Say what? Dem group endorses GOP candidate Phyllis Nastasio in her bid to pull off Assembly upset

Phyllis Nastasio, who is running for state Assembly on the Republican and Conservative lines, says she’s a quality-of-life candidate who can appeal to all.
Photo courtesy Phyllis Nastasio

Days before the Bronx Democratic Party selected John Zaccaro Jr. as their nominee for New York State Assemblymember Nathalia Fernandez’s 80th District seat, the Northwest Bronx Democrats put their support behind candidate Phyllis Nastasio — the Republican in the race.

The fate for most aspiring Bronx officer-seekers running on the Republican or Conservative ticket is often a landslide loss, especially given the overwhelming Democratic voter advantage of more than 540,000 registered voters in the borough.

The last Bronx Republican to hold a seat in the state Legislature was longtime Bronx politico Guy Velella in 2004.

However, Nastasio has managed to secure endorsements from a range of local Democrats — including the aforementioned Northwest Bronx Democrats and ex-NYC Councilmember Rev. Ruben Diaz Sr. — and is promoting herself as the “quality of life” candidate who can work with anyone in the state Assembly.

Nastasio is a Bronx lifer, first-time officer seeker and local community board member.

“I was born and raised here and I never have any intention of leaving. I will die in the Bronx. I’ve actually lived in the 80th (District) for 32 years,” said Nastasio, 57, who is known locally as “Tiz.” “I could work with anybody because I want to represent a whole community. I am getting a lot of Democratic support and I think that’s important because while I might be on the Republican and Conservative line — it’s more important that this district elects someone who can work for everyone in this district.”

Discord within the Bronx Dems — particularly between the progressive wing of the local party and the establishment base — has caused such a rift in recent elections that some question if the fracture is repairable.

The Northwest Bronx Dems President Sheila Sanchez believes the 80th Assembly District needs a quality of life candidate in the vein of Fernandez — a popular moderate in the district who now seeks a seat in the state Senate — and “Tiz” has a local popularity that they say exceeds party loyalties.

State Assemblymember Nathalia Fernandez, a popular moderate, seeks a promotion to the state Senate this November. Photo courtesy NYC Health + Hospitals/Jacob

“I wish Nathalia luck as State Senator. Now, she needs an Assembly partner,” said Sanchez. “We need a quality of life community person. With Tiz, the bar is set high.”

The Northwest Democrats, whose base includes both the 78th and 80th Assembly districts, have gone against the Bronx Dems’ pick before, including focusing their endorsements on the best “quality of life” candidates.

Fernandez will vacate her Assembly seat at the year’s end to join the state Legislature’s upper chamber, succeeding outgoing state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi as the representative of Senate District 34. After winning the state Senate primary convincingly over Christian Amato on Aug. 23, Fernandez is expected to defeat Conservative candidate Samantha Zherka in the general election in November.

Bronx Dems select Salamanca Chief of Staff John Zaccaro Jr. as nominee for open Assembly District 80 race

The 80th Assembly District is a diverse district encompassing Norwood, Allerton, Mosholu, Morris Park and the communities of Little Yemen and Indian Village. Nastasio told the Bronx Times she hopes to focus on reforming the local court system, addressing inequities in education funding and concerns of crime through heightened community policing relationships and trust.

“We are the most diverse district, and on my block alone there is every single nationality … with different experiences and different ways of life. It’s the greatest place to live but this district is tired,” said Natasio, has been vocal on issues such as the stalled Loreto Park reconstruction project, and touted her working relationship with City Councilmember Marjorie Velazquez, a Throggs Neck Democrat, and admiration for the Senate’s leading progressive in state Sen. Gustavo Rivera, of Kingsbridge.

Her Nov. 8 opponent, 33-year-old Zaccaro, the current chief of staff for City Councilmember Rafael Salamanca Jr., has 14 years of local government experience under his belt, telling the Bronx Times this week that he plans to use his experience to address housing insecurity, quality of life and “subpar” public education in the district.

And both candidates plan to appeal to voters’ concerns of crime in the district.

John Zaccaro Jr. (right), with NYC Councilmember Rafael Salamanca Jr., was the Bronx Dems’ nominee selection on Tuesday to run for outgoing Assemblymember Nathalia Fernandez’s vacated seat. Photo John McCarten/NYC Council

The 49th Precinct which absorbs a majority of the 80th district including Morris Park has seen a 70% rise in crime this past year — according to the most recent NYPD Compstat data — most notably in felony assaults and robberies.

Nastasio, who sits on the 49th Precinct Community Council, said she believes police have been unable to their jobs and residents are steadily getting restless with all the smash-and-grabs affecting local businesses. She told the Times she also wants to amplify local concerns to the state level, such as a desire for a middle school and a recreational center in the district.

“Crime has skyrocketed. Did we need something to fix it? Absolutely. Did they go about it the right way?” said Nastasio, who puts equal blame on bail reform laws and a need to reform the court system for those awaiting trial. “I’m not a politician, but I’m a Bronx girl and I know what’s affecting my community and no one is going to put my community on the back burner.”

While it’s important to note that the fear of rising crime often doesn’t match corresponding media coverage or political talking points, it still has a chance to sway voters across party lines. Despite NYC violent incidents being nowhere near the historic highs of the ’90s, three-quarters of New Yorkers said crime was a “very serious” problem in a February Quinnipiac University poll.

While the Bronx Dems were unanimous in their selection of Zaccaro, and Fernandez — who won the district by 86% and 79% of the vote in recent reelections — has since thrown her support behind him, the confidence in the latest Bronx Dems’ selection has not been shared by all area Democrats.

“Who is Jamaal Bailey going to pick? If he picks a person outta left field, well that won’t work. We saw what happened in the 34th (Senate District). (Miguelina) Camillo lost,” said Anthony Rivieccio, founder of the Northwest Bronx Dems, before the party’s selection of Zaccaro on Tuesday. “One reason: she was considered a neighborhood outsider. Jamaal cannot pick a mucky muck. On the other hand, if you’re looking for someone with community boots to the ground, we believe Tiz is one of the best people out there.”

But if Nastasio hopes to become a rare Republican to win in the Bronx, she’ll need a slew of local Democrat support and a strong GOP turnout to do so.

Members of the state Assembly earn a yearly salary of $110,000 plus per diem, and are elected to two-year terms.

Reach Robbie Sequeira at [email protected] or (718) 260-4599. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes