Dan Padernacht stood next to the turnstiles of the Mosholu Parkway subway station yesterday, greeting early-morning commuters with political fliers and a grin that masked any disenchantment over his washed-up campaign for state senator.
The 34-year-old Bronx real estate lawyer was in the unusual position of convincing voters to cast their ballots for his former political rival, Gustavo Rivera. Padernacht teamed up with Rivera when he realized he couldn’t win, in an effort to take down the incumbent in the Democratic primary race for the 33rd Senate district, Pedro Espada, Jr.
So there he was at 7:20 a.m., the day before the primary, dressed in an unassuming dark brown suit, standing alongside Rivera and Councilman Oliver Koppell, trying to be the least popular political figure amongst voters.
Two days before he officially withdrew from the race on Sept. 5, the New York Times endorsed Rivera, calling Padernacht a distraction and questioning his understanding of state issues.
“What I wanted to do from the very beginning was just kind of tell people, ‘These are the candidates. Come out and vote,’” said Padernacht, who admits to now having a jaded view of journalism. “I tried doing that as long as possible. Then it came to a point where a lot of papers only wrote about me being a spoiler and that was it.”
Padernacht had also suffered another setback a day prior to the Rivera endorsement. A 1,300-plus word New York Times article entitled, “Critics Root for Espada’s Exit, but He’s Dug In,” reported in passing that Padernacht had done pro bono legal work for State Senator Rubén Díaz Sr., an Espada supporter.
“The truth is I’ve never done pro bono work for Senator Díaz himself. The truth is I was part of a pro bono program, which was set up by the New York state attorney who was assigned to Rubén Díaz,” Padernacht said of his work in the summer of 2008 with lawyer Luis Sepulveda, who is a current candidate for the 76th district state assembly seat. “Basically, at that point, they were trying to say, ‘Well, you were doing free legal work for Senator Díaz,’ which wasn’t true. I was doing legal work for poor people who couldn’t afford an attorney.”
Padernacht thought his portrayal in the media would confuse voters. He predicted he could take second place in the race, but that Espada would still win. Estimating that he held about 3,500 votes that could go toward defeating the state senator, Padernacht did what he thought was best for the community where he was born and raised. He tried to serve the greater good.
Rivera was grateful, at least. “It shows the kind of community activist that Dan is,” Rivera said of his withdrawal. “We feel that there hasn’t been true representation here, because we have somebody who does not respect the people here. The best way is to get rid of Espada, and the best way to do that is together.”
By 8 a.m. Padernacht had parted ways with Rivera and company and headed back to his law office. He strolled past P.S. 95, his own elementary school on Sedgwick Avenue, where he attended before J.H.S. 143 and Fordham Preparatory High School.
About a quarter mile further he walked into a group of buildings by Giles Place historically known as the Sholem Aleichem Houses, where he grew up, lives and works.
His office is in the ground floor of a five-story brick walk-up, and the walls are covered in memories: diplomas from Fairfield University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in economics, and John Marshall Law School in Chicago where he earned his law degree.
Encased in glass above his desktop computer rests the orange T-shirt he wore for the 2009 ING New York City marathon. Padernacht ran as a member of Fred’s Team, a program that supports the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan. Written in pen along the front are the words, “In Memory of Howard Padernacht,” his father who first came to the housing complex in 1949 and died of throat cancer almost a year and a half ago.
His mother Pamela, who still lives in the same complex, is a second grade teacher at Our Lady of Angels; and his two brothers, Steven and Michael, work out of their shared office.
“When they talked about how Gustavo’s the favorite and everything, they hadn’t walked through this neighborhood,” said Padernacht’s younger brother, Steven, who described his act to back out of the race as noble. “This is our area.”
“I had a core of people here in these buildings. It’s people I’ve known for a very long time,” said Padernacht, who also serves on his local community board. “For me, I’m just disappointed.”
He had to pull down his large vinyl banner for candidacy that was hung on the corner of Sedgwick and West 238th Street. He’s taken down signs, recorded robocalls, and updated his Facebook to show he’s now backing Rivera.
Aside from personal appearances, the only other way to spread the word is through the very institution on which he remains skeptical: the media.
“What I’ve learned over the last few months, right or wrong, the media has huge influence on elections,” Padernacht said.
Today, Padernacht plans to vote up the street at Kingsbridge Heights Rehabilitation Center. He’ll see his name on the ballot, and he’ll have to place a vote for someone else. As for the rest of his supporters, he’s unsure where they’ll fall.
“Now what they’re going to do, I don’t know,” Padernacht wondered. “Will they stay home? Will they go vote? Will they vote for Gustavo? I don’t know.”