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CANDIDATE AND PASTOR: Del Rio working at distribution center after Hurricane Sandy.
Friends of Richard Del Rio
CANDIDATE AND PASTOR: Del Rio working at distribution center after Hurricane Sandy.

A place at the table

Politics | In New York City elections this year, Christian leaders believe they can't afford not to run

Issue: "Blind exiled brave," Aug. 10, 2013

NEW YORK—When Hurricane Sandy hit last year, 13,700 public housing residents on the Lower East Side were stuck without power, water, or public transportation. Grocery stores closed and food went bad. Abounding Grace Ministries was one of the churches in the projects that set up a station with groceries, water, and hot meals. City officials said it was the largest distribution center after the storm. 

Abounding Grace pastor Rick Del Rio zoomed around in a forklift on the basketball court that served as the distribution center, unloading pallets of donated goods. Four days after the storm hit, city employees and National Guardsmen showed up—but consigned themselves to keeping order in the lines while thousands waited for food. For the first time local pastors saw a glimmer of hope: The city might form a functional relationship with churches to meet neighborhood needs. 

Del Rio thought to himself that he might be able to build some of those relationships as a councilman. Today the pastor and forklift operator is a candidate for New York City Council. And he’s not the only one. 

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As the city’s council and mayoral races heat up before the September primaries, religious leaders—mostly from smaller churches—are jumping into politics. They are alarmed at the city government’s increasing distance from the poor and from churches.

Pastors point to the city’s growing wealth that’s pushing the poor out of some areas, and to last year’s battle when the city booted churches from holding services in public schools. The view of pastors on these issues isn’t fringe anymore: In May the city council overwhelmingly passed a resolution informing the state legislature that New York churches should be able to rent worship space from public schools. 

“In the past few years the religious community has been disenfranchised,” said New York Councilman Fernando Cabrera, who represents one of the poorest areas of New York in the Bronx. “When change is not happening at the top, a revolution begins at the bottom.”

Cabrera is a pastor in the Bronx who won his council seat in 2009. He said it makes sense for church leaders to run because they know their neighborhoods. 

Cabrera, like del Rio, had lived in his neighborhood for more than 20 years before running, and the people in his district already knew him. Plenty of New Yorkers balk at a Christian pastor running for office: The candidates regularly hear questions from people of other faiths or no faith asking whether the pastors could represent them without pushing a Christian agenda. 

Del Rio insists that his only agenda is to serve the neighborhood. He also doesn’t think running for office means abandoning his church: He said he has worked to develop young leaders in the church over the years, and they’re ready to fill his shoes. 

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, according to Rio, has “dismissed” clergy: “We need to look at the clergy as the strategic partners of the city. The clergymen know where the people are.” 

Ten Christian leaders are running for the 51 seats on city council, and another pastor, Erick Salgado, is running for mayor (he’s a long shot). Many of these candidates come from smaller churches in the city. Cabrera believes pastors have a legitimate shot at winning council seats because those races are often decided by a few thousand votes. As long as the candidates are working hard to meet voters, they’re viable, he said. 

As for the mayor’s race, the field is mostly set, and only a few candidates look viable. Christine Quinn, the speaker of the New York Council, has long held the frontrunner spot, despite a recent poll that showed disgraced former congressman Anthony Weiner in the lead (he’s within the margin of error of Quinn). 

Another poll showed Quinn well in front of the pack. The New Yorker titled an April 2012 profile of Quinn “Mayor Presumptive,” and so far nothing has knocked her from that pedestal. She has the money and the name recognition. Though the pastors offer no real threat to her political ambitions, Quinn has often found herself sparring with them. Quinn opposes churches worshipping in public schools, and was in the city council minority who voted against a resolution to change that city policy. 

Polls this early in the mayor’s race aren’t entirely reliable, especially because the primary is likely to result in a runoff. Polls can test the full field of candidates only, not just the two who survive for the runoff. 

Ester Fuchs, a political science professor at Columbia University who has also served as an adviser to Mayor Bloomberg, said the polls right now mostly reflect who has name recognition. 

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