Incumbent Staves Off Leftist Insurgent in 84th Assembly District

Longtime incumbent Carmen Arroyo, 82, beat back a leftist insurgent challenger, Amanda Septimo, 27, in the race for assemblywoman in New York’s 84th district. Arroyo won 63 percent of the vote in a decisive victory for the South Bronx political establishment.

Arroyo was first elected in a 1994 special election and has sailed to successive re-elections since, despite numerous charges of election misconduct and fraud. Septimo, part of the wave of progressive newcomers sweeping elections, gave Arroyo her most significant challenge to date, winning 38 percent of the district’s voters.

Prior to this year, Arroyo’s most successful primary challenger won 32 percent of the vote. According to Vote Smart, a nonpartisan site that tracks American politicians’ voting records, she tends to vote along party lines and has spent years working on the alcohol and drug abuse, children and families, and aging committees.

Septimo’s political career began as the community liaison for U.S. Rep. José Serrano’s office, where she was quickly promoted to district director. She viewed affordable housing and universal after-school care among her top priorities.

Septimo received endorsements from a number of progressive groups such as the Working Families Party and Run for Something, and media endorsements from the Bronx Chronicle, El Diario, and Welcome2TheBronx. Her endorsers focused on Septimo’s progressive policy ideas and status as a young newcomer, compared to her 82 year-old rival whose financial scandals have plagued the last few years of her tenure.

“We deserve better. That doesn’t just mean better than Carmen Arroyo, though that’s true. It also means better than our elected officials.” said Septimo the day prior to the election. In contrast to Arroyo’s many endorsements from within her party, only two politicians have endorsed Septimo.

Arroyo received endorsements from Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr., Councilman Rafael Salamanca Jr., the Bronx Democrats, and Speaker of the New York State Assembly Carl Heastie, in addition to various state senators and assemblymen. She encouraged Bronxites to “vote results not rhetoric,” and touted her voting record for progressive causes including increased minimum wage, paid family leave, and tuition-free college.

Between 2006 and 2013, the Board of Elections sued Arroyo 21 times for failing to disclose her campaign finances. In 2012, Arroyo’s primary challenger Maximino Rivera sued her and the New York City Board of Elections for election fraud. Rivera accused Arroyo of voter intimidation, claiming that she colluded with poll workers to steer voters in her favor. Arroyo’s daughter, a former city councilwoman who resigned in 2015, also led a scandal-ridden tenure ending in three charges of forgery against campaign officials.

Despite known misconduct, Bronx politics are difficult to crack. “She’s seen as a real defender of Latinos and she’s been there an awfully long time. It’s hard to beat incumbents, especially in the Bronx,” said Hank Sheinkopf, political expert and president of Sheinkopf Communications. “There has to be an extraordinary event that would cause her to lose. Especially in a low voting area, where people don’t have a history of voting on a Thursday in September. When you move dates around like that, it tends to protect incumbents.”

Septimo predicated much of her campaign on transparency.  She challenged Arroyo to a debate three times, but Arroyo neglected to respond.

Arroyo and Septimo shared similar views on many hot-button issues. Both candidates ran on platforms of gun control and holding the New York City Housing Authority accountable to their tenants. The crux of voters decisions laid in each candidate’s campaigning styles: while Arroyo has built up trust with South Bronx voters after decades of service, many voters were persuaded by Septimo’s grassroots style campaign. “She called me personally. I got a lot of calls from her office, and they convinced me. What she’s for, the reason she’s running, is what I’m for,” said Marian Langley, 83, a Hunts Point resident and voter.

Even those who stayed loyal to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who also beat back his progressive challenger last night to win the Democratic nomination for a third term, found Septimo’s status as a newcomer appealing. “I do appreciate the things Cuomo has done. There’s always sneaky stuff, but the stuff we know about I appreciate,” said Nick Rosado, a Mott Haven voter. 

This formula, however, did not hold for Arroyo. “I voted for Septimo,” said Rosado. “I’m not the most educated voter, but I read a lot of literature about her. She just seemed like a smart up-and-comer and I just wanted to give her a try.”

Voter turnout more than tripled compared to 2016, from 3,162 voters to 10,427 voters, surprising some residents. “I feel like a lot of people gave up because they are not seeing any difference at all,” said Biatou Camara, citing the failure of politicians to address the recent crises at NYCHA and ongoing gun violence in the neighborhood.

Septimo, who set her campaign office in a coworking space in the Hub, a bustling shopping district and transit center in the South Bronx, gained name recognition around the community by knocking on doors and making phone calls. By contrast, Arroyo spent much of her summer campaigning with Councilman Salamanca and attending events for residents of public housing and the elderly, where she had already built a rapport with fellow attendees.

Abetted by the wave of leftist candidates, some experts saw Septimo as a viable contender. “The race wasn’t on my radar at all as competitive, like many races are, and then about a week or two ago, somebody from a union said Arroyo might be in some trouble,” said Jerry Skurnik, founder of political consulting firm Prime New York. In the end, however, conventional wisdom won out.

Arroyo could not be reached for comment for this article.

PS 48 Joseph R. Drake, the Hunts Point polling station.
Credit: Savannah Jacobson

 

Correction: A previous version of this article mistakenly stated that Arroyo’s most significant challenger won 25 percent of the vote. It has since been updated.