12 September, 2017

A Bronx Diamond in the Election Rough

NYC Council Elections, Bronx CD #18, Part 4

I would be remiss as a journalist were I not to include the candidate whom everyone in The Bronx's Council District #18 has been talking about in today's NYC Council primary race: Michael Beltzer. I am sorry that family obligations prevented me from completing this Part 4 of my series of articles on the candidates in this race until the morning of the election, as opposed to last week when I had planned to release it.

Beltzer is the third millennial in the race who is fighting the establishment's pick and who by far is the furthest removed from them. A Long Islander, he has made the Soundview section of The Bronx his home for the past decade. There, he raises his daughter, Isabella Rose, who attends public school, which is one of many reasons why Beltzer is such a strong advocate of public education.

In this way, Beltzer stands out from his opponents in that he supports free public education, including free public higher education such as through the CUNY and SUNY systems. According to a post on his Facebook page, he has been fighting to make the CUNY system free for NYC residents since 2013. Beltzer expanded on some of his educational ideas:
I'd like to try a pilot program that would use public schools, whose buildings are empty after 3pm. In a partnership with CUNY, we could offer certain college classes in these buildings after school hours. It's a proof of concept. People would take the courses for college credit, as they would be made more accessible. Getting a higher education is a matter of accessibility for many folks. We need to remove the barriers, the financial barriers, the physical barriers. People could also volunteer to teach classes for experience.

Being the quintessential millennial, Beltzer has immersed himself in his community, which also makes him stand out from the other candidates seeking outgoing NYC Councilmember Annabel Palma's seat. He described some of his community involvement over the years:
I have been a member of the local community board, Friends of Soundview Park, and the 43rd Precinct Community Council. I have passion and drive. I was highly involved in the community board's community-based planning effort and initiated four large community visioning sessions where people learned the basics of planning, land use, and zoning while sharing what they'd like to see, stay, change, and grow in the community. 
We had over a thousand residents come out, and it was a good start to informing people about possibilities they didn't know existed. A draft report hasn't been released because I'm running for office and community boards are political beasts. So everything from that is on hold right now. I'd like to take efforts like this and expand them, incorporate more community-based planning/decision making as councilmember for our district.
Listening to Beltzer was both mesmerizing and inspiring. Unlike the two apparent front-runners in the race, Beltzer doesn't believe crime is the number one issue in the district. Rather, it's the lack of political and civic engagement—an issue Amanda Farias also raised.
Many things don't get addressed because people don't know how to go about it, so they just complain and remove themselves (perhaps this is by design by elected officials). There is no avenue for people to express themselves, in political clubs or other organizations. Tenant associations don't meet regularly, people don't know about organizations or meetings. It's frustrating for people who want to become involved. Political energy gets sucked up by community boards and the local precinct council. There's also little to no participation from elected officials; e.g., only one elected and none of the other candidates showed up to any of the four community visioning sessions, despite everyone in the district receiving notifications by mail.

Also like Farias, Beltzer was a strong supporter of Bernie Sanders's presidential bid last year. In fact, he opened Bernie's two campaign offices in The Bronx. Beltzer called Sanders an inspiration, recalling how he came out of college uninterested in politics, seeing it as two sides of the same coin. But then he happened across some of Bernie's speeches on the Senate floor. Beltzer recalls thinking to himself, "Wow, this guy really gets it." At the time, Beltzer was working for John Liu's reelection campaign for NYC Comptroller. Most importantly for Beltzer was that Sanders has always pushed the envelope of people first politics. So when his campaign came to The Bronx, of course Beltzer was both excited and happy to help out.

Using Beltzer's social media streams, as I have done with Farias' and Elvin Garcia's, it's easy to see how grassroots of a candidate he is. Unlike Garcia, there are no political heavyweights backing Beltzer's campaign, no photo ops with elected officials and political operatives. Instead, his streams are filled with useful information, community-related tidbits, and pictures of his community and its members and leaders, such as the Rev. Carmen Hernandez, who is supporting Beltzer because she says, "He is a man of integrity, and a true friend of the community."

