In the “Her Team” series, the Bronx Times sat down with key leaders on Bronx Borough President Vanessa Gibson’s team, to learn the story behind the faces who will help guide her administration.
“The staff that we have here and the new staff we will bring on will be some of the most creative and boldest minds in the Bronx, and the City of New York,” Gibson told the Bronx Times. “We’re going to make sure the staff is reflective of the diversity of the Bronx.”
Chief of Staff Justin Cortes, a 31-year-old lover of fashion outfitted in a stylish blazer, is no stranger to Gibson.
The Puerto Rican oversaw 4-7 people as chief of staff for Gibson’s City Council team, and now he oversees almost 60 staffers, including 51 holdovers from former Borough President Ruben Diaz. Jr.’s administration.
But his path wasn’t linear.
Cortes, who is from the west Bronx and attended the High School of Art and Design in Manhattan, used to be ashamed of his borough, telling people he was from “uptown” because of stigmas surrounding the Bronx.
“My mom didn’t let me do a lot of things, so I wasn’t exposed to the beauties of the borough,” he said of his upbringing. “I was always exposed to the neighborhood, the block, the corner, the same four walls in my apartment.”
But his eyed opened to the nuances of the borough as he became more independent and started attending Community Board 5 and 46th Precinct meetings after high school.
A self-proclaimed extrovert, the high school and college student government aficionado saw a trajectory for himself in art therapy at the Borough of Manhattan Community College and City College of New York, yet he was also engrossed in political science classes.
“I had this image in my head that it (politics) was so tainted and government wasn’t for me,” said Cortes, who is gay and grew up living paycheck to paycheck. “I didn’t see anyone that looked like me; I didn’t see anyone that came from the walk of life that I did and I wanted to change that.”
Wanting to engage locally and internationally — with the arts and politics — pulled Cortes, who now lives in Concourse Village, in different directions.
In between getting his associate of science degree from BMCC and his bachelor’s degree from CCNY, Cortes took off to the Mediterranean Sea, where he lived on a Norwegian Cruise Line ship, overseeing a staff that ranged from 10 to upwards of 40 people, as the director of operations for entertainment. After almost two years overseas, Cortes returned to New York and worked as a Citibank financial analyst.
He watched the political rise of U.S. Rep. Ritchie Torres with awe, seeing himself in the young gay Latino of color who grew up in public housing with a single mom.
“You can’t be who you don’t see,” Cortes said.
And now, others can see themselves in Cortes.
In 2015, Cortes began volunteering for Gibson’s council team before joining her staff in January 2017, where he started as a community liaison. Ready for more responsibility, he took on scheduling duties as an administrative assistant before becoming Gibson’s deputy chief of staff and budget director. In that position, he met with art, therapy and domestic violence groups to advocate for causes that were important to him. When he was promoted to chief of staff in September 2019, he took his budget responsibilities with him.
Cortes fostered relationships with corporations that can bring resources to the Bronx, which recently resulted in AT&T donating tablets to families impacted by the deadly Jan. 9 Twin Parks North West fire.
With a budget that can grow Gibson’s team to almost 80, Cortes wants to hire people from all walks of life, giving them a seat at the table, just as Gibson did for him.
But he is also integrating what he calls a “well-oiled machine” of institutional knowledge from Diaz’s team with Gibson’s “flavor and flair.”
“The [borough president] is a very different leader,” he said of Gibson. “She is a 24-7, seven days a week politician.”
Cortes anticipates more of Diaz’s former staffers will stay than leave, while some may change roles.
Gibson said it was an easy choice to bring Cortes with her to the borough president’s office, calling him a gem.
“He is an asset, he is my right hand and he will certainly do well in this role,” she said.
Reach Aliya Schneider at [email protected] or (718) 260-4597. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes.