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Lost Jobs Mean Lost Family

By Connor Boals

Eddie Marrero and Evelyn Rivera still keep a package of union-made Stella D'Oro breadsticks. They say they'll never buy Stella products again. Photo by Connor Boals

Eddie Marrero and Evelyn Rivera still keep a package of union-made Stella D'Oro breadsticks. They say they'll never buy Stella products again. Photo by Connor Boals

The main strip of Broadway running through the neighborhood of Kingsbridge in the Northwest Bronx looks the same since the Stella D’Oro cookie factory closed its doors for good in October.

There is only one difference: the unmistakable scent of baked goods in the oven.

“I used to get that aroma here,” said Eddie Marrero, a 30-year veteran of the plant, who lives blocks away in an apartment on Bailey Avenue. “When I’d go out on my terrace, I could tell what they were baking.”

On October 8, 2009, the employees of Stella D’Oro went to work for the last time. About 140 employees, including Marrero, lost their jobs when the 78-year-old plant closed down for good. The closing came in the wake of a protracted dispute between the unionized workers and the current ownership that led to a lengthy labor strike. It left many workers–who felt like Stella D’Oro was family–unmoored in the weeks before the holiday season.

Marrero, 50, said he started with Stella as a production packer in 1979. By the time the factory closed, he was a foreman baker who oversaw the ovens, the production lines and checked for quality control.

“It’s not like a chocolate chip cookie,” Marrero said of the challenge of baking quality Stella D’Oro treats. “One day the breakfast treats can come out looking like crap.”

Marrero’s live-in girlfriend Evelyn Rivera, got a job as a table packer two years ago, after she was laid off from her position as a clerk on Wall Street.

Rivera began by working the overnight shift, packing snacks into trays alongside five to 10 other women from 11 p.m. to 8 a.m.

“I was used to paper work,” she said of the aches that came with manual labor. She pulled her finger back as if squeezing a gun to demonstrate how the muscles in her hand would freeze up from the “trigger finger” she developed packing up to 10,000 cookies a day.

“It’s an art,” she said, “It’s not like “I Love Lucy” when they got jobs at the candy factory.”

Marrero said that a Stella D’Oro job was one of the best jobs to be had in the Bronx.

“Nobody is going to find a job like Stella D’Oro,” he said. “It was the only job in the Bronx that started you off at $14 an hour.”

Marrero said he was making $21 and hour when the factory closed, coming out around $65,000 a year. Rivera, who began at $14 an hour, was on her second raise, making $16 an hour.

About 75 former employees, community members and labor activists protested outside the factory on October 9, 2009 after the factory was closed the day before. Video by Connor Boals

Now, Marrero is “semi-retired,” still waiting for $7,000 owed to him from a National Labor Relations Board ruling against Brynwood Partners, the company that purchased Stella D’Oro two-and-a-half years ago. His son, Eddie is 23 and attends John Jay College where he studies criminal justice. Marrero covered his tuition until this year, now his son is taking care of his education through loans.

Rivera’s daughter, Rosa, is 19 and a senior at John F. Kennedy High School. Come January, both mother and daughter will be students when Rivera goes back to school to get study medical coding in pursuit of a job in a medical billing department.

For nearly 80 years the Stella D’Oro Cookie factory churned out its trademark cookies, breadsticks and pastries that are distributed nationwide.

The bakery’s iconic treats trace their heritage to Joseph Kresevich, who emigrated to the United States from Trieste, Italy in 1922. Ten years later, he and his wife Angela established Stella D’Oro, Italian for “gold star,” in a small shop on Bailey Avenue in Kingsbridge.

Although Stella D’Oro’s cookies were based on the Italian pastries that Kresevich remembered from his homeland, they quickly became cross-cultural snacks.

The Stella D'Oro factory at the corner of 237th Street and Broadway has been empty since the brand was purchased by Lance, Inc. and moved to an Ohio factory

The Stella D'Oro factory at the corner of 237th Street and Broadway has been empty since the brand was purchased by Lance, Inc. and moved to an Ohio factory

The factory’s neighborhood was largely filled with Jewish families, and the fact that the pastries were often made without eggs or butter meant that they were suitable for kosher customers. A particular favorite was the company’s Swiss Fudge cookies, which many Jewish consumers dubbed “shtreimels,” after the round fur hats that are traditionally worn on the Sabbath by Hasidic Jews.

