The Pedro Problem

FOR MR. ESPADA, the attention fits nicely into his narrative as an embattled champion of an underdog district, a man who fought his way up from homelessness to establish the successful Soundview health clinic-now the base for his political operations-and has since risen to become the first Latino majority leader in the state’s history. In Mr. Espada’s telling, it is not the ethical allegations against him but his status as a successful Latino that make him a target of the social and political elite.

“You got to remember, this is a poor district, and they feel victimized,” said a longtime Bronx operative who doubts whether Mr. Espada can be beaten this year. “Part of his district is one of the poorest in any urban area. They’re looking for heroes.”

“It’s not like people have as much trust in the accusers,” said the operative. “People are skeptical, especially when their district has been disenfranchised for so long. No one in the Bronx is feeling like someone is riding on a white horse to save their asses from Pedro Espada.”

Mr. Espada’s posturing is slightly complicated by the fact that support finally coalesced last week around a single primary challenger, Gustavo Rivera-a former chief of staff to Andrea Stewart-Cousins and aide to Senator Kirsten Gillibrand-who, like Mr. Espada, was born in Puerto Rico.

Mr. Rivera has lived in the district for a decade, but still lacks a recognizable local profile, leaving him as a largely unknown quantity just seven weeks from primary day.

All of which highlights the importance of organized labor in countering Mr. Espada’s name recognition.

Mr. Rivera has ties to 1199 SEIU, which has been one of his biggest donors, and has a particularly large contingent of members in the blue-collar district. And the Working Families Party-which has won big races in other boroughs-is salivating at the chance to be the group that beats Mr. Espada.

“Right now, one of them is assured: Mr. Espada is going to have a good get-out-the-vote operation,” said Mr. Adler, the consultant. “The other one is a maybe.”

 

WITH THE LOOMING uncertainty over whether Mr. Espada can actually be beaten, elected leaders are treading lightly with regard to Mr. Espada’s candidacy.

On Sunday, before the start of the Dominican Day Parade, Mr. Espada stood in gray pants and a beige guayabera on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx while the rest of the elected officials crowded onto a small stage about 20 feet away.

When the group moved down to the street for a ceremonial ribbon-cutting, an Espada staffer held up a Pedro sign behind the group.

Asked about Mr. Espada, Congressman Jose Serrano of the Bronx-whose son serves alongside him in the State Senate-shrugged. “I’m watching like everybody else is watching.”

Mr. Espada-who positioned himself at the beginning of the procession-bounded back and forth, to cheers and waves amid the Dominican flags. He stopped for a few interviews in Spanish, while his supporters handed out bumper stickers. (Mr. Espada declined an interview for this story.)

In case anyone missed him, there was another red-and-white Pedro Espada banner a few hundred feet back, followed by a green Cadillac Escalade with Espada signs.

Mr. Rivera, for his part, was marching along near the 1199 SEIU banner. His campaign manager said people were beginning to recognize Mr. Rivera, and he was encouraged by the lack of campaign literature he had seen discarded on the ground.

Asked how Bronx leaders were reacting to his candidacy, Mr. Rivera was coy. “It’s a great day to be marching in a parade in the Bronx,” he said.

A minute later, a gale swept through the street, a black cloud overtook the Concourse and the sky opened up, leaving Mr. Rivera to run for cover.

Mr. Espada had already finished the route, under sunny skies.

rpillifant@observer.com