Hernandez, an LGBTQ, tenants, and disability rights advocate and activist, is an out lesbian and vocal member of The Bronx's LGBTQ community. She will be getting the vote out for him today. It was a bit of a surprise that she was supporting Beltzer over the openly gay political candidate, Garcia:
Just because you're gay or lesbian is not enough for me to support you. We have our very own selling out their own community. I maybe would've supported Elvin, but Elvin never bothered to meet with me. I support people with track records although I do give people a chance to prove themselves. The first time I saw Elvin he couldn't even look me in the eye. He told me to drop Beltzer for him, and I said no. I love Beltzer and I told Elvin it's too late, you should've met with me, which he never did. Michael not only met with me but supported my community's efforts for over two years. And that is what matters to me. It shows me the kind of person Beltzer is and who Elvin is. There is a saying when you care for the little stuff imagine what he can do for more people, and that is what the community needs.
Under his leadership as a councilmember in The Bronx, Beltzer sees his district as healthier, more informed, and more engaged five years down the road. He's proud that he helped get a number of women, especially women of color, as well as minorities, elected to the Bronx Democratic county committee last year, which is already working toward increasing community engagement. Beltzer will continue working on projects that bring people together. "People need to have hope, to feel hope," he proclaimed. He continued, "We need to do things for the community. I'm willing to work with anyone serving the community. I want the community to see that they can make it, they can do it."

Apparently the community feels similarly. In a recent Ringside Politx poll, Beltzer bested the field with 32% of the vote.

"I strongly believe he will be a great LGBTQ  ally when he is in office, and a leader for us all. He is doing it now so imagine when he is put in that seat. I know he will make sure we are all counted," Hernandez mused.

Michael Beltzer is running for a seat on New York City's Council in District 18, in The Bronx. Out of a total of seven candidates, three others have a real shot at winning: NYS Senator Rev. Ruben Diaz Sr, a political heavyweight with decades of political clout, Elvin Garcia, a political insider currently working as an aide to NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio, and lifelong Bronxite Amanda Farias, a grassroots organizer who has spent her life serving her community.

Read Part 1: Can a Leopard Change Its Spots (NYS Senator Rev. Ruben Diaz Sr)
Read Part 2: All Dressed Up And For What?(Elvin Garcia)
Read Part 3: A Seed of Sanders' "Our Revolution" Blossoms in The Bronx(Amanda Farias)

05 September, 2017

The swelling has gone down A LOT but I'm afraid I've done something to it... #theyneedtobubblewrapme #imaklutz #accidentalselfie #accidentprone #toes #littletoes #littletoegoesbumpinthenight

via Instagram http://bit.ly/2iZ3J3H

A Seed of Bernie Sanders's "Our Revolution" Blossoms in The Bronx

Amanda Faria
Amanda Farias

NYC Council Elections, Bronx CD #18, Part 3

It took less than ten minutes from the time I'd sent the email to the time my phone rang. This can't be possible, I thought to myself. It must be a bill collector. But on a Sunday afternoon?

A short while later, it didn't take long for me to spot the maelstrom of information working its way down the block. There was a very familiar feeling here, not quite one of déjà vu but certainly one of comfortable familiarity. There was an ease with which the central figure I was focusing on worked with the people, not apart from them. "Yes, that must be her," I thought as I approached whom in fact turned out to be the person I was seeking, Amanda Farias.

We had only a brief moment to meet so that I could observe her in action on the campaign trail. Which, to be honest, looked not much different than her in action at work, or at home in her community. She engaged with people, spoke with them, cared about them, and empowered them—with information.

It finally came to me on the ride home, what made Amanda Farias stand out yet seem so familiar. The je ne sais quoi quality that sets her apart from all of her opponents isn't just that she is the only woman in the race for The Bronx's Council District 18. Rather it's that Farias is running for a seat on the NYC council to improve the lives of everyone in her community, to lift everyone up along with herself.