In 1992, Stella D’Oro was purchased by Nabisco, which subsequently became part of Kraft foods. In 2003, Kraft began experimenting with cheaper ingredients, ultimately dropping the “pareve” kosher designation from its label. This led to an immediate uproar among the Jewish consumers who formed the bulk of the company’s customer base. Kraft quickly changed back to the original recipe and re-instituted its kosher certification.

In 2006, Kraft sold Stella D’Oro to a private equity firm, Brynwood Partners for $17.5 million, a significant reduction compared to the $100 million price tag Kraft paid for the brand. Soon thereafter, Brynwood attempted to cut employee health and retirement benefits and proposed ending pensions in exchange for establishing 401(k)s.

“A 401(k) can go in a blast,” Marrero said. “That ain’t no pension. If I live up to 100, I’m going to be getting that.”

Marrero said that the pension plan he is on was a “golden eighties” plan which a worker qualified for after 15 or twenty years of service and then it paid out double the amount for every year worked.
On August 13, 2008, 135 employees, all members of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union Local 50 went on strike because of the demands the new owners had brought to the table. The Local 50 is a small union, with membership around 1,000 workers, so the a support group, the Stella D’Oro Solidarity Committee, consisting of community members, labor activists and union members

According to the committee, Brynwood’s wanted to slash wages as much as 25 percent, impose “crushing” premiums to the health insurance plan, eliminate holidays, vacation and sick pay and do away with extra pay for working Saturdays.

Marrero said the message he was hearing from Brynwood was that they didn’t have the money to pay for these things anymore. This confused Marrero because he never saw any cutbacks on production.

“As soon as we were baking them, they were going into the trucks.” He said. “There was always work, we could work as long as we wanted.”

Marrero said he would often work 40 hours a week, plus 11-12 hours in overtime where he was paid time-and-a-half.

The union, which had represented the workers since the early 1960s, rejected the new company’s demands and began picketing. Brynwood immediately replaced them with backup workers that they had already gathered.

Every day when the replacement workers emerged from the factory for a shift change, they were met with angry heckling.

“Scabs!” the crowd roared.

“I was going to get into a fight with a few of them,” Rivera said.

This was Rivera’s first strike. Marrero had previously been through four during his tenure at Stella D’Oro.

“I learned so much from it,” she said. “I never thought I would go on strike.”

Rivera said that she is thankful to have been on strike. It was a pivotal experience, where she gained knowledge and friendship.

“When I was out there in the strike, I got to know everybody. We got to know each other much better. It was a friendly atmosphere.” She said.

“The strikers figured it would be two weeks,” said Micah Landau, a community supporter and graduate student at CUNY. “Then it started getting cold and it went from August 13 to October 13.”

Landau said that Brynwood Partners intentionally created unreasonable demands to bust the union.

“These guys, they provoke the strike, and its because they weren’t interested in negotiating,” he said. “It was like a siege. They were trying to starve people out.”

The plight of the workers attracted the attention of many in the world of New York City politics and activism. Marrero said that nearly every New York City politician came out and show support at one time or another, all except for Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

“You have all these politicians but you only have one emperor,” he said of Bloomberg. “He’s still ignoring us.”

The tiny factory sparked a reaction from labor groups across New York, the country and even beyond the borders of the United States. On the day the factory closed, US Senate candidate Jonathan Tasini, Assemblyman Michael Benjamin, Assemblyman Jose Rivera and Billy Talen all marched with about 50 former employees outside the factory on the day it was finally closed

Talen, better know as “Reverend Billy” is a bouffant-adorned performance activist who runs the Church of Life after Shopping, a performance group dedicated to fighting the evils of capitalism. Reverend Billy performs “exorcisms,” preaches revival-style sermons and pops up on cable news with color commentary any time that capitalism is under examination. The Reverend, who was also the Green Party candidate for New York City mayor, dedicated his latest sermon to the plight of the Stella D’Oro workers.

“The Stella D’Oro factory bakery was the backbone of this community,” Talen said. “It’s very sad.”

Talen wasn’t the only anti-capitalist rabble-rouser to come to the aid of the workers. In September, the union workers asked Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela, to purchase the factory and fund a Kingsbridge worker’s cooperative through Venezuela’s own oil and gas supplier, CITGO. Chavez took them seriously.

Chavez, who was in New York City for the 2009 United Nations General Assembly, told the UN, “One of [the workers] said to me, ‘Why don’t you buy the company?’” I said, ‘I’m going to look into it.’”

