Samantha Zherka, an independent running on the Republican and Conservative lines in pursuit of defeating Democratic Assemblymember Nathalia Fernandez to represent the state’s 34th Senatorial District, decided to seek office when she started to see New York City as if it was a “third-world country.”
Zherka, who cites bail reform and an education system that fails its students as top issues, handed campaign flyers out to fired-up Morris Park residents as they filed into the Community Board 11 public hearing for Jacobi Medical Center’s proposed Just Home initiative, which looks to house medically complex homeless individuals released from Riker’s Island.
“We do not need criminals,” she said at the Sept. 29 hearing. “I am not going to be politically correct. They are criminals. We don’t need them in our backyards. … If you want more garbage in the Bronx, vote Democrat.”
The appearance was just one instance where the Throggs Neck resident took to a microphone in front of a crowd of east Bronx residents outraged over plans the city has for their district.
After City Councilmember Marjorie Velázquez, a Throggs Neck Democrat, changed her long-held public stance on the Bruckner rezoning plan the morning of the first City Council vote, Zherka joined a group of residents protesting outside the city lawmaker’s office. She said the “news media and the lying politicians” want to make the community out to be racist when they’re really concerned about “infrastructure decline or our way of life being plummeted.”
When residents were similarly outraged over plans for recent asylum-seekers to be housed in tents at flood-prone Orchard Beach, Zherka also pointed a finger at New York’s pols, saying they are more interested in supporting people convicted of crimes and big developers than their own constituents. According to Zherka, the city’s elected officials are also “more interested in pushing lies and manipulations of truths in our children’s classrooms, with boys can be girls and girls can be boys, and CRT nonsense than they are in teaching our children truth,” echoing popular conservative attacks on transgender students and critical race theory.
Zherka, who works as an insurance adjustor, said temporarily moving with her daughter to Florida amid school mask mandates in New York inspired her to launch her first political campaign.
“Would I have ever ran?” the 54-year-old said in an interview with the Bronx Times. “No. What happened going to Florida, I call it the calling. I say God began his chiseling.”
The move made her look back on NYC as if it was a “third-world country” reminiscent of what her Albanian refugee parents taught her about the beginnings of communism. Moving from Florida to New York made her question: “Did I just die and go to hell?” she said, pointing to Floridian seniors congregating and children playing without masks, all while crime headlines blasted through NYC. “It was such a traumatic difference.”
Zherka, who was born in Kingsbridge, said repealing bail reform would be one of her first priorities as a state lawmaker. That being said, she believes women who are incarcerated for killing their rapists in self-defense should be released, as well as, on a case-by-case basis, juveniles who may have been in the wrong place at the wrong time or were arrested for non-violent low-level drug offenses.
“If we want to give second chances, we begin with those that deserve the second chance,” she said.
Another priority for Zherka would be bringing the trades and vocational training to public high schools, as it would give students who aren’t on the path to college the opportunity to find something they can excel at within the school system instead of flunking out, she said. She criticized the city Department of Education and politicians for lacking innovation and pointed to teachers who resort to spending their own money on school supplies.
She believes New York’s politicians have been making budgets like “drunken sailors” and said she would “cut the fat.” Other than the wages of SUNY professors, which she called astronomical, Zherka was hesitant to provide examples of what she would cut without first examining those budgets. But she said there are plenty of “nonsensical pet projects,” and multiple organizations serving the same cause receiving state funding — she did not clarify the type of organizations she was referring to.
Though the east Bronx senatorial district voted 75.5% in favor of President Joe Biden in 2020, according to New York Times data, and, based on state Board of Elections data, includes more than a 90,000 active voter disparity favoring Democrats and Fernandez, Zherka believes residents are fed up with Democrats and that she will beat her opponent.
As of Oct. 17, Zherka filed $25,375 election contributions with the state Board of Elections, dating back to June 22, with various contributions from outside the Bronx. Fernandez, who was criticized over the summer by her Progressive primary challenger Christian Amato for having the support of the real estate industry, GOP megadonors James Dolan and Thomas Tisch, as well as former State Sen. Marisol Alcantara, a member of the now defunct IDC, has filed $286,227.47 since launching her Senate campaign on June 2.
The Senate seat will be vacated at year end by state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, a Progressive who was defeated in an August Democratic primary by U.S. Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney for the more northern 17th Congressional District. The east Bronx district spans from Parkchester and Castle Hill to City Island, and also includes Westchester’s Pelham and parts of New Rochelle.
Reach Aliya Schneider at [email protected] or (718) 260-4597. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes