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15th August

If you are dissatisfied with the political leadership in your community, I have a cure for you: come to the Bronx.

First Published in The New York Sun, August 15, 2008

By Andrew Wolf

Maybe your elected officials are skimming from the town treasury, or perhaps they are cheating on their spouses. Perhaps they have sold their vote so that the DigWeMust Development Company can do their digging on your block. Or maybe they can be found driving through the streets on any given night with a blood alcohol content well above the legal limit.

In the Bronx we have a term for such people: the good government crowd. The level of the local elected officials here is so low, so consistently poor, and the choices presented to voters so discouraging, that it makes one pine for the days of Boss Tweed.

Right now the party, and in the Bronx that means the Democratic Party, appears to be in a particular state of disarray. As for the Republicans, they are a vanished breed.

The epicenter of current machinations is the 33rd Senate District in the west Bronx, represented by State Senator Efrain Gonzalez Jr. Mr. Gonzalez has been under federal indictment for two years now, accused of diverting $400,000 of public funds into his personal accounts. The trial has been delayed over legal maneuvering, including a hearing just this week over whether federal prosecutors have jurisdiction over what Mr. Gonzalez, after all this time, now asserts is purely the state’s business.

Clearly the senator would rather cast his lot with the state court system. The two borough officials who have been convicted of crimes in recent years, a former state senator, Guy Velella, and a former assemblywoman, Gloria Davis, were both prosecuted in Manhattan by the district attorney of New York County, Robert Morgenthau.

I can only recall one Bronx politician indicted by the Bronx D.A.’s office, a former state senator and city councilman, Pedro Espada Jr. In that case, Mr. Espada, who has been a thorn in the side of the Bronx Democratic organization for years, was acquitted by a jury here of charges he diverted funds to his political endeavors from the nonprofit Soundview Health Center, which he heads.

Since that time, top members of his staff at the health center have been convicted of similar offenses, prosecuted by Eliot Spitzer when he was state attorney general.

During Mr. Espada’s last stint in the State Senate, in 2002, he switched party allegiance and caucused with the Republicans, although he remained an enrolled Democrat. The honeymoon with his new allies soon soured when it was discovered that he diverted a $745,000 “member item” to the health care empire that he heads. This was the subject of an Albany County grand jury investigation that was dropped after it was learned that the Senate Republican leadership put the kibosh on Mr. Espada’s scheme. As controversy swirled around him, Mr. Espada narrowly lost the Democratic Primary for reelection.

Now Mr. Espada has surfaced again, challenging Mr. Gonzalez for his seat. What a choice voters may face. The indicted senator, who is accused of diverting at least some public funds to buy a house for his new wife and baby in the Dominican Republic, faces off against the former senator, who was previously indicted and acquitted.

This is not the same district that Mr. Espada previously represented. That district is diagonally across the Bronx, miles from the area that Mr. Gonzalez has represented since 1989.

To qualify to run for the Gonzalez seat, Mr. Espada rented an apartment in the Bedford Park section of the borough. Whether he actually lives there is the subject of a court case now being heard. It is pretty common knowledge that the place Mr. Espada (who, according to published reports, earns $200,000 a year from his health center), has long called home, by any definition you or I would use, is in upscale Mamaroneck in Westchester County.

So the Gonzalez forces challenged Mr. Espada’s residency in the hopes of tossing him from next month’s primary election ballot. They seem to have done their homework, secretly following and videotaping Mr. Espada’s movements, and calling to the witness stand his neighbors, who claim to have never seen Mr. Espada come or go from his new place. According to Con Edison records, Mr. Espada must have the smallest carbon footprint on the face of the earth, barely using any electricity at all.

Removing political opponents from the ballot is a time-honored tradition here in the Bronx, a tactic that often substitutes for democracy. It may well be that by the time you read this, Mr. Gonzalez may have removed his challenger from contention.

But in this election, where the choices are so poor, does it really matter? The voters will lose no matter how this shakes out. That is the real tragedy of today’s politics in the Bronx.

© 2008 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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