With one of the contenders dropping out of the race and offering his support and an armful of significant endorsements as widespread as the ITALNew York TimesITAL and the Rev. Al Sharpton, you would think that Gustavo Rivera would breathe a little easier in his race to unseat State Senator Pedro Espada, Jr.
But Rivera, 34, is not about to rest on his laurels or think he has his opponent on the ropes. “I’m still knocking on doors in the district,” he said Monday morning at the corner of the Grand Concourse and Fordham Road, where he was handing out palm cards and grabbing palms.
Earlier in the day it was reported that Daniel Padernacht, a lawyer contending against Espada and Rivera, was no longer a candidate and had pledged his support for Rivera. “We had a good conversation the other day and I think he just felt that working together was a better deal,” Rivera said of Padernacht, “but you’ll have to ask him why he dropped out.”
Padernacht’s decision will certainly enhance Rivera’s chances, which means that his estimated 8 percent of the vote, according to one poll, brings Rivera head to head with Espada, at 32 percent each.
Defeating Espada, who has been representing the 32nd or the 33rd District for more than a generation and widely known for his network of health care clinics, will not be easy. His long tenure in office, despite the controversy he attracts like a magnet, makes him a formidable incumbent, and Rivera knows his seniority is nothing to overlook.
“I’ve asked him on several occasions for a debate, but he always finds a way to avoid it,” Rivera said, recalling one incident during a meeting of the Bronx NAACP in which Espada decided not to stay. “I don’t think he likes the debate format. He likes to be surrounded by his supporters while I like to be surrounded by actual voters.”
Born in Puerto Rico, like Espada, Rivera has lived in the Bronx for 10 years and cut his political teeth in the trenches for Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and campaigning for Barack Obama. “I live right up the street and I’m glad to be part of such a diverse community,” Rivera said.
That diversity in his district, demographically, is 51 percent Latino, 31 percent African American, 19 percent white . Rivera noted that a good percentage of the Black population in his district lives in the East Tremont section. “And I’m counting on their votes on September 14,” he added.
One African American vote he can count on is the Rev. Sharpton’s. “When I was jailed for protesting the bombing of Vieques, Gustavo was there, Pedro Espada wasn’t. … Gustavo had been in the trenches on the ground for me, and I plan to be there for him,” Sharpton announced.
On the issues of immigration, police brutality and affordable housing, Sharpton praised Rivera, and several of the passersby were familiar with Rivera’s work in the community.
“I’ve seen him around at various meetings and I like what he says,” said one shopper at a nearby store. She had just greeted Rivera and said she was certainly going to vote for him since she had never seen Espada, other than on television.
But rather than harp on Espada’s shortcomings, Rivera stressed what his campaign was all about. “Our campaign has always been about how we move forward, and putting together the best coalition we can to defeat Espada,” Rivera repeated.
Part of Rivera’s burgeoning army is comprised of members of the S.E.I.U and the Working Families Party. “They have been out there for me and I expect to have them with me all the way,” Rivera said. And maybe all the way to Albany.