A Bronx ballroom filled with supporters of political newcomer Mark Gjonaj erupted in cheers near midnight Sept. 13 when poll numbers pushed the real estate developer over the top in the race for the Democratic state assembly nomination in the 80th district.
Gjonaj, 43, is poised to become the first Albanian American in the Bronx to hold a seat in the assembly. He toppled two-term incumbent Naomi Rivera by a margin of 11 percent (513 votes).
More than one hundred supporters celebrated the successful campaign with food, an open bar and DJ at Maestro’s Catering on Bronxdale Avenue in Van Nest. “I’m feeling loved,” Gjonaj told the crowd, with relief. “I’m feeling blessed and I’m grateful and I’m humbled.”
Rivera, his opponent who has held the 80th assembly seat since 2005 had the backing of the powerful Bronx Democratic Committee, including Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. She faced criticism after political scandals surfaced during her most recent term. Most recently Rivera came under fire for placing boyfriend Tommy Torres on her state payroll as a part-time consultant. Another investigation involving a different ex-boyfriend is also underway.
Gjonaj won the backing of social conservative New York State Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr. He outspent Rivera by about 62 percent. Gjonaj thanked his campaign volunteers and supporters in a speech, saying “without them, there’s no me.”
“This is about progress,” said Gjonaj in a speech last night. “It’s about change. It’s about moving forward.” He also acknowledged Rivera’s public service in the district for the past eight years. Gjonaj grew up in the Bronx on Arthur Avenue and Pelham Parkway, the son of two Albanian immigrants. He has worked as a realtor and businessman, and has served as a member of the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission.
According to campaign manager Emmett Hare, Gjonaj currently resides in at Eastchester Road in the Pelham Parkway neighborhood with his wife and two sons, ages 12 and 13. He used his business acumen to his advantage, and raised $227,893 for his campaign according to financial disclosure reports from April to August. His backers included several realtors, construction companies, insurance agencies, contractors and law firms, as well as many individual donors. Rivera raised $140,697.69 between March and August.
Community outreach was a key aspect of Gjonaj’s campaign. On Sundays throughout the summer, he hosted free barbecues for residents of his district. He launched a street-cleaning initiative called “Gjonaj Cares” along 204th Street in the Norwood area of the Bronx and on Lydig Avenue in Morris Park. His Morris Park campaign office opened to the public as a cooling station during the summer, he donated school supplies to the children of the Pelham Parkway Houses development and facilitated the donation of unsold food from local restaurants to shelters.
Gjonaj’s campaign team, dressed in signature yellow shirts, was out in full force in the weeks before the election, handing out pamphlets and talking to community members. Volunteer Troy Coleman said that “the experience was fantastic.” The day of the primaries, he campaigned outside of Tracey Towers, where Gjonaj was active in preventing a rent increase.
Gjonaj promised to work hard for the future of his district. “This means the 80th assembly district will have somebody that represents their best interests,” he said. “I’m going to wake up each with them on my mind and before I lay my head down to sleep. I’m going to think about them and how I serve them.”