Farias is the true community servant, that politician of yesteryear who had authenticity, kind of like Bernie Sanders. And then it dawned on me: was she one of Bernie Sanders' revolutionaries? Had a seed of Our Revolution been planted and blossomed in The Bronx, right here where Bernie kicked off the New York leg of his campaign?

Later that evening, I had the chance to chat with Farias on the phone, and it was the first question out of my mouth. She enthusiastically responded, "I am very proud to have supported US Senator Bernie Sanders. For me, he is a direct reflection of my ideologies and political stances. And it's directly reflective of the race I'm running now, the insurgent running against the political machine."

Amanda Farias at Bernie Sanders's rally in The Bronx
Rather than rehash the old political issues, I wanted to delve into some of the lesser talked about areas, such as what gave her the impetus to run for office:
It was my desire to create long-term change. I mean, it's very easy to identify the issues but it's much more complicated and difficult in developing solutions that actually work. No one is invested in giving people the knowledge they need to engage with the system. Having worked on issues, we need to apply problem solving methodologies to teach our communities how to re-engage, how to find out what services are available, how to obtain those services, and how to begin holding city government accountable. 
We need to look at things through different lenses, we need to look at communities as a whole and implement solutions for everyone. The system shouldn't be too complicated. As elected officials, it is our job to work on behalf of issues and on behalf of the people who elect you. We must be able to provide both resources and the education to people so they can lead their lives more independently of the system and also so they can monitor it. We have to provide them with the tools to do so, as the people running the system, which is why transparency is so important. It's why participatory budgeting is vital, and why people need to re-engage in their government.
Our conversation was structured yet free-flowing, circularly tangential, an interconnected web of ideas fractalizing from one and morphing into the next. For example, we talked about the eradication of the concrete jungle via beautification of living and working spaces and how that leads to greener, healthier lives through urban gardening that increases air quality while simultaneously destroying pollution, which also provides therapeutic benefits while also allowing families to grow some of their own fresh, organic vegetables and herbs so that they end up eating healthier, eliminating fresh food deserts, all the while saving money by not only growing their own foods but not having to travel miles to a supermarket to purchase fresh foods (or purchase lower-quality foods from higher-priced bodegas) while educating their children about biology and ecology that also can lead to the sharing of cuttings and seeds with their neighbors, which increases social interactions producing positive community outcomes and community policing (looking in on neighbors, especially the elderly) and cooperation (lending a hand with watering neighbors' plants, cooking for neighbors, having building meals, neighborhood meals), beautifying entire buildings, neighborhoods, walkways, passageways.

Farias sees how providing such programs and information from her office about those projects can have transformative impact throughout her district, all from something as small and simple as planting mint in a jar on a windowsill. She sees how everything is interconnected and intertwined and that even the smallest of things can begin to have enormous, positive impacts with the potential to raise up entire communities. This is someone with vision, with true progressive ideals who has the capacity to lead others in transforming their lives.

In topic after topic during our phone chat, Farias continued to include and ensure that there was a connection, a tieback to community involvement and participation. She insists that the development and redevelopment that is coming to The Bronx, which Queens and Brooklyn have been experiencing that have priced individuals out of their homes and neighborhoods, must be done with the participation of the communities, i.e., community-based development, e.g., with assurances for living-wage affordability options, creation of community land trusts, reinvestment in the community, etc.
Another thing that everyone talks about is how crime is such a problem. Well to me crime is better now than when I was growing up in the 1990s. But what no one else is talking about is the pipeline that our Black and Brown brothers go up and down to prison, what are we doing to dismantle that pipeline, and why does it even exist? No one is talking about that. Let's put programs into place to prepare men to reenter life, we need to invest in transitional housing, in job training and work programs. Why aren't we doing this? These are decisions the political machine consciously makes, and we must change that.
On the subject of healthcare, Farias exasperatingly decried, "I will hold my state senators and assembly members accountable to providing every New Yorker with single payer healthcare that provides health services that are needed to maintain a person's good health. The Bronx can no longer afford to be the least healthy county in the State. Six years is far too long." Not surprising from a woman who lists friends and family among the three things she can't live without. Her phone and chapstick were the other two.

