When New York City shut down to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Samelys López hit a snag in her campaign for New York’s 15th congressional District in the South Bronx. López, a democratic socialist and outsider to electoral politics, had initially based her campaign on a strong ground game and an army of door-knockers in the model of other leftist insurgents like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the nearly successful candidacy of Tiffany Cabán for Queens District Attorney. López’s effort was starting to really gain momentum just as the pandemic arrived and ground all in-person campaigning to a halt, according to her campaign director, Jenny Zhang.
Though it could not fully substitute face-to-face organizing, the campaign seized on another way to make a difference. When phone banking led to conversations with people who had arbitrarily lost or been denied unemployment benefits, or were otherwise in dire straits, the campaign launched a mutual aid project for the district, delivering food to people’s doors in partnership with tenant associations.
Through these meal deliveries, canvassers identified a dormant tenant association in the neighborhood that then reactivated and recruited more tenants that had not been affiliated with the association before. For López, this kind of activity is part and parcel of her current electoral effort. “My hope is that beyond the election we can tap into those networks and plug people into existing networks and let them grow—to build a network that can outlive this crisis,” López told Current Affairs.
A formerly homeless housing advocate, Samelys López is running in a field of over a dozen candidates—most of them established politicians—hoping to represent New York’s 15th District, the South Bronx, in Congress.The Bronx is often described as New York City’s forgotten borough, and López and her supporters view this district—inhabited by people who have historically been oppressed by capitalism and state racism and have fought back through grassroots organizing—as being primed for a democratic socialist representative. López is running at a time when the progressive left, in the wake of the defeat of Bernie Sanders, is building on the gains of previous electoral victories on the local level and trying to push national and state legislatures left in the face of opposition from a powerful and entrenched Democratic machine.
López and her politics
Born in 1979 in Bayamón, Puerto Rico, to a Puerto Rican father and a Dominican mother, Samelys López moved to New York City at the age of two with her mother, who then spent years working in a sweatshop. Spending much of her childhood in unstable housing situations, including several years in the shelter system, she found a stable home in the Mount Eden section of the Bronx and went on to earn a bachelor’s from Barnard and a master’s in urban planning at NYU with an emphasis on affordable housing. She says the exploitation she suffered and witnessed growing up radicalized her, which is why her professional career and work as a community organizer has all centered around affordable housing.
“Every decision I’ve ever made in my life is because of what happened to me when I was growing up,” López says. “Everything I’ve devoted my life to stems from that.”
López’s campaign platform evinces that same dedication to affordable housing. She would support Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Kamala Harris’ Fair Chance at Housing Act, which removes restrictions on access to federal housing assistance for people with criminal histories, and Rep. Ilhan Omar’s Homes for All Act, which would build 12 million units of social housing over the next decade. The act would also repeal the Faircloth Amendment, a 1998 law that forbids a net increase in public housing units, requiring one existing public housing unit be destroyed or privatized for every new unit created.
Public housing is a very urgent local issue in López’s district, which has among the highest numbers of public housing of any congressional district in the country. New York City itself is home to the country’s largest public housing system, the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), which houses an estimated 600,000 people—more than the entire population of Baltimore. NYCHA’s residents have to contend with extremely dilapidated living conditions as a result of decades of underfunding. The huge brutalist buildings that were once the pride of the city are currently in disrepair, with lead and asbestos contamination rampant. Elevators, water, and heating often don’t function, and repairs can take months and even years to complete, if ever. López speaks fervently of what she calls a “Green New Deal for NYCHA”: a plan to fix the housing authority’s $8 billion budget deficit and decarbonize and sanitize its housing stock. She also wants to end the Rental Assistance Demonstration program (RAD), a recent scheme that puts certain NYCHA buildings under private management (RAD is controversial because it introduces private funding, removes units from being legally designated as public housing, has facilitated high rates of eviction, and opens up the door to possible privatization).
