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


In the Public Interest
Democracy on Parade at Boisterous Assembly Debate 


The gloves came off at a debate last week for candidates seeking the Democratic nomination in the 80th Assembly District. A flurry of bitter exchanges centered on current Party head Assemblyman Jose Rivera and former leader George Friedman, whose progeny are competing for the rare open seat. 

While lawyer Anthony Chiofalo and community activist Joe Thompson accused their opponents of being opportunists too closely tied to the party machine, Anthony Friedman and Naomi Rivera scrambled to cast themselves as political independents with their community's interests at heart. 

The forum, sponsored by the 204th Street/Bainbridge Avenue Merchants Association and held at Epiphany Lutheran Church, brought together all four candidates in their first public debate.

Chiofalo set the tone for the evening by accusing the elder Friedman of throwing him off the ballot. (Chiofalo is running as a write-in, and as a Republican in the general election.)

"George Friedman is one of best backroom dealers ever seen," snarled Chiofalo, 43, prompting a retort from the elder Friedman, who was sitting in the last pew.

The younger Friedman, who spoke nervously at the debate's beginning, deflected the attacks by lashing out at Rivera. "We don't need political hacks or posers or career politicians in Albany," said Friedman, 34, in response to a question concerning reforming Albany. Rivera, 41, finished her response by saying, "Mr. Friedman, I hope you're not calling me a political hack."

The other questions, posed by Paul Sawyer of The Friends of Van Cortlandt Park and Allan Freilich of Freilich Jewelers on East 204th Street, spurred more finger pointing, especially at Rivera and her father. A question about asthma quickly led to discussion of the water filtration plant, which all the candidates oppose. But Assemblyman Rivera's role in striking the deal that paved the way for the city to build the plant in the park became a target. 

"This is a result of a club policy of cronyism and nepotism," said Thompson, 65, echoing similar attacks from Friedman and Chiofalo. An agitated Rivera said, "I don't know how the deal was struck. I'm not going to speculate."

Rivera was less accusatory, emphasizing that she is a mother, neighbor, and leader. But she did conclude her remarks by addressing Chiofalo. "I'm an independent," she said. "If you want to take on Assemblyman Jose Rivera, I will give you his phone number."

That wasn't necessary as the elder Rivera was in the audience --  sitting across the aisle from Friedman --  videotaping the debate. Asked what he thought of the debates' harsh tone, Rivera said it was typical.

"You've got to let them vent," said Rivera, who was clearly amused by the proceedings.

Rivera called all the candidates qualified and, feeling generous, said whoever won the race would be invited to join the Party organization.

When the candidates were asked about their neighborhood involvement, Thompson's resume appeared to be the most substantial. "That's impressive," said Council Member Oliver Koppell, who has endorsed Rivera.

Gentler in his attacks than Chiofalo or Friedman, Thompson did jab at his challengers, especially Rivera, on their community credentials. Thompson's work is almost exclusively in the eastern part of the district, which mostly covers Morris Park and Pelham Parkway with small sections of Norwood and Bedford Park. All of the candidates, except for Friedman, live in the Morris Park area.

The lively contest was launched after State Senator Guy Velella pled guilty to bribery charges and resigned from office. Jeffrey Klein, who held the Assembly seat for 10 years, decided to run for Velella's seat in the 34th District. Barbara Stronczer, a Community Board 7 member and Bedford Park resident, wishes Klein stayed. 

"[Klein's] always been there for us," Stronczer said. "I hope whoever takes his place will not forget that we're part of the district."

While Stronczer was still undecided on the candidates, she did find the debate helpful. "I got a sense of how they would react to criticism," she said. "That's important because they have to work with others in Albany."

Sawyer thought the candidates' answers were skimpy. "There was a lot of going at each other instead of focusing on the issues," he said.

But with the vast majority of the packed house being bused-in supporters (Rivera's crew wore matching T-shirts), there weren't many residents to persuade.

Still, many consider the contest a rare example of genuine political competition in the Bronx. "Politically, it has made them take a fresh approach," said Koppell, pointing to Naomi Rivera's opposition to the filtration plant. "It's a refreshing confirmation of democracy. They're reflecting their constituents' opinions."

Ruiz Debates Alone

There was, to say the least, less competition in the second debate of the evening for state Senate candidates in the 33rd District. Former state senator Israel Ruiz sat alone on the dais as the incumbent, State Senator Efrain Gonzalez, chose not to attend. Since most of the audience were supporting Assembly candidates --  and promptly left after that debate ended --  Ruiz was left to talk at length to the roughly 20 remaining attendees.

Gonzalez told the Norwood News that he didn't think he had a challenger. While Ruiz had been knocked off the ballot, he was reinstated after taking the matter to court last week. 

"I'm not avoiding publicity," said Gonzalez, whose relationship with three nonprofit 
groups is being scrutinized by federal investigators (see story on p. 1). "I didn't know." 

Ruiz took advantage of the open forum to critique Bronx politicians at length. "They're a bunch of Mickey Mouse politicians," he said. "If elected, I would work hard to bring in new leadership."

He also chided Koppell, his occasional ally, for going "over to the dark side" by 
endorsing Rivera. 

Ruiz failed to answer most of the questions asked of him, preferring to launch into long monologues about his work. But he did bite on a question about gay marriage. 

"I believe in the traditional sense of the family, but it shouldn't be the government's business," he said. Continuing, Ruiz said that gay people tend to be too explicit when they first reveal their sexual orientation. "They should stop it," he said. "Sex is good, but there should be more in life than sex."

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