Less than a week before East Harlem voters go to the polls on September 14, a Democratic primary race for the state Assembly is once again demonstrating the district’s reputation as a tough political stomping ground. The contest is pitting a gay man, Eddie Baca, a community activist and former Community Board 11 chairperson, against an incumbent with strong name recognition, Assemblymember Adam Clayton Powell, IV. If elected, Baca would be the Legislature’s first elected official of Mexican descent, as well as joining two other Manhattan Democrats, Danny O’Donell and Deborah Glick, in the Assembly’s lesbian and gay caucus.
The third primary candidate, John Ruiz, is one of the male district leaders in the 68th Assembly District, a post he has held since 2003 when he briefly allied himself with Powell in a hurly-burly political landscape that epitomizes Tip O’Neil’s maxim: “All politics are local.”
Politics are downright in your face in East Harlem. Questions about Powell’s private life, including two rape allegations in the past year, have dominated the campaign, perhaps to the detriment of a community plagued by some pressing problems like a severe shortage in affordable housing and inferior schools.
An obscure fourth candidate, Rubye Wright sits on the board of Community Hope, Inc., a local community development corporation, one among several major non-profit groups located in East Harlem, an area whose residents struggle with higher than average asthma, lead poisoning and teen pregnancy rates.
Both Baca and Ruiz claim that Powell does not adequately represent the district, accusing the lawmaker of a spotty record of achievement in Albany and inaccessibility in the district where street presence and hands-on involvement are requisite for holding office.
“Adam called people up then told them I was a Dominican and an actor,” said Ruiz. “All lies.” He added, “I am 100 percent Puerto Rican and a former firefighter.”
Powell has endured two sex scandals near the end of his first Assembly term. On July 14, the 42-year-old bachelor gave a news conference and asserted that the sex was consensual with both women, a Manhattan woman who told police Powell raped her in a West Side apartment, and a 19-year-old intern who reported that Powell assaulted her in an Albany-area hotel room.
Other sexual peccadilloes have marred Powell’s reputation, including news reports that he traveled to the Dominican Republic to urge officials to release a fomer Correctional Services official, Chris Jackson, jailed for videotaping young boys having sex. Powell said he was just on vacation.
Earlier this year, Powell formed an exploratory committee to fulfill a longtime aspiration, a congressional run against Charles Rangel, the dean of the state’s congressional delegation, who, three decades ago in an historic election, dethroned another legendary Harlem powerbroker, Powell’s father of the same name. Rangel most likely perceived Powell’s exploratory bid as another brazen attempt to unseat him, something an untested Adam Clayton Powell, IV tried ten years ago before being soundly trounced before settling for a stint in the City Council.
Neither Ruiz or Baca acknowledged being informally endorsed by Rangel, but Ruiz alleged, in yet another twist of political intrigue, that Powell handpicked Baca to run against him in order for Powell to splinter the opposition and squeak by on Tuesday. In the overwhelmingly Democratic district that means winning the general election.
Ruiz also maintained that Powell gave Baca $20,000 out of his $50,000 congressional campaign warchest to hire lawyers and challenge his ballot signatures in state court where a judge recently upheld their legitimacy. Asked to provide documentation that Powell provided Baca the lawyer’s fees, Ruiz faxed a three-page document that accused Baca of a series of financial wrongdoings, including the misappropriation of funds as the head of two different community-based organizations in 1995 and last year. “I did my investigations, you do yours,” Ruiz said.
Baca strenuously denied any wrongdoing, either at El Barrio Development Corporation in 1995, where Baca had a brief tenure as executive director and nearly succeeded in garnering a huge federal Urban Empowerment Zone grant, or in the several other community projects he has since led. As for his personal income, Baca said he supports himself on the rent he gets from his three-family home on East 110th Street, the refinancing of which provided him the money to challenge Ruiz’ ballot signatures and $15,500 to commission a poll of voters, in which he bested Powell 36 to 32 percent of voters asked what candidate they favored. Ruiz got nine percent.
Ruiz retired in 2001 on a city disability pension, the result of permanent injuries, he said, after being dragged by a drunken driver. Since then he has been an officer seeker and district leader. He accused Baca of not holding a job, and of paying for an expensive public opinion poll with grant money meant to address programs in the community. “These little storefront poverty pimps,” Ruiz, said. “We’re going to get rid of them.”
Evette Zayas, a spokeswoman for Powell, said her boss has never initiated a ballot challenge against any opponent and that Ruiz lacked the leadership qualities to assume office. “ There is a certain professionalism required of a candidate for elected office and you don’t kick somebody when they are down and be a blatant opportunist,” she said referring to Ruiz’ response to Powell’s legal scrapes, which she predicted would “blow away.”
For his part, Baca did not level personal accusations against either of his opponents, saying that his clear sense out on the street is that voters yearn for the personal bickering to cease and a comprehensive discussion of local issues to commence. “We have one of the highest rates of HIV infections in the city and it’s a given that I would be an advocate for seeing, across the state in fact, that there is proper funding to help stop its spread and provide services for AIDS treatment,” said Baca. A host of gay political organizations have endorsed him, including the Empire State Pride Agenda, the Stonewall Democrats and Gay and Lesbian Independent Democrats, as well as East Harlem’s gay city councilmember, Phil Reed.
As for the shortage in afforable housing for the area’s residents, nearly 40 percent of whom a city health department survey lists as living in poverty, Baca said that he “would go to the community board and demand more low-income housing” and an abatement on development that builds luxury highrises or rehabilitates tenements for an up-scale market. “In an area where the unemployment rate is 20 percent, one of the highest incidences of it in the country, up to 40 percent of new housing stock should be for low-income families,” said Baca.
“I am not under any illusion that getting elected would automatically improve the lives of my constituents,” he said, “but I would never stop putting a spotlight on the distict and collaborating with other elected officials to once and for all resolve some of these nagging dilemmas.”
Zayas agreed with Baca that education and housing were among the top issues on voters’ minds, adding that Powell was best equipped to deal with them. With the area’s housing problems, Zayas said, “We catch people before it becomes a crisis. We have a list of buildings that HPD is going to turn over to non-profit developers and we inform people of their choices,” she said, referring to the city’s Department of Housing, Preservation and Development, adding, “That’s a head-on approach.”
Baca is the executive director of the Association of Community Architecture and Businesses, or ACAB, which is his surname spelled backwards, a non-profit organization he formed last year. ACAB lost one bid from state officials to develop low-income housing, but Baca is undeterred. One of his focuses, he said, would be to help revamp the state’s foster care program and develop housing solutions for at-risk children. “I would step down from any non-profit group if elected,” said Baca, “avoid even the appearance of any conflict of interest.”
Ruiz has issued a press release that included the phrase “Let’s stop the raping of El Barrio/East Harlem!” calling for a September 9 rally outside Powell’s office.
“I am delighted to hear that John’s having that press conference,” said Baca, “because it is only going to hurt him and help me.”