A cornerstone of her housing plan is community involvement and input: “We have to implement the Green New Deal and incorporate frontline environmental advocates,” López says, which to her involves engaging NYCHA residents in the rehabilitation of housing stock, including them in the oversight process, incorporating principles developed by local groups fighting environmental racism, and training locals to take part in infrastructure projects and to eventually work the jobs that will make up the “green” overhaul of America’s economy.
In 2009, López herself co-founded an organization named Velo City, which organizes young people in the South Bronx and Brownsville to take an interest in urban planning, city organization, and to embrace biking as a mode of transportation. She drew on this experience for a recent campaign event, which was held in person but socially distant: a community bike ride through the district, using the greenways on Grand Concourse, Mosholu Parkway, and Southern Boulevard. “I see biking as an organizing tool and a tool that builds community,” says López, an avid cyclist herself. (When asked what she does for fun, and how she is coping with the current lockdown, her answer to both is “riding my bike.”) She also used the recent bike ride as a form of political education, routing it to pass by Charlotte Street—visited by Carter and Reagan as an exemplar of the worst “slums” in the South Bronx in the 1970s and ‘80s, now lined with well-kept single-family homes.
If elected, López intends to maintain her participatory, movement-based approach to politics—an approach she shares with Sen. Bernie Sanders, who just endorsed her. “It’s important to have political representatives to be intentional about seeking guidance from movement spaces,” López says, arguing that policy papers are unjustly given far more weight than lived experiences when in reality, people tend to know the problems of their own communities best, from where the potholes are to which landlords intimidate their tenants by threatening them with ICE. “Who better than the community, right? The community is an expert.”
For Jazz Hooks, a 26-year-old campaign volunteer from Fordham, López’s grassroots approach is what motivated him to work on her campaign. “It takes more than one person in office to accomplish something and the fact that she understands that and doesn’t consider herself a savior is why people should consider voting for her,” Hooks says.
NY-15 encompasses the southern half of the borough of the Bronx, from newly gentrifying Mott Haven up to Fordham Road, a major commercial artery of the borough, and extends east to the industrial zone of Hunts Point, home to the city’s largest wholesale food market, all the way to Soundview. Near its upper edge runs the infamous Cross Bronx expressway, built by hegemonic city planner Robert Moses in the 1960s, against the will of local communities. The expressway is widely blamed for splitting the Bronx in two and causing decay in surrounding neighborhoods like Tremont. It is also part of the reason that the Bronx has high levels of air pollution, resulting in asthma death rates triple the national average.
NY-15 is the poorest congressional district in the country, with 33.8 percent of people living below the poverty line, according to the 2018 American Community Survey. But, says Samelys López, “we’re much more than the poorest congressional district in the country.” The area is home to immigrants originating from Albania to Ghana, Bangladesh, and the Dominican Republic. And though the South Bronx is treated as a peripheral space by New York City, it has been the site of major pivotal events in the city’s recent history. It’s where hip-hop was born from Afro-Carribean DJs at house parties in the early 1970s. During that same time, it also saw landlords burn down their own buildings for the insurance money because property values had dropped very low, while the fire department stood by—a phenomenon often reduced to the sentence “the Bronx was burning,” with little acknowledgement for the political and economic causes, or how churches and community groups rebuilt housing in the area brick by literal brick.
The South Bronx is more than a test case for the left—it should be a focal point and thought leader of the left, López argues, given its people’s long tradition of grassroots organizing in response to being disproportionately targeted by capital and the state. Many residents are leftists, in sum, without necessarily adopting ideological labels like “democratic socialist” as López has.
“In the South Bronx, we’re very grassroots, everything democratic socialism represents…The South Bronx should be looked at as a global policy leader,” she says. “Unfortunately, people still think that it’s burning.”
Several leftist movements shaped the South Bronx, including the Black Panther Party, which implemented its free breakfast program in the Bronx and throughout underserved neighborhoods in the city.The Black Panthers helped inspire the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican liberation movement. In 1969, the Young Lords lit garbage on fire to protest the lack of trash pickup in the South Bronx and barricaded Lincoln Hospital—which was the only hospital in the South Bronx at the time and remains the Bronx’s only public hospital—and administered community-run health services and drug treatment clinics.
