Gustavo Rivera grinned wide as the Reverend Al Sharpton concluded a press conference endorsing him earlier this month. Sitting side-by-side in a conference room on the 14th floor of the talk radio station where Sharpton hosts a show, WWRL, Sharpton praised Rivera, digging up stories that bestowed vintage and legitimacy upon the 30-something candidate for a state Senate seat in the north central Bronx. He linked Rivera to President Obama. "I remember in 2004 when I ran for president and we wanted to reform the Democratic Party and we wanted to change the party leadership. Gustavo was part of the young people that worked the floor to bring about new leadership. That led to new leadership at the next cycle, with Barack Obama taking over the party and becoming eventually the President of the United States," Sharpton said.

Rivera's political connections and loyalty to the Democratic Party are one of the central themes of his campaign, perhaps because many consider the incumbent he is challenging the antithesis of that. Democratic State Senator Pedro Espada, the 33rd district's incumbent, briefly defected to the Republican Party in June 2009, helping to temporarily shift the Senate’s balance of power to Republican control. In addition, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo filed a lawsuit against Espada in April, accusing him and his aides and family members of looting $14 million from the chain of health clinics that he launched.

Espada’s political misfortune and Rivera's strategy of branding himself as a loyal and well-connected Democrat have helped Rivera marshal substantial support. "It was a disgraceful ploy for political power," Rivera said of Espada's party switch. "It was not about the community. It was not about getting better resources for the community he represents. It was about him getting political power and that's what his actions demonstrate."

Yet despite the coalescence of an anti-Espada movement around Rivera, Rivera says the race is not just about dislodging Espada. He says it’s about bringing to the community much needed resources such as jobs and housing. "It is real easy to say anybody but Espada, but I believe that our standards have to be much higher than that," he said. "The point of all this work was to make sure we have people in office who would actually be responsive to the people they represent."

Espada did not respond to multiple requests for an interview. But on the Brian Lehrer Show, he said the allegations against him have been designed to punish him for switching parties and only serve to distraction attention from the community’s needs. "The day has come where we have to have a balanced conversation about what kind of policies we're going to set forth in housing and many other areas," Espada told Lehrer. "We're at a point in time where you can play political games and get nowhere or you can deal with substance and really good policies and actually uplift our economy and actually uplift the daily lives of people. That's what I'm about."
   
Substantial Support
Rivera has raised about $188,000 and earned at least 13 endorsements, leaving him the last candidate standing in field that once contained four challengers. His endorsers include two SEIU locals – 1199 and 32BJ – and elected officials such as Bronx Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz andBronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr.

His former rivals have rallied around his candidacy. Former challenger Dan Padernacht, a northwest Bronx attorney, dropped out and endorsed Rivera earlier this month. Two days later, another former challenger, northwest Bronx activist Desiree Pilgrim Hunter, also backed Rivera. "Espada has repeatedly demonstrated a total disregard for his office, the needs of our constituents, and a complete disloyalty to the Democratic Party," she said in a statement. "It’s time to elect the leader this community deserves. We need a senator who will stand side-by-side with the residents of his district and fight to build a stronger Northwest Bronx community and to bring much needed reform to the Democratic Party.”

Padernacht's endorsement stands to help Rivera win some of the Northwest Bronx's white voters, said Jordan Moss, the editor-in-chief and interim publisher of Norwood News, a paper covering the area. The majority Latino 33rd district is 10 percent Non-Hispanic white, said Fernando Tirado, district manager for community board 7. "The likelihood is that most of that vote (former Padernacht supporters) would go for Gustavo. I think that's kind of clear, based on people that we talk to, based on comments on the blog. It's not a scientific thing. It's a gut thing based on knowing the community," Moss said.

Is it personal, or is it policy?
Rivera's platform is a detailed, 10-plank amalgamation of various progressive policy initiatives ranging from budget and ethics reform to reproductive and gay rights. He also believes that state government should be run more efficiently and advocates eliminating duplicative government jobs and services. "We need to look at them to see how we could potentially restructure those authorities and agencies with an eye toward not having an undue impact on the front-line worker, which is, a lot of time, the people that provide the services, and the people that get cut first," he said. "I think we need to look at management in certain authorities and agencies across the state."

To protect affordable housing in the Bronx, Rivera supports the repeal of vacancy decontrol, a policy that converts certain rent-stabilized apartments to market-rate apartments. He wants to see Senate bill 2237, sponsored by Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins of Yonkers, become law. In addition to repealing vacancy decontrol, the bill would return to rent-stabilization 90 to 95 percent of the apartments de-controlled in the past 15 years, Rivera said. Rivera also vows to work to repeal the Urstadt Law, which places control of New York City rent laws in the state legislature's hands.

Espada, the chairman of the Senate's Housing, Construction and Community Development committee, rebuffed the efforts of New York City housing activists to repeal vacancy decontrol this term by failing to schedule a hearing on a bill aiming to repeal it. But in his interview with Brian Lehrer, Espada described himself as a champion of affordable housing and other progressive causes such as ending the Rockefeller drug laws, protecting student MetroCards and creating a domestic workers' bill of rights. He said he sponsored a bill that would have frozen the rent of 600,000 households in New York City and issued more bond financing for affordable housing than has been issued in 40 years. By comparison, Rivera is inexperienced, he said. "We have a record. My opponent has zero record," Espada told Lehrer. "Mr. Rivera has never created a job in his life."

Voter Turnout
Turnout in the 33rd district is historically low, Tirado said: In 2008, -- during a landmark Presidential primary – only about 9,000 of the district's approximately 120,000 registered Democrats turned out. And despite the negative media attention that Espada has received, he has many supporters in the community.

"Espada could win," Moss said. "He's got a lot of support. He had enough to get 5,000 people out to vote for him last time. That's the base that he's working with. Some folks like him. He comes out to senior centers and he gets a good reaction from most folks."

Espada's campaign tactics could also work, Tirado said, citing the free food Espada's been giving away at events around the district."The give-aways, the ramped up community presence, the member items that had been withheld for one reason or another and then come pouring into the community, into organizations close to the election-- that's what every elected official does," Tirado said. "If you look historically at what those things do, those things do influence voters."

A poll released August 11th by the New Roosevelt Initiative, backers of Rivera, found that 35 percent of District 33 voters sampled were undecided and 64 percent were split evenly between Rivera and Espada.

Rivera said he's not discounting Espada. "If I just sat here, laid back, got some Cognac and went to sleep," Espada could win the race, he said. "It is all about the work. People tell me all the time when I'm in train stations all the time, 'Good luck!' and I tell them 'A little bit of luck and a lot of work.' because that's the only way that you can actually get this done."