How should communities decide what issues were important to them? Should neighborhoods have town halls? "I would love to have Bernie-styled town halls!" Farias exclaimed. "We need to re-engage the community. I already plan on keeping extended office hours so those who work can access the resources of my office if they need to, and that includes being open on the weekends."

I asked Farias if being the only woman candidate presented any unique challenges. "Other than mansplaining (one of three things she admits she could do without, the other two being alternate side of the street parking and Internet trolls), the only issue I've experienced is having the signatures on my petition challenged. Not a single one was found to be deficient, and I've heard that other women who didn't receive 'permission' from the Bronx Democratic Party had their petitions [to get on the ballot] challenged as well." Weren't the Democrats supposed to be the pro-women party?

Just like her political hero, Farias has received the largest number of small donations out of all the candidates running in her district. She only takes donations from individuals, most of them in small amounts. "I don't accept any realtor or developer money. I will not be beholden to anyone except the voters in my district, which is the way it should be. We need to get money out of politics and eliminate opportunities for corruption." Farias stated.
The Current political machine makes decisions to limit progress that will help the people in our communities. I am excited to be in a position where I can fight for my community. I don't have to be beholden to any status quo, it's the difference between being a good advocate and bringing actual change to the community.
Which is why those in city government, and those who are part of the political machine are lining up and supporting other candidates. But those who are working to save our nation and create the change we need in our system not only to survive but to thrive once again are lining up and supporting people like Amanda Farias.

Great leaders don't set out to be a leader; they set out to make a difference. And that's exactly what Amanda Farias is doing. She's already made a difference, simply by surviving as a candidate in this race. And when she sets foot in the chambers of the NYC Council, they had better watch out because it won't be business as usual. And that is what scares the political establishment the most because people like Farias are the ones who bring about real change.

Amanda Farias is running for a seat on New York City's Council in District 18, in The Bronx. Out of a total of seven candidates, two others have a real shot at winning: NYS Senator Rev. Ruben Diaz Sr, a political heavyweight with decades of political clout, and Elvin Garcia, a political insider currently working as an aide to NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Read Part 1: Can a Leopard Change Its Spots
Read Part 2: All Dressed Up And For What?

All Dressed Up And For What?

NYC Council Elections, Bronx CD #18, Part 2

One freezing frost-filled February night in 2013, I first met Elvin Garcia in the back corner of a too-small greasepit of a Bronx diner to enlist his support in our work to build a new LGBTQ community center for The Bronx, he with his friend, I with mine. If it weren't for my friend, I never would have known what actually had been said during that meeting. Thus was my introduction to the insane world of Bronx politics. Both it, and the turkey burger (my standard diner fare) left a bad taste in my mouth.

At the time, Garcia worked for NYS Senator Gustavo Rivera as an aide. More importantly, Garcia was an out gay man in Bronx politics, something of a rarity (even to this day).

Garcia declined to join our efforts to build an LGBTQ community center.

In fact, when he moved to NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio's office to a position where he would have direct influence representing LGBTQ Bronxites' interests, he did little—if anything—to assist the grassroots efforts of those working to provide the sort of community and social support services that an LGBTQ community center could provide. And we did ask him for assistance on a few different occasions.

Even attending a pride awards dinner to present a proclamation on behalf of the mayor (the first ever such dinner to have been held successfully in The Bronx) was too much for Garcia. He kept asking to be allowed to speak so he could leave and enjoy his evening (everyone else seemed to be enjoying themselves but I digress).

Instead of representing the people—the community—Garcia seemed to care more about representing his boss, the Mayor. Rather than leading the people to his mayor's doorsteps to demand action that will enhance their lives, he has delivered a few programs that have fed his community what amounts to scattered crumbs. Take, for instance, the new ferry service introduced to The Bronx that bypasses what would be his district in Soundview.

Garcia holds himself out to be "A New Bronx Tale" but to me he appears to be the same tale wrapped up in fancier dress.