“We could turn it into a socialist company if Obama authorizes me,” Chavez said. “The company can be bought and handed over to the workers.”

Chavez was no stranger to the Bronx. In the winter of 2005, according to the New York Times, he provided 8 million gallons of discounted heating oil to thousands of low-income residents in the South Bronx.

Brynwood rebuffed Chavez’s offer. The company never answered any calls made on his behalf.

With only 135 union members from a small union that only had 1,000 members total, the workers needed help from outside the union to have any chance, Landau said.

Landau was working as a staff reporter for the United Federation of Teachers when he traveled to Kingsbridge to cover the strikers in December 2008.

“They’d been on strike since August,” he said. “They were like starving to death on the picket line. It was like watching people die.”

Soon he went from writer to community organizer, steering the community outreach and working to make sure the plight of the Stella D’Oro worker was getting attention from the media and the rest of the labor world.

“I had just wanted to write about this thing,” he said. “I ended up getting involved to the point where the newspapers wouldn’t let me write about it anymore.”

Landau has since moved to Chicago, passing the torch to Rene Rojas, 37, a PhD student at New York University.

“The support committee itself is no longer functioning,” Rojas said. “I don’t think there will be a set of demands for Stella D’Oro anymore. The fight has shifted to getting the right severance package.”

After the strike was ended by a National Labor Relations Board ruling, Rojas said, the court ordered a new severance package for the workers. Now, Brynwood Partners is trying to revert to an older, less generous package that existed before the ruling.

“Right now I would say I’m too old to go look for a job,” said Emelia Dursu, 58, who worked at the factory as a table packer, placing cookies in trays for 20 years. She said she began working at the factory in 1979 after she immigrated to the New York City from Ghana. She has three children, all of them grown. “I’m going to wait and live on the little bit that I have and depend on my children to survive until my pension is around 2012 or 13.”

Mike Filippou, who worked as a lead mechanic at Stella for over 14 years and orchestrated much of the rally efforts is taking classes to become a certified mechanic so that he can pursue work at a Wonderbread factory in Queens which is a member of the Local 50 Union.

“I would say the majority of workers still have not been placed in jobs,” said Rojas. “It’s easier for those like Mike who have a certain skill, but the more unskilled workers will have a lot of trouble.”

While losing the security of a full-time job in an economy where opportunities for work are not bountiful is a hard blow to suffer, many of the workers mourn the loss of the family atmosphere at the plant.

“It was a job you were able to live off of,” Marrero said. “But it was also family-oriented.”

Marrero has the scar to prove it. Beneath his faded blue New York Giants t-shirt is a faint 6-inch scar running up his left side from when he donated his kidney in 2000 to Jerry Fleck, a fellow Stella worker who had worked with Marrero since 1983. Fleck is godfather to Marrero’s son.

“This is how we were at Stella D’Oro,” Marrero said.

Marrero said that losing his job didn’t affect him greatly as he had qualified for his pension and had already been planning to retire at 55. For now, he plans to get his commercial driver’s license with hopes of driving a school bus, giving him plenty of time for fishing, a favorite hobby of his.

As for the future of Stella D’Oro in their new home, Rivera is confident that Lance will get its comeuppance for moving the factory.

“It’s not going to work out for them,” she said. Stella D’Oro can only be made in New York. It can only be with New York water.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Money, Politics1 Comment

4289,4301,4305 Park Ave.

By Mamta Badkar and Connor Boals

with additional reporting by Donal Griffin

Abandoned Ocelot properties along Park Avenue in Tremont that racked up over 100 violations, stand defaced by graffiti. The buildings are being restored by new owners, Paradise Management.  Photo by Mamta Badkar

Former Ocelot properties along Park Avenue in Tremont stand defaced by graffiti. The buildings which racked up over 100 "immediately hazardous" violations are being restored by new owner Isaac Hershkovitz. Photo by Mamta Badkar

Four buildings once owned by Ocelot loom over a very different Park Avenue in the central Bronx neighborhood of Tremont. The buildings until recently were ghost-like shells, but are now beginning to stir with the sounds of renovation. Their troubled past, however, still follows them.

The buildings are around 100 years old and among the oldest in the Ocelot portfolio. They are four-stories tall and contain between 20 and 24 units each. The façade has been defaced by graffiti, windows have been smashed in, and parts of the building have been stripped bare by the construction workers who point to sections where there are holes in the floor.