The injustices the Young Lords and the Black Panther Party protested against are still cruelly relevant. COVID-19 has ravaged the area, compounded by high rates of pollution-induced asthma and a large population of essential workers. Recently, a protest against police brutality in Mott Haven turned into what many called a police ambush as police kettled protesters before curfew, beating many people and arresting at least 100, including legal observers and medics. (When asked about the police’s recent actions, López told Current Affairs, “As someone living in the heart of the South Bronx, I’m sensitive to the hurt, anger and fear felt by so many in the community at this time and calls for a moment of deep solidarity. We must end the curfew and defund NYPD.”)
But despite a strong legacy of leftist community organizing that continues today, the South Bronx’s Democratic political machine has rarely reflected the radical backbone of local communities. It was Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson who presided over miscarriages of justice like the three-year pre-trial detention of Kalief Browder that drove Browder to suicide. (Johnson was later replaced by current D.A. Darcel Clark through a nomination by party insiders who maneuvered to avoid a primary.) Politicians like Bronx borough President Ruben Díaz Jr. approved rezonings that residents have criticized as accelerators of gentrification, most recently the rezoning of the commercial strip of Jerome Avenue to largely residential development—a move that is set to displace numerous auto body shops and other small businesses, and with them hundreds of jobs. Recently, Bronx Congressman Eliot Engel (running against progressive candidate Jamaal Bowman) was caught on a hot mic at a public event about New York City’s protest movement saying “if I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care.”
In a move that was criticized at the time and would seem even more controversial now amid calls to defund the police, in 2015 then-City Council Speaker and representative of the southern tip of the South Bronx Melissa Mark-Viverito led the charge to hire 1,000 new police officers to bolster what was already referred to as “the world’s largest private army.”
The actions of machine politicians breed cynicism, López says. “People aren’t as actively engaged in the political process because of obvious reasons that I totally understand. It’s important to introduce a new energy.”
The factors that maintain harmful politicians in office are complicated, but they include low turnout (around 10 percent) and low dissemination of information—Jazz Hooks, the López campaign volunteer, said the hardest part of canvassing over the phone was conveying to voters that there actually was a primary and that sitting Congressman José Serrano was retiring. But the chief factor, as it is throughout New York City, is the influence of real estate money, especially in districts where most voters lack the funds to make big donations and politicians get their money from deep-pocketed developers.
The state of the race
This district’s lack of resources is no impediment to being a sought-after electoral prize. In fact, the same things that make the South Bronx a symbolic district for the left also make it a target for Democrats of every ideology in search of progressive, populist credibility. “It’s a powerful thing that our district is under-resourced,” Hooks says. “I feel that the machine Dems who are running might use that for their legitimacy, even if their politics are not in the best interest of people who live here.”
That is a significant part of why this race—for which early voting begins June 13, with the polls closing on June 23—is extremely crowded, with some 15 candidates entering the fray. A who’s who of Democratic politicians from various constituencies in uptown Manhattan and the Bronx are jockeying to replace the outgoing Serrano, who is retiring due to Parkinson’s disease. Several of the candidates—Melissa Mark-Viverito, Ritchie Torres, Ydanis Rodriguez, and Michael Blake—ran and lost last year for Public Advocate, a position second in line to the Mayor that is meant to act as a check on the chief executive and provide constituent services for all New Yorkers. It has historically functioned as a progressive bully pulpit. Mark-Viverito, Torres, and Rodriguez are also current or former City Council members who have been term-limited out or are facing term limits, and being the congressional representative for NY-15 has much more job security. Not only are there no term limits in Congress, NY-15 is also the most solidly Democratic congressional district in the nation, the definition of a safe seat.
