Realtor jumps into 80th assembly race

Mark Gjonaj delivers announcement speech on a soaky Sunday, April 22.
Photo by David Cruz

And they’re off!

The Bronx political season is heating up, with a new challenger for Morris Park Assemblywoman Naomi Rivera’s seat and key endorsements for the candidate seeking retiring Assemblyman Peter Rivera’s Parkchester seat in the September Democratic primary.

Morris Park Realtor Mark Gjonaj, a financially well-heeled leader in the Albanian-American community, announced Sunday he is taking Naomi Rivera on for her seat in a redistricted – some charge gerrymandered with its splitting up of Morris Park – 80th Assembly District in the east Bronx.

Meanwhile, Parkchester attorney Luis Sepulveda notched endorsements Monday from Democratic Party leader Carl Heastie, as well as Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. and Parkchester/Soundview City Councilwoman Annabel Palma.

Sepulveda, a long time party operative, also has the backing of Diaz’ powerful local senator father, Ruben Diaz Sr., and key local party leaders in the 76th Assembly District covering Parkchester, Castle Hill, West Farms and Van Nest. Under redistricting, it will be renamed the 87th Assembly District in 2013.

He came to close to beating Peter Rivera in the last race, and is facing off against Danny Figueroa, longtime chief of staff for Rivera, recently nominated by Gov. Cuomo as his new state labor commissioner.

A win in the September 11 primary pretty much assures a win in the November general election in both overwhelmingly Democratic districts.

Gjonaj (pronounced jo-nigh) said at a press conference at his Barnes Avenue campaign office that “I am changing my life from a life of working for myself to a life of working for you.”

The district covers Morris Park, Pelham Parkway, Pelham Gardens and Van Cortlandt Village, and is the epicenter of the 9,500-member Albanian-American community according to census figures.

It was recently split in half by the state Legislature, with Governor Cuomo’s approval.

Gjonaj said that if elected, he would work to help cut the current Bronx unemployment rate of 14%, the highest in the state, and also focus on more affordable housing, public safety, programs for seniors, and maintaining after-school programs to help “keep kids off the street.”

He could face tough going against Rivera, who has been in office since 2005 and also has the key endorsement of Democratic Party boss Carl Heastie. Her father is former east Tremont Councilman and current Assemblyman Jose Rivera and brother is Council Majority Leader Joel Rivera.

Asked his thoughts on Naomi Rivera’s leadership ability, Gjonaj quickly changed the subject, saying “I know what I’ll bring to Albany – hard work, long hours and dedication.”

He was born in the Bronx to Albanian parents from Montenegro who worked as porters at Jacobi Medical Center before starting the MP Realty Group Corp., now run by him.

This is the first run for elective office for Gjonaj, co-founder of the Albanian-American Community Association and Bronx commissioner of the New York City Taxi & Limousine Commission. He would be the first assemblyman of Albanian descent to hold the office.

Naomi Rivera said in a statement: “I look forward to a vigorous and exciting re-election and to putting forward my record of accomplishments on behalf of the people of the 80th Assembly District.”

Reach reporter David Cruz at (718) 742-3383 or email at

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