The buildings all have a past full of violations with the New York City Department of Buildings that range from structural instability to defective boilers. Under Ocelot’s management, the Park Avenue buildings racked up over 100 “immediately hazardous” violations by the end of 2008.

Many of the complaints were structural. “Caller says every time the Long Island Railroad train passes the building shakes,” read a Feb. 22, 2007, complaint about 4301 Park Ave. to the Department of Buildings. “From the top to the base of the building is cracked on the outside at the top building.”

Others address fire safety with a touch of the bizarre. “Caller notes the boiler is defective and caught fire on June 14, 2007. Boiler emits soot throughout the apartments,” read another complaint about 4289 Park Ave. filed on the same day as the fire. “And please inspectors take caution due to the large amount of pit bull dogs in basement.”

The now vacant lots are subject to routine inspections by the New York City Fire Department. The market value of each building ranges from $381,000 to $504,000 according to In all, the four buildings are worth over $1.7 million.

“We aren’t stripping the buildings down, just patching them up,” said Joseph Silberman the current contractor. “These aren’t in Manhattan.” Now owned by Brooklyn-based Paradise Management with financing by Doral Bank, two of the properties are expected to be ready by January 1, 2010. “Only when the properties are fully occupied, will the bank go ahead with the others.”

Around the corner at Western Beef, store manager Jim Frisco said his business was hardly affected by the exodus. Neighbors and a member of the New York City Fire Department worried that at least one of the empty buildings were being used for drug activity.

David Arroyo, the manager of Jochi Auto Repair Inc. who has lived on neighboring Webster Avenue for 16 years, said “the riff-raffs” had been moving out over a period of time but the buildings appeared completely vacant two months ago.

“People were afraid to leave their cars because they were scared people would take their stuff,” he said, referring to the former occupants of the Ocelot properties. “Since they left, it’s gotten quiet and we’re doing pretty good.”

But trouble still follows the buildings, which were part of a package of five buildings bought by OCG VI – an Ocelot company – in June of 2007 for $6.2 million. When Ocelot’s backer, Israeli company Eldan Tech, abandoned the portfolio last last year, investors found a buyer for the Park Avenue buildings in Brooklyn property dealer, Issac Hershkovitz. Eldan Tech now alleges in a civil case filed in Manhattan’s State Supreme Court, however, that Ocelot’s president, Rachel Arfa, carved up the deal with Hershkovitz so that Ocelot only received $350,000 instead of $3 million, while she personally pocketed $300,000. Arfa has denied the allegations and counter-sued in the same court. Both cases are pending.

Eldan Tech also alleges that Hershkovitz has failed to pay the $350,000. The property dealer has yet to lodge a defense.

Posted in Housing2 Comments

No Cookies, No Jobs

By Connor Boals




The day after losing their jobs when the factory closed, about 50 former employees of the Stella D’Oro cookie manufacturer in the northwest Bronx were back at work, not yet ready to end the labor battle that they have been waging for over a year.

A crowd of about 75 former employees, local politicians, union leaders and community supporters congregated inside a ring of police barricades on the eastern sidewalk at the factory’s entrance on the corner of 237th Street and Broadway Avenue on October 9. The tears of yesterday were replaced by determination to hold onto a Bronx icon that began here 77 years ago.

“Right now I would say I’m too old to go look for a job,” said Emlia Dursu, 58, a former table packer who placed the cookies into their packaging. She began working at the factory in 1979. “ I’m going to wait and live on the little bit that I have and depend on my children to survive.”

Some protestors stuck to the perimeters, leaning lazily against the barriers and making small talk with fellow strikers. Others marched in a slow circle, chanting and holding handmade signs scrawled with slogans of protest. They spoke disparagingly about the factory’s former owner, Connecticut-based private equity firm Brynwood Partners that sold Stella D’Oro to North Carolina-based snack manufacturer Lance, Inc., known for its assortment sandwich crackers and cookies, potato chips, nuts and candy.

“We’re still going to stay strong,” said Mike Filipou, who worked as a lead mechanic for over 14 years and is orchestrating much of the rally efforts on the behalf of the workers. “We’re still going to fight Brynwood and Lance because they are union busters.”

Lance and Brynwood Partners did not answer multiple calls made over the two weeks following the plant’s closing.

Filipou and the rest of the former workers at the factory in the Kingsbridge neighborhood in the Bronx are members of the Local 50 of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union. There were more than 130 people who lost their jobs, most likely for good, on Thursday.

