It was a busy, yet productive Friday in a series of chaotic months for longtime state Sen. Gustavo Rivera.
The 46-year-old usually finds time before the official candidate filing deadlines to do a fundraising blitz of friends and longtime supporters called Feasting Day — a tradition he’s done since his time as a campaigner for state pols like Phil Reed and his future colleagues Jose M. Serrano and Andrea Stewart-Cousins — and this year’s fundraising effort carries more weight than years prior.
“I never intended to run for office, but I did want to work in public service and as I was doing it, getting other people elected as a campaigner, I had to bring a certain type of energy to fundraising that’s never left,” said Rivera who received $15,000 in donations on Friday for his Aug. 23 reelection campaign. “The things that I’m trying to achieve are not small. They’re not easy, but they could be transformative though. They will be transformative for people.”
The road to reelection for Rivera was littered with a messy state redistricting process that not only revamped the District 33 seat he seeks to retain, but has put the 46-year-old progressive in an unusual position as an entrenched incumbent — without the backing of his party, which is instead backing his primary challenger and attorney Miguelina Camilo.
The Bronx Dems turned their back on Rivera after he helped the campaigns for progressive challengers Jessica Woolford and Jonathan Soto, who were opposing longtime state lawmakers Jeffrey Dinowitz and Michael Benedetto in last month’s primary, according to a source within the party. In doing so, Rivera’s actions upset the party establishment, which had been supportive of him in the past.
Once the new Senate lines were drawn catapulting Camilo into the 33rd District, the Bronx Dems jumped on the opportunity to get back at Rivera by endorsing his opponent and leaving him exposed in the August primary, the source added.
“Miguelina Camilo is a longtime resident of and has deep connections to the community she is running to represent. Miguelina’s hard work and advocacy are reflected in her volunteer work as she mentors and uplifts youth in the community,” Ariana Collado, executive director of the Bronx Democratic Party, said in a statement to the Bronx Times on Wednesday. “The Bronx Dems endorsed Miguelina in March with confidence that she would be an exceptional Senator, and that endorsement was not conditional.”
Rivera, however, is not flinching away from Bronx Democratic Party leaders like state Sen. Jamaal Bailey, who is party chairman, and state Assemblymember Jeffrey Dinowitz, who is the party’s secretary, who have criticized the outspoken politico’s progressive voice as too “far left” for the District 33 voters in recent weeks.
The 33rd District runs from Riverdale to the Bronx Zoo.
“I don’t think it’s radical to say that we can secure everybody health care and that we have an obligation to do so in this state. I believe that we can have that, we can do that. I do not believe that it is radical to say that people shouldn’t have medical debt. I don’t believe that it’s radical to say that folks who are wealthier should pay their fair share,” said Rivera. “So these are all values that I live by, and these are values and principles that lead me to the policy that I think would make it better for everybody.”
Rivera has spent more than a decade in Albany, first elected to the Senate in 2010 when he defeated entrenched pol Pedro Espada Jr. in a Democratic primary; Espada Jr. was later convicted on federal corruption charges and sentenced to 5 years in prison.
Now a leading progressive, Rivera said his major priorities as chair of the Senate Health Committee, are pushing bills like the long-delayed New York Health Act and Good Cause legislation past the legislative finish line in the Senate, where he says “good progressive policies” have historically gone to die.
The last time Rivera faced a legitimate primary opponent was in 2016 when then City Councilmember Fernando Cabrera, a conservative Democrat, challenged him — he won that race by a wide margin.
Camilo, a Riverdale resident, is the former president of the Bronx Women’s Bar Association and the 100 Hispanic Women — Bronx Chapter. She also ran her own law firm before a stint as commissioner of the city Board of Elections — she also has the backing of U.S. Rep. Ritchie Torres.
“I am a pragmatic person with progressive values and when compared to Senator Rivera, who is much more liberal, we are on different sides and have different viewpoints on things,” she told the Bronx Times in a previous interview.
Unfamiliarity with more south-facing districts like the 32nd and 34th — options he said were presented to him by the Bronx Dems following the redistricting shuffle — were not viable paths for Rivera.
“The most jarring part for me during this whole process was that there were nothing but bad choices in front of me, and I had to figure out which one I was gonna pick.” Rivera said. “The realization came to me (during the redistricting) that I was no longer going to live in the 33rd district by two blocks, a place I lived for 22 years … the other options were to primary another colleague I respect, move to a district that’s like 30 blocks south of where I live, or not run at all.”
Rivera said the decision to run in the new 33rd was simple: He’s a shoe-leather politician who thrives off interactions with constituents, whether in multiple webinars explaining the state’s adult-use cannabis licensing program or stopping by at the local cafe and taking earfuls from his more politically engaged residents.
The next month and a half for Rivera is a door-knocking blitz comprised half of “this is what I’ve done” and half “this is who I am” as he looks to make inroads with the new voting bloc of the district that includes a sharp increase — from 3.3% to 16.3% in the new 33rd’s demographics — in nonwhite Hispanic voters since the district absorbed Riverdale.
The new 33rd now also includes Spuyten Duyvil, Norwood, Fordham, Pelham Parkway, Bedford Park, Morris Park, Van Nest and Belmont.
Rivera said that one of the biggest challenges in this reelection cycle is an acclimation to his new district, but is reinvigorated, without backing of his party, to fight for his constituents both old and new.
“I don’t know anything about (Camilo) except she seemed perfectly fine when I met her and I wish her nothing but success in life. But she doesn’t have any legislative record to speak of and I have a record that I’m immensely proud of,” he said. “Our office secured jobs for thousands of people, we’ve helped secure legal representation and social services for them. That’s what matters, not the power grabs or upholding party lines. It’s about the people I serve.”
Members of the state Senate are elected to two-year terms and make an annual salary of $110,000 plus per diem. The primary is scheduled for Aug. 23.
-Christian Falcone contributed to this report.
This story was updated on June 13 at 9:35 p.m.
Reach Robbie Sequeira at [email protected] or (718) 260-4599. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes.