Vol. 17, No. 18 Sept. 9 - 22, 2004


Ruiz Challenges Gonzalez for Senate Seat


The race for Senate in the 33rd District pits against each other two well-acquainted adversaries -- incumbent Efrain Gonzalez and his one-time boss, former state senator Israel Ruiz, Jr. While yet to face a serious primary during his seven terms, Gonzalez has faced political turbulence in recent weeks as he was hit with news that he's the subject of an investigation by the U.S attorney's office. 

Gonzalez' hold on power has remained firm since he was first elected in 1989 to the district, which, after the latest redistricting, includes all of Community Board 7. He has been aided by his close alliance with the Bronx Democratic Party and his fundraising ability.

But the fact that the U.S. attorney's office has reportedly opened an investigation into whether Gonzalez misused campaign contributions and public monies by steering them to nonprofit groups employing his allies (see p. 1) adds a wrinkle to an otherwise slam-dunk re-election bid for Gonzalez. While those charges could theoretically affect next week's primary, the matter is just starting to gain attention.

"At the moment, all there is are allegations," said Norman Adler, a veteran political 
consultant not affiliated with either candidate. "The electorate will take that with a grain of salt."

But for Ruiz, a Party outsider, the news is more fodder in his ongoing campaign against the machine. "Gonzalez is trouble," said Ruiz, 61. "He's become a political hack." 

Ruiz charges Gonzalez with a litany of failures, from poor constituent services to 
ineffective lobbying in Albany. "There's currently not one major project in the Bronx except for the [filtration] plant," he said. He also relishes attacking Gonzalez personally. "My opponent can't put two sentences together," said Ruiz at the recent candidates debate in Norwood (see p. 2).

While Gonzalez failed to attend that event, he fired back at Ruiz during a phone interview last week. "Ruiz is a mental health case," said Gonzalez, 56. "I hope the doctors can help him."

Gonzalez defended his record, stressing that constituent services is one of his strong points. "I'm very accessible," he said. "I return everyone's call. I even visit them." 

Gonzalez repeatedly emphasized that he is a man of the people who comes from humble beginnings (he used to drive a bus). "I'm like rice and beans," said Gonzalez in his trademark idiosyncratic way. He also said that his intermittent support for Republicans reflected his ability to be "a uniter, not a divider" to get things done in Albany. 

Ruiz characterizes himself as a "salesman" in personality -- and he is not shy about 
listing what he describes as his accomplishments. He takes some of the credit for 
stabilizing the West Bronx during the 1970s, and champions his former district office as one of the best in the city. Currently a consultant for contractors, Ruiz spent 14 years in the Senate and six more representing the City Council's 14th District.

Both candidates say they are against building the filtration plant in Van Cortlandt Park, though neither has played a major role in opposing it. The Kingsbridge Armory is one of Ruiz' top issues, and he supports the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition's proposal to include schools in the redevelopment mix. Gonzalez said their plan was "not far off" but he would still like to see a police academy or other large institution included in the project.

The two foes do have quite a bit in common. Gonzalez was once an aide to Ruiz. Both were born in Puerto Rico, now live in the Fordham Hill Cooperatives, and are on their second marriage. Both have befriended powerful Republicans and have business backgrounds. 

And with the U.S. attorney's investigation, both have had trouble with the law, though Gonzalez has not yet been charged with any wrongdoing. Ruiz, though, was convicted in 1989 with failing to report his assets on a bank loan application for a supermarket. He was forced to leave the Senate for a five-month stint in jail. 

Ruiz said his black mark is "like night and day" in comparison with the current charges against Gonzalez. He also accused the Democratic organization with helping to throw him off the ballot due to a faulty cover sheet late last month. The matter was taken up in New York State Supreme Court and Ruiz says he was reinstated last Tuesday. 

While he may now be battling Gonzalez, Ruiz is out to get the entire Bronx Democratic establishment. He ran against Council Member Maria Baez in the last two Council elections, and if defeated in this race, will certainly run again for something. "I'm going to give these guys a hard time until we get rid of all of them," he said. 

But Ruiz has channeled less verve into fundraising and campaigning. He has just a 
handful of volunteers, no campaign office, and as of last month, had raised roughly 
$8,000 - about a third of Gonzalez' total contributions. 

Ruiz says he collected more than 3,000 signatures during petitioning, three times the required amount. He also said that, like Gonzalez, he has name recognition.

Even with the investigation of Gonzalez, Adler thinks his seat is safe. "Gonzalez is pretty good at coming back home to his constituents," he said. "He's not an absentee legislator.

"But Adler did give Ruiz credit. "You have to hand it to Ruiz, he just doesn't give up," he said.

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