Why am I writing about my previous interactions with Garcia? To be honest, I'd much rather write about his policies and his responses from questions I'd prepared to ask him. In fact, I reached out to him personally for an interview back in June. When I couldn't promise an article that would fit into how and when he would like to use it to promote himself, he said he'd need more information about my writing and my credentials and would then get back to me with a decision. I never heard from him again.

Pictured (l to r) are Lewis Goldstein,
Elvin Garcia, and NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio
That essentially has been my experience with how politics operates in The Bronx. Has Garcia spent the past five or so years judiciously learning how to operate within NYC's corrupt and greasy machinery? Perhaps. But without making himself accessible and available to the press, it's hard to say.

Does Garcia have any original thoughts or plans? From reading his web site and other social media, it looks pretty much like all of the same, played out NYC politics just wrapped up in new packaging, all with the Bronx Democratic Party's and NYC government's stamps of approval. Again, without being accessible, those are questions that will remain unanswered.

Indeed, a quick check of his social media will find it peppered with appearances by powerful figureheads throughout NYC government and NYC politics. How can a new tale stand so pristinely on such a solid and old foundation? Shouldn't a new tale act more like the seedling by breaking through the ground, destroying the foundation and using it as food for growth into something newer, better, stronger?

The one thing I will give Garcia credit for is being an out gay man in city government. That's not an easy thing to be, especially in The Bronx. I don't know how much grief it's given him, if any. Hopefully it hasn't, because it shouldn't. But The Bronx can be a difficult enough place to live and work as it is, without the complications that come with being an openly gay individual.

It may not matter what the actual votes will be, because many suspect that whomever the Bronx Democratic Party decides they want the winner to be is who will end up being reported as the winner. The only way this may ever change is if the United Nations installs election monitors at every single polling location in The Bronx (among other places in NYC) and closely watches and analyzes the elections held and the results reported.

Many a Bronx voter knows (or highly suspects) that this is the truth, which perhaps is why The Bronx has one of the most dismal voter turnout rates in the nation: at times, a mere 2% of the voting population shows up at the polls.

Elvin Garcia is a decent choice. If he manages to win, he is a good Democrat who will do what the Bronx Democratic Party tells him to do and won't put up much of a fuss. He won't make waves, and he'll allow only so much progress as the powers that be in city government will allow the populace to enjoy. Kind of like Hillary Clinton.

But in my view, he isn't a progressive. And there's nothing that truly stands out about him or his proposals and policies. He's cut from the same corporatist Democratic cloth as his boss. So don't be surprised when gentrification has come and gone and nobody knows what's happened because it will have been a done deal made behind closed doors. That's how they want it to be. That's the sort of new tale they want to write for The Bronx and they are well on their way to having it written.

Elvin Garcia currently is running for a seat in New York City's Council in District 18, in The Bronx. Out of a total of seven candidates, two others have a real shot at winning: NYS Senator Rev. Ruben Diaz Sr, a political heavyweight with decades of political clout, and lifelong Bronxite Amanda Farias, a grassroots organizer who has spent her life serving her community.

Read Part 1: Can a Leopard Change Its Spots
Read Part 3: A Seed of "Our Revolution" Blossoms in The Bronx

Can a Leopard change its spots?

NYS Senator Rev. Ruben Diaz Sr

NYC Council Elections, Bronx CD #18, Part 1

It was a hot, steamy, sultry summer afternoon in 2014 and we were having difficulty finding the entrance to the building using the address given to us while the batteries on our mobile phones were limping by on emergency power. We feared we would miss the meeting—one everyone and their drag queen mother had warned us against—but we were obstinate and determined to make it succeed.

Finally, we got through to the office and learned that the entrance was around the block. Somehow, in the heat visibly rising off the sidewalks, this made sense. We were ushered inside into the refreshing respite of the 20th centuries' greatest technological miracle: air conditioning. It looked to be like any other ordinary office, with piles of papers strewn about and desks haphazardly arranged into working spaces, workers frenetically going about their business—hardly what one might imagine to be those of a state senator's offices.

