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16th August
2004

First Published in The New York Sun, August 16, 2004

By Andrew Wolf

 The Bronx has recently become Jerry Skurnick’s favorite borough. Mr. Skurnick, who was once an aide to Mayor Koch,now is a political direct-mail guru. Bronx politicos are lining up at the door of his firm, Prime New York, to buy mailing lists for their campaigns. Letterboxes throughout the borough have already begun to fill up with brochures for the candidates in an unusually large number of contested elections. 

    Much of this is driven by competition between the various clans of politicians. These family feuds have replaced the traditional political clubs and party organizations in this beleaguered borough. A growing number of scandals may soon put an even broader smile on Mr.Skurnick’s face. 
    City Council Member Jose M.Serrano,the son of Rep. Jose Serrano, is seeking to replace Olga Mendez in the state Senate.Ms.Mendez has represented a piece of the South Bronx and East Harlem for years. But she is now considered vulnerable after switching to the Republican Party from the Democratic Party. 

    Before he can take on Ms. Mendez, however, Mr.Serrano must first win his party’s nomination against Nelson Denis, a former assemblyman. The younger Mr. Serrano was considered a shooin to beat Mr. Denis — until he was drawn into an emerging scandal involving his father. The elder Mr. Serrano was behind the founding and funding of a Puerto Rican cultural group called the House of Artful Expression, which thus far has little to show for the $1.7 million in public funds that the congressman obtained for it. 

    The group is chaired by Francisco Lugovina, who is a longtime friend of the Serrano family and is the younger Mr. Serrano’s godfather. Mr. Lugovina’s longtime companion, Noemi Santana, is the executive director. This is now the subject of a federal probe. 

    An angry crowd, apparently organized by Mr. Denis, protested the scandal on Tuesday largely for the benefit of the press, which eagerly lapped it up.The younger Mr. Serrano is discovering the ugly flip side of the politics of inheritance. Those who benefit from their father’s name one day may find it a burden the next. 

    This is not the only criminal probe involving Bronx Democratic politicos. The only Bronx Republican of note, Guy Velella, formerly a state senator, is already in jail. 

    On Thursday, the New York Post reported that Senator Efrain Gonzalez is also the subject of a federal investigation, this time involving another apparently phantom group called the West Bronx Neighborhood Association. It has also been reported that Mr. Gonzalez’s companion, Lucia Sanchez,is on the payroll of the Senate minority.The situation is grave enough for Mr.Gonzalez to have hired the borough’s most noted criminal lawyer, Murray “Don’t Worry” Richman. This news brought anxious Bronx Democratic leaders into a closed-door caucus Wednesday night.The probe is thought to go far beyond Mr. Gonzalez. 

    In the southeast Bronx, the Diaz family — state Senator Ruben Diaz Sr. and Assemblyman Ruben Diaz Jr. — are being opposed by the extended Espada family. 

    Pedro Espada Jr., the father, is trying to reclaim his state Senate seat from the elder Mr. Diaz. Sitting out this election is his son, Pedro G. Espada, who is still licking his wounds from his defeat in last year’s attempt to succeed his father in the City Council. 

    Without a blood relative to run against Mr. Diaz’s son, Assemblyman Diaz, Mr. Espada turned to the son of his loyal aide, Sandra Love. Ms. Love is now under indictment for diverting funds from the Espadas’ Soundview Health Center, where she serves as vice president, to the various Espada political campaigns. Her son, Jerry Love Jr., is carrying the Espada standard into the Assembly race against the younger Mr. Diaz. 

    Meanwhile,the Rivera family has emerged as the House of Windsor on the Bronx political scene. Assemblyman Jose Rivera managed to maneuver his son Joel Rivera,then a 22-year-old college student,into the City Council seat he vacated in 2001 to move over to the state Assembly and away from impending banishment from public life due to term limits. In his role as Bronx County Democratic leader, Jose Rivera tossed enough votes to Gifford Miller’s bid for speaker of the City Council to ensure that young Joel became majority leader of the council less than a year after being elected. 

    Despite his tender age, the younger Mr. Rivera now has the distinction of being the first member of his family to pull down a six-figure salary in public office. 

    It is said that Joel Rivera’s mother, Ivine Gallarza, is waiting in the wings to replace him when term limits force him to his next public position. Ms. Gallarza is now the District Manager of Community Board 6, installed in that post by the former councilman and retained by her son, the incumbent. 

    Mr. Rivera has kicked Bronx political nepotism up another notch. He actively encouraged Assemblyman Jeffrey Klein to seek the state Senate seat recently vacated by Guy Velella, who has shifted his base of operations to Rikers Island, and is seeking to elect his daughter, Naomi Rivera, to fill Mr. Klein’s seat in the assembly. 

    Ms. Rivera advertises herself as a “mother, a neighbor and a leader.” Her claims of motherhood are impeccable, but she is a neighbor of only recent vintage, having just moved to her current residence last year. As for her local record of leadership, there is no evidence of any community involvement, unless you count her $64,000-a-year patronage post as the deputy director of the Bronx Board of Elections. 

    This does not sit well with Anthony Friedman, who was brought up in the district and decided to stay when he recently married. Mr. Friedman has run senior citizen programs in the area, and feels that he can do a better job than Ms. Rivera. Of course, in the Bronx it doesn’t hurt that his dad is George Friedman, the former judge and Bronx County Democratic leader, who held the seat for two decades before moving to the bench.

© 2004 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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