“There’s no jobs around here anymore,” said Filipou who worked at another Bronx fossil, Farberware, which was bought up and moved from the South Bronx in 1996. “We’re going to have to move out of the Bronx, there’s no jobs anymore, no manufacturers.”

The union-busting accusation stems from a long labor battle with Brynwood Partners that purchased the brand from Kraft Foods, Inc. in 2006 for $17.5 million. In August of 2008, the workers went on strike because of concessions that Brynwood brought to the negotiating table. Among the negotiations, were a lowering of wages and higher premiums for the workers’ health insurance. The strikers picketed for months and eventually Brynwood conceded last June after a National Labor Relations Board judge ruled they had negotiated in bad faith. But the battle was far from over.

“We started more than a year ago with negotiations and we went on strike,” Filipou said. “The judge forced them to take us back and as soon as they took us back, they announced they were going to close the place.”

Lance, Inc. announced its interest in the brand in June 2009. With the purchase of the brand this week, Lance is planning to move the machinery and the brand–but not the workers–to a nonunion factory in Ashland, Ohio.

Many at the rally spoke of the repercussions that will reach beyond the employees and into the rest of the Bronx.

“The Stella D’Oro factory bakery has been here 75 years it’s the backbone of this community,” said Bill Talen, known as “Reverend Billy,” a bouffant-adorned activist costumed as a revivalist preacher who ran as the Green Party candidate in this year’s mayoral election. ”It’s a very sad day, especially because we would think that we would know better by now because of the economic downturn that was caused by this kind of attitude toward human labor.”

Talen pledged support to the freshly unemployed by providing publicity and holding fundraisers for them.

“As we say when we are out here on the sidewalks, ‘we are all Stella! Stellallujah!’” he said.

Walking alongside Talen in the circle was Jonathan Tasini, a labor activist and 2010 Democratic Party candidate for U.S. Senate. He said that Stella D’Oro was an example of corporate recklessness that has plagued the U.S. for over 30 years.

“When a plant shuts down that’s been the lifeblood of the community, it affects the entire community, it affects every single person that lives in the community,” Tasini said. “Businesses have to make a profit but we also have to value the community and value the workers that make this company work.”

Dursu said that the workers “were like family” at Stella D’Oro and remembered the compassionate approach the original owners brought to the negotiating table in the past. The current owners, she said, lack the compassion that she once expected from the company.

“Brynwood partners don’t care about their workers,” she said. “It makes me feel very angry that they can be human beings and not care about other human beings.”

In a last-ditch effort, the workers and local politicians tried to pressure the city’s finance department to put a restraining order on the removal of the equipment to the Ohio factory because the equipment was purchased with hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax abatements from the city.

The department has already said there is no provision regarding this type of situation in its abatement program and will not attempt to pursue holding onto the equipment.

As the future of the Stella D’Oro workers looks more hopeless, Filipou said they will do what they have been doing for so long: continue to fight.

“We have a lot support from a lot of unions and a lot of politicians and we still hope something is going to happen,” Filipou said. “Stella D’oro is like a landmark in the Bronx.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Money2 Comments

Thompson Concedes, After a Last-Minute Surge of Hope

By Connor Boals and Maia Efrem

Comptroller William Thompson, Jr. announces his defeat to his supporters at the New York Hilton Hotel and Towers Tuesday evening. Photo by Connor Boals

Comptroller William Thompson Jr. announces his defeat to his supporters at the New York Hilton Hotel and Towers Tuesday evening. Photo by Connor Boals

As the early polling results came in, the supporters of Democratic mayoral candidate William Thompson Jr., believed they were going to witness the upset of the most expensive campaign in New York City’s history.

They almost did.

At 9:30 p.m., the air was electric. Hundreds of supporters were gathered inside the third floor Trianon lounge of the New York Hilton Hotel and Towers in midtown Manhattan. At 9:51 p.m., with nine percent reporting, Thompson was only one percent behind his opponent Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

It was still anyone’s race.

Strangers hugged, fists were raised and even a few tears were shed.

“I believe we have victory,” said the Rev. J.T. Causer from Flatbush, Brooklyn.

Thompson supporters celebrate early poll results that put Mayor Bloomberg only one percent ahead of Thompson. Photo by Connor Boals

Thompson supporters celebrate early poll results that put Mayor Bloomberg only one percent ahead. Photo by Connor Boals

Others, like Sybyl Silverstein, an education consultant from Floral Park, Queens, maintained a “cautious compassion” as the pundits had almost unanimously predicted Bloomberg in a landslide.