At the time, I was working on building an LGBTQ community center in The Bronx, which to this day is the only borough in NYC without one. And the meeting I had scheduled, the meeting that everyone told me to avoid, was with the supposedly very anti-LGBTQ NYS Senator Rev. Ruben Diaz, Sr. Why did I want to "waste my time" by asking such an anti-LGBTQ voice for a sit-down meeting? Because I believe in giving everyone a chance, a seat at the table, an opportunity to speak and be heard. And because I believe in the power of transformation.

We were taken into Senator Diaz Sr's private office where we met with him. He told us that if we were there to convince him to accept gay marriage then it was a waste of time. We responded that that’s not why we were there, that we knew we never were going to change his mind or his opinion.

We told him that we respected his religious beliefs and his position as a faith leader. We weren't there to try to change them. We told him that we had more important things to talk about, that we needed his help. And then things just changed, they became brighter. You could feel it, and you could see it. The room just lifted.

During the next 90 minutes of what was supposed to be a one-hour meeting, we had what was perhaps the most productive, and most beneficial meeting of all the meetings we'd held with any of the elected officials with whom we'd met. Diaz Sr. listened to us. We listened to him. A door was opened. We found common interests, common goals, and ways we could work together.

We did have a conversation in our meeting about some of the language, some of the rhetoric that he'd used in the past, and its effect on people. We began a dialogue with him that may have gotten him to see how certain language can have negative impacts on individuals. Diaz Sr. promised to consider the language he used in describing the LGBTQ community, and it looks like he's kept his promise because I haven't seen him using such harsh language in the public ever since our meeting. I have seen him being attacked, over and over, and called all sorts of names, for his deeply held religious views. Yet I haven't seem him respond to any of those attacks.

At the end of our meeting, he thanked us, and he told us that we were the very first organization that ever asked to meet with him about something other than trying to change his religious beliefs. I left the meeting thinking, no matter whatever else I'd heard about him, I'd just left a meeting with a man who is deeply concerned about the people he represents, and who works very hard to help those people.

Yet today, this man, the very same man who agreed to work with an organization focussed on the LGBTQ community, to serve the LGBTQ community, to help the LGBTQ community, is today being vilified as being anti-LGBTQ in the media, because he opposed gay marriage. They don't want to know the reasons behind it. They just want to condemn him because it suits their purpose today.

Diaz Sr. wasn't at the Equality March held this past June, protesting and plotting against it, as he might have been in the past. In fact, he hasn't said much of anything that's been anti-LGBTQ since our meeting in 2014 that I've been able to find. But the community is out in full force, labelling and vilifying him as someone, something he may no longer be. Perhaps if the community had gotten behind efforts to build an LGBTQ Center in The Bronx, they would have heard this story sooner. But I digress...

I am not saying that Diaz Sr. hasn't been virulently homophobic in the past. But perhaps his eyes have been opened. Perhaps there are more important things on his horizon now, other battles to be fought that take precedence. And perhaps he has found that he has more in common with people who wish to support his community, and fight together with his community as part of him in it, than without him in it. And would he want to have a community without LGBTQ in it?

Has anyone even bothered asking him what his views were of LGBTQ individuals beyond that of same-sex marriage? I think his answers might surprise some and upset others because we may find out that he is a complex and caring human being who gives great thought to issues, a man of great faith and courage living in modern times. But it's easier, and certainly more entertaining, to continue vilify him without ever checking the facts.

After all, how can we ask for acceptance and understanding when we refuse to convey those very same basic human rights on others? How does this build bridges of understanding instead of walls of inhospitality?

Whether or not one should vote for Diaz Sr is not something this article covers. There are many reasons why one should and many more reasons why one should not vote for the elder politician.

NYS Senator Rev. Ruben Diaz Sr is running for a seat in New York City's Council in District 18, in The Bronx. Out of a total of seven candidates, two others have a real shot at winning: Elvin Garcia, a political insider currently working as an aide to NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio, and lifelong Bronxite Amanda Farias, a grassroots organizer who has spent her life serving her community.

Read Part 2: All Dressed Up And For What?
Read Part 3: A Seed of "Our Revolution" Blossoms in The Bronx