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Democrats grapple for open congressional seat in the Bronx

Rep. Jose Serrano Chairman of the Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Subcommittee. | Andrew Harnik/AP Photo

NEW YORK — Ruben Diaz Sr.’s enemies call him a homophobic egomaniac — more of a mini-Trump than a Democrat.

But they also insist the longtime New York legislator is the man to beat in the South Bronx as Rep. José Serrano prepares to retire next year after nearly three decades in office, leaving a wide-open race in one of the poorest, most Democratic districts in America.

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Welcome to one of the more unusual 2020 Democratic primaries, a brewing Bronx showdown where the staunchly conservative Pentecostal reverend with a history of controversial anti-gay comments is facing off against a host of progressive candidates — including Ritchie Torres, a 31-year-old gay Council member who enjoys a large financial advantage in the race, but maintains that he is the underdog.

“Ruben Diaz Sr. is the frontrunner by default. If the race were held today, he would win on the sheer strength of name recognition,” Torres said.

“There’s a real risk that the most Democratic Congressional district in America could be represented by a de facto Trump Republican,” he said. “The notion of Ruben Diaz Sr. succeeding a larger than life icon like Jose Serrano represents a nightmare for the Democratic party, for the progressive movement.”

The race will be a test of whether the new progressive politics that have dominated New York politics of late translate to a community where longstanding ties to leaders like Diaz still hold significant sway over the electorate — especially in a population where religious and social issues still drive votes.

Diaz, who opposes abortion rights and was the only Democrat to vote against gay marriage as a state senator, was stripped this year of his committee overseeing the taxi industry for saying the City Council was “controlled by the homosexual community.”

Not long thereafter, he interrupted a sensitivity training session to insist he would never “rat” on a colleague accused of sexual harassment, and then defended himself by telling the Daily News that sometimes “sexual harassment is a compliment.” He also campaigned in the Bronx with Sen. Ted Cruz during the 2016 presidential election.

That history makes him a useful foil for his many rivals for the seat, but political observers say there’s a real chance he could win.

The core voters in the district have traditionally been senior Latina women, said Eli Valentin, a political consultant and professor at Monroe College.

“They tend to be socially conservative,” he said. “His comments don’t shock them too much.”

Diaz Sr. shares a name with his son, the popular Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., who has distanced himself from his father’s political views but could still help him at the polls.

“The Diaz name is golden. People are used to voting for a Diaz in the Bronx — that counts for something,” Valentin said.

Diaz said his opponents are unduly focused on attacking him.

“We live in America. Everybody has the right to say and do everything they want. I respect people’s right to speak … so I hope they also respect my right to free speech. This is America, praise the Lord,” he said.

“I’m not the front runner. I am the victim here. Everybody’s shooting at me. I don’t know why.”

The latest high-profile entrant into the race is Melissa Mark-Viverito, the former speaker of the City Council.

Mark-Viverito, who led pushes to close Rikers Island, decriminalize minor offenses, and restrict New York’s cooperation with federal immigration authorities, says she was pushing boundaries as a progressive long before the current insurgent movement in the Democratic party became popular. She has pledged not to accept money from real estate or corporate PACs.

“We’ve seen such a change,” she said. “When I came into politics … people were calling me the communist, and I was too far left, and too progressive.”

But Mark-Viverito does not live in the Bronx, a potential liability in a district located entirely in the borough. A longtime resident of East Harlem, she declined to commit to moving to the district immediately if elected, but said she would do so at some point.

Mark-Viverito, whose Council district included part of the Bronx, said voters would not care about her residency. “It’s about what kind of representative are you going to be, how available are you going to be to me, how are you going to change my life?” she said.

Both Mark-Viverito and Assemblyman Michael Blake, another candidate for the seat, were runners up in the recent race for public advocate.

Blake, who worked in the Obama administration on minority- and women-owned businesses, says that being the only candidate with federal experience makes him the best qualified for the job.

“It cannot be understated, the significance of this race. You’re talking about the most Democratic district in America, the poorest Congressional district in the country,” he said. “This will send a very clear message to the country and to the world of what direction are we going in in the south Bronx.”

With so many candidates in the race – at least nine are running so far — there is some fear that progressives may split the vote, making a victory by Diaz more likely.

State Sen. Gustavo Rivera, who considered running for the seat but ended up opting out, said he hoped the field would narrow and progressives could coalesce behind a candidate.

“How can we all get together and get behind someone who is going to make us proud, and not someone who’s going to embarrass us?” he said.

“It would be obscene for this person to occupy this seat,” he said of Diaz, predicting the Councilman known for his trademark cowboy hat would end up a maverick ally of President Trump. “He with his crazy freaking cowboy hat will show up to the White House with 20 cameras and will talk about this great leader we have. Because of the way his ego works, he will not be able to help himself.”

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