AOC organizer to challenge Benedetto ‘for real this time’

Jonathan Soto
Jonathan Soto speaks to an Instagram live audience at a “landback ceremony” to launch his campaign in front of Trump Golf Links at Ferry Point on Jan. 6, surrounded by David Galarza, City Councilwoman Kristin Richardson Jordan and state Senate candidate Ali Dini.
Photo Aliya Schneider

Progressive Democrat Jonathan Soto was the third candidate to announce that he is challenging longtime state Assemblyman Michael Benedetto in the June primary, but it’s not his first time seeking out the position.

Soto, of Throggs Neck, announced in June 2019 he would challenge Benedetto in the 2020 Democratic primaries, but dropped out in September because he was preoccupied rebuilding a school in Puerto Rico, representing former Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Hurricane Maria relief efforts.

But Soto is “running for real this time,” he told the Bronx Times.

The 36-year-old is confident he will bring new voters to the polls with support from public school parents — who he said have felt the brunt of the pandemic and is the “most activated” constituency — and faith leaders. Soto led de Blasio’s Clergy Advisory Council and was the associate vice president of strategic initiatives at Union Theological Seminary.

As an organizer for U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Soto developed Homework Helpers, a volunteer tutor program. He believes every school should be a community school — a model that offers a variety of services to students and their families — saying there are creative ways to utilize the city’s education budget.

The public school parent has a fierce opposition to mayoral control of schools, which he called “mayoral tyranny,” and said it gives a dangerous amount of power to the mayor and takes away parents’ sense of control over their children’s safety. Mayoral control has been in place since 2002 and lets the mayor appoint the schools chancellor and nine out of 15 members of the city’s Panel for Educational Policy, instead of giving power to locally elected school boards. Soto, who has advocated for schools to offer both remote and in-person options, blames Benedetto, who chairs the Assembly Education Committee, for mayoral control.

Benedetto said while he doesn’t have the sole authority to implement mayoral control since it’s a collective decision among state lawmakers that will be reconsidered in June, he thinks “the outcomes are essentially the same” whether local school boards or the mayor have authority over schools.

That being said, the incumbent prefers mayoral control, saying it holds mayors accountable for their education plans.

Soto also criticized Benedetto, 74, for accepting $2,500 from Donald Trump in 2014 and $4,100 from Trump Links Golf Course in 2015, which Benedetto called a cheap point, saying he redirected the donation to the New York Coalition for Immigrants once Trump was elected into office. Benedetto also referred to Trump as a “disease of this country.”

Soto also points a finger at Benedetto when it comes to the public Trump Golf Links at Ferry Point Park, which he believes is “the most racist and inefficient land use ever” that stands in the way of residents and the NYC Ferry, saying climate infrastructure is a better investment.

Benedetto said he was not involved in the development of the golf course, which finished construction in 2013 and fully opened in 2015, but he was glad to see a former landfill riddled with drag-racers, drinkers and underground fires developed into “quite a beautiful golf course” with a waterfront promenade.

This election cycle, Benedetto is also being challenged in the June 28 Democratic primary by Progressive Matthew Cruz, the district manager for Community Board 10, and Al Quattlebaum, a minister and business owner.

“I cannot comment on his (Soto’s) campaign, as I have spent many years as an aide to then-Councilmember (James) Vacca and having been District Manager of my community for over 4 years, I am unaware if Mr. Soto has ever been active in our community or if he has had any relationships with other community leaders,” Cruz said in a statement to the Bronx Times.

Soto also questioned Cruz’s leadership, saying the community board was complicit in the golf course deal.

“It is good to see that our democracy is alive and well; everyone has the right to run,” Quattlebaum said of Soto’s bid. “I look forward to discussing the issues with Mr. Soto on his views on issues like defunding the police and school safety.”

Quattlebaum lists public safety as a top priority, and says he will not “cave in to buzz words” like “defund” and “bail reform.”

Soto said he supports investing in crime-preventing social services, and letting victims of gun violence sue manufacturers.

“Let’s invest in the healing of our neighbors and stop investing in systems that cause us all harm,” Soto said.

Members of the New York State Assembly make $110,000 annually plus per diem, and their terms last two years.

Reach Aliya Schneider at aschneider@schnepsmedia.com or (718) 260-4597. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes.

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