Political analysts have designated City Councilman Rubén Díaz Sr., a Pentecostal minister and a flamboyantly homophobic conservative Democrat who has said he might vote for Trump, as the front-runner. Within the city at large, he is perhaps best known for his history of reactionary statements, like his claim in 2019 that the City Council was “controlled by the homosexual community.” But in NY-15, he has significant name recognition for being a minister, for representing sections of the district in the New York State Senate and now in the City Council, and for being the father and namesake of current Bronx Borough President Rubén Díaz Jr. Much of the talk about the non-Díaz contenders in the race has been about who would be best suited to defeat Díaz.
López did not originally intend to throw her hat in the ring, saying she was happy with her then-current job helping develop affordable housing. But local activists urged her to launch her candidacy to succeed Serrano, whom López worked for as a community advocate and later as director of constituent services in the mid-2000s. “People in the movement space, when they saw who was running, they said ‘this is not who we feel comfortable with,’” López says.
Serrano, who has held the seat since 1990, has been one of the most progressive members of Congress throughout his career, particularly in the pre-2016 neoliberal consensus. He has not endorsed anybody in the race and seems unlikely to do so. But López contends that he deserves a spiritual successor to take over his seat. “Serrano is a co-founder of the Medicare For All caucus,” López notes. “It would be a travesty if someone who ends up in the seat is a milquetoast corporate Democrat.”
López says her socialist ideology and lack of previous experience holding elected office—though as a community organizer and member of Bronx Community Board 7, she is hardly new to politics—mean she’s had to fight harder for recognition in this race, but that’s nothing new to her. “I know what it’s like to be dismissed, I know what it’s like to not be taken seriously, as a formerly homeless Latina.”
While the fact that López has never held elected office is not a liability per se—her overall political experience is more extensive than many in the 116th congress, about 40 percent of whom have no previous experience in government—it seems like it may be an impediment to getting noticed in a race packed to the brim with big names. One of the few polls in this primary, conducted in mid-May by the left-liberal think tank Data for Progress, has her polling at 2 percent with Ruben Díaz Sr. in the lead and Ritchie Torres trailing him. The memo accompanying the poll then endorses Torres.
When asked for comment on the Data for Progress poll, the campaign told Current Affairs, “The poll, which was conducted about a month ago, is inconsistent with our internal field numbers and was conducted by a Torres supporter and ally. We do not believe that the poll was conducted or published objectively and in good faith. We must remember that 3 weeks out from AOC’s 2018 election, Joe Crowley’s polling had him leading by 36 percentage points…we believe it is clear who the working class champion is in this race.”
There has been no shortage of coverage of Ritchie Torres—the top fundraiser in the race, polling second-highest after Díaz, and the Bronx’s first openly gay City Council member—as the supposed best alternative to Díaz. But Torres’ large pile of cash has also earned him scrutiny, coming as it does from real estate developers, many of whom have business interests in the district. When asked by local outlet THE CITY about his donors, Torres responded, “We have a diversified donor base with contributors big and small.”
For Jenny Zhang, López’s campaign director, establishment politicians are not the answer to defeating Díaz in this primary that has the urgency of a general election. “I just hope people see this narrative that other candidates are better positioned to take on Rubén Díaz is not borne out by the facts on the ground,” Zhang says.
Current events, especially COVID-19 and its human and economic toll, have completely validated López’s policy positions, like Medicare for All and a Homes Guarantee, Zhang says. Bernie Sanders, Naomi Klein, Tiffany Cabán, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez seem to agree, as they have all endorsed López’s candidacy. López’s message is also gaining momentum inside the district, and she currently has far and away the highest number of individual donations from the Bronx of any candidate in the field—almost triple the number of the next highest candidate, Ritchie Torres, according to FEC data.
Backing a middle-of-the-road candidate—or one with progressive rhetoric but fealty to corporate interests—in the hopes of meeting the lowest common denominator is not the path to electoral victory or to legislative success, Zhang says.
“We are going to be a small minority in Congress no matter what,” Zhang says, referring to progressive Democrats. “These voices need to be strong, they need to be compelling.”
“You don’t want to be morally compromised.”