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.
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.
Fuchs noticed something else in the polls that makes her skeptical of Weiner’s prospects: He has a high unfavorability rating, a number that is typically difficult to overcome. Fuchs explained that it’s easier to go from being unknown and win than to have high unfavorables and win.
“People in New York City are very forgiving,” she said. “Does that mean they’re going to vote for them? That’s a different issue. … Do these guys have the character and competence to run? That’s a very different question than, Do you forgive them?”
Not terribly far behind Quinn and Weiner in the Democratic field are the former city comptroller Bill Thompson and the city’s public advocate Bill de Blasio.
In the Republican field, former deputy mayor to Rudy Giuliani and Bloomberg’s head of the Metropolitan Transit Authority Joe Lhota is the frontrunner, but billionaire entrepreneur John Catsimatidis is mounting a Bloomberg-type run to challenge him. Registered Democratic voters outnumber Republicans in the city six to one, so the Republican candidates have small chances. But voter participation has been so volatile over the years that Republicans feel a glimmer of hope.
Many in New York respect Bloomberg’s wealth, because he has been generous in spending it on the city. But in this year’s campaigns, Bloomberg’s wealth has also become a symbol for what’s wrong with New York: a city increasingly defined as a place for the uber-wealthy. All Democratic mayoral candidates have made this theme central in their campaigns. Weiner opened his campaign by saying, “The very people who put everything they had into this city are being priced right out of it.” De Blasio uses the phrase “a tale of two cities” in most campaign stops.
The two cities are visible in del Rio’s neighborhood on the Lower East Side. With the current councilwoman Rosie Mendez, the city is working to finalize plans for new luxury apartment developments on public housing land. The proposal would help the New York City Housing Authority find much-needed revenue, but would eliminate open spaces in the projects—parking lots but also playgrounds and basketball courts. Del Rio is furious over the plans.
“When the city needs something, they can just push out the poor,” he said. Del Rio moved to the neighborhood in 1982, when it was rough and people were moving out. “The ones who stayed were the poor. They lived through all the ups and downs. Now that all the folks want to come back, they’re pushing [the poor out]. There is a way to do this without eliminating the people who have stood there.”
Del Rio said the sewers are regularly backed up in the public housing complexes, and work orders are regularly behind too. He worries that the new infrastructure demands of the new complexes will make current problems for the public housing residents worse.
“Bloomberg’s whole way of doing things is very top-down. He used his money and business savvy to get what he wants. He propped up the wealthy and ignored the poor,” he said.
￼In late spring a coalition of pastors held a mayor’s forum in Cabrera’s district in the Bronx, New York’s poorest borough. Quinn didn’t show up, and Weiner hadn’t entered the race yet, but the rest of the major candidates were there, sitting in the half-full gym of Monroe College and enduring microphone feedback. The candidates talked about the two cities, about the city pushing out the poor and the middle class. A particularly raw point for poor communities like this one in the Bronx is the current administration’s policy allowing police officers to stop and frisk any suspicious-looking individuals. The candidates all criticized the stop-and-frisk policy to applause. The pastor moderators also asked each of the candidates about churches renting public schools for worship. De Blasio, the first to answer, readily took the churches’ side.
“It was unfair to treat faith-based organizations differently, especially because faith-based organizations were so often doing the work that government wasn’t,” de Blasio said. “Too often the government has held the faith community at arms’ length. ... Just look at what happened after Hurricane Sandy.”
Thompson echoed de Blasio, and went a step further, saying city hall should have an office of faith-based development.
Yes, this is still New York City.
“There are a lot of stereotypes about New York that are about to be changed. There are many religious people in this city,” said Cabrera. “You look at the gay community—it’s a very small percentage of the population. But they have so much influence. The religious community is a bigger community and now they’re starting to step up and say, hey, we want a seat at the table.”