Vol. 16, No.16  July  31 - Aug. 27, 2003


Lively Council Race Shapes Up in 14th District


A lively political battle is developing in the 14th Council District this summer, where Democratic incumbent Maria Baez is squaring off against former councilman and state senator Israel Ruiz, Jr. and first-time candidate Iris Baez in the Sept. 9 Democratic primary.

All three candidates say it is a race of who has this Bronx community's best interests at heart.

"I've been in this community for over 20 years," said Councilwoman Baez. "In 2001, one of the candidates was running against me and I beat him by 1,500 votes. I think the community knows what they have in Maria."

The 14th District includes parts of Kingsbridge, University Heights and Tremont. 

To be sure, Maria Baez, Iris Baez and Ruiz are different types of politicians. The incumbent has long been active in the Bronx Democratic machine. Iris Baez is a longtime activist against police brutality and Ruiz is a former seven-term state senator and city councilman who is often at odds with Democratic party regulars. But all expect the voting public to respond positively to what their experience, expertise and ideas bring to the people of the Bronx. 

Each candidate wants to improve education, fight growing asthma rates, keep youth and senior citizen centers open and bring jobs to the 14th District. But they differ of course, on who can best get the job done. 

"I have the initiatives to put together the Kingsbridge Armory, where we've pumped $27 million dollars into [the repair of the roof]," Ruiz said. "Now we need someone in the Council to push for a program that accommodates the wishes of the community." 

Ruiz and Maria Baez want to convert the Kingsbridge Armory into educational space to alleviate overcrowding in local schools. Both candidates pointed to their achievements in getting computers into the district's public schools.

Iris Baez, the least experienced of the candidates, has fought against police brutality for the last nine years after her son, Anthony, was killed by a police officer who used an illegal choke hold on him in 1994. She awaits a decision from the Board of Elections on her eligibility because many of her petition signatures have been challenged. She may end up with less than the necessary 900 valid signatures. 

She runs her campaign out of her basement kitchen with volunteers and her grandchildren in tow. Iris Baez said that the fact that she's a mother and grandmother living in the community gives her a grassroots perspective.

"High asthma rates and education goes right to the point," she said. "This is one of the highest [districts] where kids don't graduate. I don't know if it's the teachers or whoever's doing the curriculum for them  -  [they're] not doing it right."

Both Iris and Maria Baez say they aren't concerned that the fact that the same last name appearing twice on the ballot may cause confusion among voters. Maria Baez said it was insulting to suggest her community couldn't tell the difference between two different first names.

Councilwoman Baez said she submitted 7,000 petition signatures to Board of Elections to qualify for the ballot. (Iris Baez submitted 2,500 and Ruiz 3,000).

"I'm confident that the people know who I am and what I stand for, and I am their voice at City Hall," Maria Baez said. 

Before serving on the Council, Maria Baez was the first Latina to serve as chief clerk of the Bronx County Board of Elections. She founded the parents association at PS 33 and was executive director of the Housing Workshop, a not-for-profit. She was also Assemblyman Jose Rivera's chief of staff. 

"I came into the City Council at a very difficult time," Maria Baez said. "In spite of that, we've been able to keep senior centers open, bring resources into this community to provide these services to youth and seniors. I've been very instrumental."

Her critics, though, say Baez is beholden to the Bronx Democratic machine. And community leaders and her opponents say she often does not attend community meetings, particularly on the controversial filtration issue. 

"Just ask the community," Maria Baez said. "Don't even ask me. For example, in our capital projects, we were able to allocate $7.5 million dollars to Bronx Community College for a learning center. And I'm proud we could do that." 

Ruiz, on the other hand, rails against the Democratic machine. But he will no doubt be hobbled by the fact that he spent five months in jail for failing to report his assets on a bank loan application and to fully disclose his financial liabilities. Ruiz said he was set up by the Democratic leadership.

Ruiz doesn't believe that, if elected, his outsider status will compromise his ability to get things done.

"My job is going to be twofold: enhance the communities that I represent and push other elected officials to put together strategies for the Bronx," Ruiz said. "And I want to reform the Democratic Party in the Bronx, which is a sleazy do-nothing political organization."

Whichever Democrat is victorious in the primary, it is certain that candidate will be elected to the Council, since most voters are Democrats.

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