Assemblyman Keith Wright of Harlem acted as master of ceremonies for the evening. He and a string of labor leaders and borough politicians delivered rousing chants of “eight is enough!” and “We can’t be bought!” at an ear-blasting volume.

Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. dominated the stage and announced the Bronx votes had gone to Thompson.

“In the city of New York, while there was a billionaire who wanted to buy the election, there were thousands of people who would not sell out,” said Diaz,  as he pumped a fist in the air.

As the results trickled in, Bloomberg crept ahead, but only by four percent with 17 percent reporting.

Gov. David Paterson waited by the stage for almost half an hour as other politicians gave short inspirational speeches to the crowd.
The tiny stage was swelling with a who’s who of the city’s Democratic leaders.

After a short stump speech from the Rev. Al Sharpton, he took the stage with a tone of seriousness.

“I would like to thank Thompson for keeping the dream alive for those who are told ‘no’ but believe ‘yes,’ ” he told the cheering crowd.

With praise came reproach as well.

“Too many Democrats stayed home today,” he said. “And too many Democrats who should have stayed home were tantalized away.”

Thompson supporters watch the poll results being reported. Bloomberg's one percent gap eventually expanded and Thompson conceded the race at 11:40 p.m. Photo by Connor Boals

Thompson supporters watch the poll results being reported. Bloomberg's one percent gap eventually expanded and Thompson conceded the race at 11:40 p.m. Photo by Connor Boals

At 11:40 p.m., Thompson, his wife and his daughter approached the podium. He was met with vigorous applause.

“A few minutes ago, I called Mayor Bloomberg to congratulate him on his victory,” he said. A wave of boos swept forward, overwhelming Thompson, who calmly asked for order. “Tonight the votes are not in our favor,” he said. “But we still have so much to be proud of. This campaign was about standing strong.”

Monica Hankins, an office manager from Story Avenue in the Bronx said she felt Bloomberg’s term limit was one of the key issues in the election. At the end of the four years, she wanted the question of reversing the three-term limit to be put to the voters.

“I feel like Bloomberg disrespected us,” she said. “It feels like a dictatorship now.”

Another Bronx resident from Pelham Parkway, Aisha Ahmed, said she was “disgusted” by the results.

“We live in a rich country where a mayor just spent $100 million on a campaign but people still sleep outside of churches,”  said Ahmed, the president of a medical consulting company.

Although the mayor’s seat didn’t go to the Democrats, spirits were high over the election of Comptroller John Liu and Public Advocate Bill de Blasio.

“The Democratic Party had some tremendous gains tonight, the people rejected the politics of Mayor Bloomberg,” said Fernando Ferrer, former Bronx borough president and 2005 mayoral candidate. “I think he’s going to have a rough four years.”

Posted in Uncategorized2 Comments

Bronx Voters Go for Thompson in a Landslide

by Fred Dreier

Reporting for this story:  Alex Abu Ata, Mamta Badkar, Alex Berg, Connor Boals, Maia Efrem, Donal Griffin, Matthew Huisman, Wanda Hellmund, Alec Johnson, Shefali Kulkarni, Jose Leyva, Leslie Minora, Amanda Staab, Mustafa Vural, Sarah Wali and Carmen Williams.

Video by Wanda Hellmund

Bronx voters told reporters yesterday they voted for Democratic challenger William Thompson by a 2-to-1 margin over incumbent Mayor Michael Bloomberg because they believed two terms was enough for the city’s most powerful office.

Most voters surveyed yesterday insisted the billionaire businessman bought himself a third term, spending a record $90 million of his own money on the campaign— making Bloomberg’s the most expensive campaign in the history of New York City’s mayoral races.

“He changed the term limit, that’s something a third world country would do,” said Luis Peterson, a tailor for Calvin Klein who lives in the Fordham neighborhood. “The arrogance of having money and buying yourself a seat in this day and age is beyond me.”

It’s nothing new for the city’s northernmost borough to vote against the mainstream. The Bronx is the poorest congressional voting district in the United States and owns a long history of leaning left. This is the fifth consecutive time the Bronx has sided with a Democratic candidate who failed in New York City’s biggest political race.

“It’s crazy, it feels like Bloomberg’s had a dictatorship,” said Lee Heath, 42, who voted at P.S. 59 in the East Tremont neighborhood. “Two terms is long enough, it’s time for a change.”

