavo Rivera


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