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20th September

First Published in The New York Sun,  September 20, 2002
By Andrew Wolf

If you don’t come from the Bronx, it’s tough to understand politicians like Senator Pedro Espada, Jr. Mr. Espada is a charming rogue. If there is an ethical or legal line to cross you can be sure that he will be walking that line.

One can’t help but be impressed with the health care empire Mr. Espada has built. The halls of his Soundview Health Center, one of several such centers he operates, bustle with activity. Thousands of poor Bronxites depend on him for medical care, which is the source of his political appeal. At the Bronx, the public health care industry — the biggest business sector in the only borough without a chamber of commerce — has supplanted the clubhouse as the political center.
Mr. Espada is presently 113 votes behind the Rev. Ruben Diaz in his attempt to retain the Democratic nomination to keep his seat at Albany. Although he will appear on the November ballot on the Republican and Independence Party lines, most observers agree that if he fails to overturn the primary results, Mr. Espada will, once again, leave public office.

Mr. Espada first entered politics through involvement with the cult-like New Alliance Party of sometime-Marxist, sometime right-winger Lenora Fulani.Although he almost got himself elected to the City Council on that line, he quickly learned that in his district, membership in the Democratic Party was a prerequisite to victory, and it was as a Democrat that he was first elected to the State Senate in 1992.

He briefly made peace with the Bronx Democratic organization, and it was during this tranquil period that his son, Pedro G. Espada, won a special election for a seat in the New York Assembly with the support of the Bronx Democratic machine.

Within months, Mr. Espada the elder had a falling out with Democratic boss Roberto Ramirez, who recruited candidates to run against both father and son.The Espadas submitted nearly 10,000 signatures on their nominating petitions, many more than needed to win a place on the ballot. But in their zeal they were sloppy, and a jubilant Mr. Ramirez managed to get the courts to toss both Espadas off the ballot for having submitted petitions “permeated with fraud.”

But Mr. Espada the younger won a surprise victory the following year in a special election to fill a City Council vacancy.The elder Mr. Espada geared up a campaign to win back his Senate seat against the machine-backed hack David Rosado.

It is at this point that we move into the twilight zone of Bronx politics, courtesy of the Espadas habit of secretly tape-recording their political conversations. The court ruling that tossed them off the ballot in 1996 was used as a pretext for Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson’s office to launch a criminal investigation. The chief investigator was a politically involved aide, John DeGaetano, who served as campaign treasurer for both Mr. Johnson, and for the president of the Bronx, Fernando Ferrer.
The climax comes in 1998, just in time for the filing of nominating petitions. Caught on videotape, Mr. Rosado sends Councilman Espada a clear signal that the legal problems will end if nominating petitions are not filed. An audiotape between the elder Mr. Espada and Mr. Ramirez alludes to a similar result.
An audiotape, again featuring the elder Mr. Espada, recounts a remarkable conversation between Congressman Jose Serrano, politically connected car dealer Dick Gidron, Senator Larry Seabrook, and the Rev. Al Sharpton. All agree that Mr. Ferrer is the key man to clear up Mr. Espada’s problems, and Mr. Gidron (now under indictment himself) offered to act as an intermediary, promising that he could “resolve this [expletive] easily. Bob [D.A. Johnson]
is my friend … ” Mr. Seabrook then chimed in that “Freddy [Ferrer] calls the shots.”

Mr. Espada did not run, but was indicted by Mr. Johnson anyway, despite having been cleared after a similar federal probe. In short, he was charged with diverting Soundview Health Center funds to his political campaigns. This appears to be true, but Mr. Espada retorted that he was “only taking from himself.”
Two years later,Mr.Espada easily defeated Mr. Rosado to regain his old seat, and was shortly thereafter acquitted of all charges in Bronx Supreme Court.As he partied with the jurors after the verdict, Mr. Espada, just elected again as senator, declared his candidacy for president of the borough. Mr. Espada ran strongly, but not strongly enough to defeat Councilman Adolfo Carrion, who was the beneficiary of his presence on the “sample ballots” distributed outside the polls on behalf of the mayoral effort of Mr.Ferrer.
Riding Mr. Ferrer’s coattails, long in the Bronx, Mr. Carrion narrowly beat Mr. Espada by three percentage points. Meanwhile, Councilman Pedro G. Espada was defeated for reelection by Jose M. Serrano, the son of the Congressman.

Having exhausted his Democratic Party options, Mr. Espada declared himself a Republican, and crossed the aisle to join the GOP Senate caucus, using his newly acquired member item largesse to fund groups he controls.

As if this tale was not convoluted enough, the Bronx Democrats embarked on a twopronged strategy to defeat Mr. Espada once and for all. Although he said he was becoming a Republican, Mr. Espada never bothered to change his registration. His plan was to be a Democrat at the Bronx ballot box, but a Republican in the Senate Chamber at Albany. The Democrats began proceedings to expel Mr. Espada from the Democratic Party. This plan was rejected by the courts on the grounds that under the state constitution, what Mr. Espada does in the Senate is protected free speech.

His clubhouse-selected foe, Raysa Castillo, had problems of her own. A court ruled she does not live in the Bronx and invalidated her candidacy. Mr. Espada assumed the high moral ground, but his foes have long charged that he actually lives in his “weekend” home at the swank Westchester village of Mamaroneck.
The Bronx Democratic organization then had to choose a loyal Democrat to run against Mr. Espada. They chose the Rev. Ruben Diaz, Sr., who had just completed his seventh month in the City Council. At the risk of causing enormous confusion, Rev. Diaz’s son, Assemblyman Ruben Diaz,Jr.,is the person who replaced Pedro G. Espada in the Assembly in 1996.

Rev. Diaz repeatedly endorsed Mayor Giuliani. Every time Governor Pataki comes to the Bronx, Rev. Diaz is crazy-glued to him. He is hardly a loyal Democrat.

On Wednesday, the Board of Elections declared Rev. Diaz the winner over Mr. Espada by 113 votes out of about 17,000 cast. Meanwhile the Senator’s son beat the somnolent assemblywoman, Carmen Arroyo, by three votes out of about 3,000.

Both races are likely to be reviewed by the courts, and one or both may be rerun. If, at the end of the process, the elder Mr. Espada loses, he will likely run in the nonpartisan special election to fill Rev. Diaz’s City Council seat early next year. His likely opponent? Assemblyman Ruben Diaz, Jr.

© 2002 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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