The 2009 election is a blow to the Bronx army of Bloomberg opponents, who snubbed the Republican turned Independence candidate en masse in his successful 2001 and 2005 campaigns. In 2005, Democrat Fernando Ferrer, the former Bronx Borough President, gobbled up 65 percent of the Bronx vote. He was crushed by Bloomberg in the citywide vote by 20 points.

Thompson fared much better than Ferrer in the general vote. Despite early predictions of his disastrous defeat, the 56-year-old former city comptroller lost only by 40,000 total votes.

Complaints against Bloomberg’s administration dominated the survey, which targeted 39 polling sites spread throughout the borough’s 10 voting assemblies. Of the 171 voters interviewed, 112 said they cast their vote for Thompson and 57 for Bloomberg. One voter cast his ballot for Green party candidate Billy Talon.

The lion’s share of Thompson supporters admitted they voted against Bloomberg, not because of Thompson’s achievements as comptroller.

“Eight years is enough — it’s someone else’s turn,” said Nathaniel Holloway, a truck driver who lives in Mott Haven. “Everyone else gets two [terms], why should he get three?”

In addition to campaign finance and term limits, voters listed a wide range of gripes  with Bloomberg’s administration, from higher transportation costs to rent prices, unemployment and the mayor’s education reform.

One voter had a more specific complaint. Pamela Thomas in Kingsbridge Heights said she was not fond of the mayor’s treatment of former New York Giant’s Super Bowl MVP wide receiver Plaxico Burress, who was sentenced to two years in jail by the State Supreme Court in Manhattan for criminal possession of a handgun dating from an incident in 2008.

Bloomberg publicly called for Burress to be prosecuted under the full extent of the law during his trial in September of this year.

“That was too harsh,” Thomas said. “Plaxico shot himself — that’s enough punishment.” 

A surprisingly large number of Thompson supporters, however, admitted they knew very little about their candidate.

Both candidates received criticism in the lead-up to the election for neglecting the Bronx. The neglect could have cost Thompson Democratic votes in the borough.

According to Mott Haven resident Sharifa Mohammed, a Democrat who hails from Trinidad, Thompson did not define himself as a candidate in the election. Mohammed voted for Bloomberg. “He didn’t make a stand on what he’s done or what he wants to do,” Mohammed said. “I have seen what Bloomberg has done. I saw what he did in the schools.”

Mohammed’s vote was among the minority in Mott Haven, where 22 of 29 surveyed voters said they cast their ballots for Thompson. Nearly half the residents of the 84th assembly district that includes Mott Haven live in poverty. The median income is just over $20,000.

In the wealthier sections of the Bronx, Bloomberg supporters were in the majority. In Riverdale, in the northwest edge of the Bronx, 7 of the 12 surveyed voters said they favored Bloomberg. The neighborhood boasts a median income of $51,000. Its poverty rate is 25 percent.

“I know people are sketched about the term limits,” said Amit Elhanan, a law school student. “But I don’t see a reason if the person is doing a good job.”

Just east of the neighborhood in Kingsbridge Heights, the citizens split along party lines. Thompson supporters held a slight advantage over Bloomberg. But it was the Bloomberg supporters who said they voted for their candidate based on his actions, not on those of his opponent. 

“I voted for Thompson for comptroller — I got nothing against him, I think he’s done a good job,” said Jeff Sternberg, 60. “I’ve been around the city and seen the economic development Bloomberg has done and I support it. If you go to Williamsburg or Greenpoint, those places have really changed.”

Turnout for the election was not known by press time, but numerous polling stations reported lighter turnouts than last year’s presidential elections. Voters who came in the mid morning enjoyed short lines and limited waiting time.

Arthur Marhs, a volunteer manning the polling site at P.S. 59 in East Tremont, said all seven of the lever-action polls were in use. 
“Everything’s running OK in there,” Marhs said. “There’s hardly anyone inside right now. It’s a good time to vote.”

Stay tuned to for more news and updates from the 2009 New York City mayoral election.

Posted in Politics2 Comments

In Marble Hill, an Oasis Amid a Food Desert

by Connor Boals

Sarah Shaikh, community outreach organizer for Schervier Nursing Care Facility, isn’t pleased with the healthy options for the residents of the West Bronx neighborhood of Marble Hill. Continue Reading

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Food, Money0 Comments