Assembly District 77 Democratic candidates square off in BronxTalk debate

Incumbent District 77 Assembly Member Landon Dais, left, and challenger Leonardo Coello, right, debate on BronxTalk ahead of the June 2024 Primary.
Incumbent District 77 Assembly Member Landon Dais, left, and challenger Leonardo Coello, right, debate on BronxTalk ahead of the June 2024 Primary.
Photo Emily Swanson

The two candidates running to represent the 77th Assembly District, incumbent Landon Dais and challenger Leonardo Coello, squared off in a debate that aired on BronxNet on June 10.

The pair are competing in the Democratic primary scheduled for June 25, with both seeking to represent the neighborhoods of Highbridge, Claremont, Concourse and Morris Heights. 

Dais, 43, won the seat in February’s special election following Latoya Joyner’s resignation and now seeks a full two-year term beginning in January. Coello, 48, meanwhile, currently serves as Bronx borough director for the mayor’s office.

Dais and Coello’s conversation marked the 95th political debate hosted by veteran BronxTalk host Gary Axelbank. While the discussion occasionally got heated, candidates largely kept their criticisms on-topic, obeyed the debate rules and expressed similar views on several policy issues. 

As the candidates sat side by side in the BronxNet studio at Lehman College, Dais pointed to his achievements in the Assembly thus far, including securing funding for schools. “I know how to get things done,” he said. 

Coello began by introducing himself in both English and Spanish — and later criticized Dais for not being a Spanish speaker, which he said would mean Dais “can’t sit at the kitchen table” with many constituents. 

But Dais said that while he is not fluent in the language, he is familiar with the culture — and pointed out that Spanish is not the only language represented in the borough. ‘It’s not about what language you speak, it’s what you do,” said Dais. 

Coello said his advantage lies in being a native Bronxite and having worked extensively with longstanding local nonprofits. “That’s where I honed in the work I’ve done in the community,” he said. 

But the issue of residency came up several times during the conversation. While Coello is from the Bronx, Dais pointedly referred to his opponent several times as a resident of District 79, not District 77. Coello recently told the Bronx Times that he lives just two blocks outside the district boundary. 

Dais has racked up several endorsements from key Bronx elected officials, including Borough President Vanessa L. Gibson and Rep. Ritchie Torres. Dais argued that he is even more “embedded” in the community than his opponent, but Coello cast Dais, who is originally from East Harlem, as an outsider to the Bronx.

Affordable housing

Coello called the mayor’s City of Yes for Housing Opportunity rezoning initiative — which is now being presented to community boards as part of the public review process — a “fantastic start” but said “nothing is perfect from the beginning.” 

He said he hopes the city will push the envelope even further on zoning and that housing developers and partners — ones that are “good for our community — will get more of a voice.

Dais pointed to state legislation passed for a tax incentive to create more affordable housing and said that his past experience in construction management gives him an edge over Coello in terms of understanding local development.  

But residency was again a sticking point. Dais said that as a homeowner in District 77, “I am your neighbor.” However, Coello said that to have a true understanding of the borough’s housing needs, “You have to be from the borough.”

Building wealth

With 33.5% of the district’s residents living below the poverty line, Axelbank asked the candidates to discuss how they would promote wealth-building in the community. Dais and Coello both emphasized the importance of financial literacy and education. 

Dais said he wants to focus on workforce development, especially for youth who are not college-bound. He called himself the “pro-union candidate,” having earned the backing of DC 37, SEIU 1199 and other prominent labor unions. 

But Coello called out Dais for taking credit for a workforce program at Sedgwick Houses that he said was already longstanding in the community — implying once more that Dais is an outsider to the Bronx. 

But Dais said the funding allocation for the program ran out and had to be renewed, and that renewal was done with his support. 

“That’s what’s called a difference-maker,” he said. 

Congestion pricing

Dais and Coello agreed with Gov. Kathy Hochul’s recent decision to put the long-debated congestion pricing plan on indefinite pause.

Dais said while he was “caught off guard” by Hochul’s abrupt switch, “$15 was just too damn high.” He said a lot of people need to drive, especially for union jobs, but also said that improvements to public transit are needed to incentivize more people not to drive. 

Coello said the congestion pricing rollout might have flopped like the legal cannabis rollout, which would have been a disaster for the community. “I commend [Hochul] on taking a step back,” he said. 

But after Dais mentioned his prior work as a pro bono attorney for cannabis justice cases, Coello said the proliferation of neighborhood smoke shops has “thrust the community into a dark place.” 

Primary day coming soon

With the primary election less than two weeks away, Bronx Democrats in District 77 will soon make their preference known. 

According to Dais’ campaign website, he has received union endorsements from the 1199 SEIU, NYC District Council of Carpenters, New York State Nurses Association, DC 9 (Painters and Allied Trades) and Stonewall Democrats of NYC, among others. He also received endorsements from his predecessor Latoya Joyner, as well as Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, Council Member Althea Stevens and more. 

Coello, meanwhile, received a key endorsement from U.S. Rep. Adriano Espaillat, who represents Harlem and parts of the northwest Bronx. 

“I believe Leonardo will bring the necessary resources and a clear vision to the Bronx, prioritizing progress in education, day care and afterschool programs,” said Espaillat in announcing his endorsement.  

Coello also received endorsements from Bertha Lewis, president of the Black Institute and B.L.A.C.; Mohammed Mardah, African and Muslim community leader; and Ralph McDaniel, activist and host of Video Music Box.

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