Who Will Replace Seabrook in District 12?
By Lennin Reyes
Bronx Journal Staff Reporter
On November 6, voting sites will have lines of people waiting to cast their votes in the presidential election. Voters in the northern Bronx, however, will have to cast two votes, one for president and another for a vacant City Council seat.
That day, there will be a special election for the 12th Council District to replace Larry Seabrook, who was removed from the City Council over the summer due to federal corruption charges. The six candidates who are in the battle to serve the working-class neighborhoods of Wakefield, Williamsbridge, Co-op City, Baychester, Edenwald and Eastchester are Andy King, Cheryl Simmons-Oliver, Joseph Nwachukwu, Garth Marchant, Neville Mitchell and Pamela Johnson.
The Second Time Around for King
In 2009, an organizer for the 1199 SEIU union challenged Seabrook and lost. But now that Seabrook is out of the way, that organizer, Andy King, hopes for a different outcome. “We need to have dedication and trust in elected leadership,” King said, while working in his campaign office in Williamsbridge. One of the things King hopes to improve is accountability between officials and residents. “People from downtown should not do surveys on what we need,” he said. “We live it everyday.”
King said he hopes to tackle many educational issues in the 12th District. One of them is the disparity between district schools and their counterparts across the city line in Westchester County. “We need to give schools resources to keep them competitive,” King said. “It is unfair for one [school] district to pick up all of the slack.” The Evander Childs High School alum added that he would hire teachers who live in the area. “We have got away from the village, that is why we have a disconnect between the principal, teachers and parents,” King said.
The 12th District lacks programs for the young, he said. “The money to gun violence initiative could go to youth programs, quality youth and educational programs to allow youth to have positive behavior.”
Nwachukwu “Sees the Need”
“I am not a career politician, I am a pastor,” said Joseph Nwachukwu. “I saw the need to create a difference. If you want change, vote for me. If you want politics as usual, vote for someone else,” said Nwachukwu, an immigrant from Nigeria.
The pastor, who also worked as a social worker for 25 years, said he hopes to restore integrity to the working-class council district. “We have suffered with Larry [Seabrook],” he said. Transportation is also high on his agenda. “[The MTA] has told us, ‘we don’t have enough money,’” Nwachukwu said. “Instead of cutting, advocate for an increase in transit.”
One of the places MTA bus cuts hurt the most is Co-op City, which is also dealing with the expansion of the Bay Plaza shopping center. The expansion has raised questions from residents, concerned with the additional traffic the new stores will bring. “I’d rather have more people employed than worrying about a traffic jam,” Nwachukwu said. He added that park-and-ride facilities and shuttle buses could be implemented to provide extra service to the new shopping center and the proposed Co-op City Metro-North station.
Nwachukwu also hopes to improve conditions along the popular White Plains Road shopping district to encourage stores to stay open for longer hours. He wants to focus specifically on houses of worship – the area’s nickname is “God’s Row” — which have potential to improve the district. “Churches are too scared to open every day because of the undesirables,” he said. “The church plays a major role [in the district] to educate and appeal to people’s conscience.”
While his opponent Andy King has received endorsements from county officials, Nwachukwu wants to take another route to reach to his constituents. “I am not going to conform to the machine,” he said. “Don’t talk too much, do action.”
20 Years of Preparation
Candidates gain political experience in different ways, ranging from working in nonprofit organizations to being district leaders in the State Assembly. Council candidate Cheryl Simmons-Oliver spent 20 years working with one of the Bronx’s most prominent Congressmen. Simmons-Oliver, who works with Congressman Jose Serrano, hopes her ties with other legislators could improve the quality of life for residents in District 12. “I did not wake up learning all of this stuff, I spent 20 years preparing for this moment,” she said.
A Co-op City resident, Simmons-Oliver hopes to increase transparency between the 50,000-plus residents and the Riverbay Corporation. “We pay for utilities, yet we have issues with piping and suffered two blackouts,” she said. “The board needs to be accountable.”
Elderly Co-op City residents are suffering due to the cuts in the Access-a-Ride service, which provides service for senior citizens, said Simmons-Oliver. “Access-a-Ride has been telling my neighbors to meet them at the bus stop,” she said. “What happened to door-to-door service?”
For this race, Simmons-Oliver hopes voters go beyond favoritism to elect a candidate. “This race is not a popularity contest. It is a race to see who does the job best,” she said. “As your elected official, I will serve as a strong advocate to empower our community and restore it.”
“The Love to Learn”
As a young boy in Jamaica, Garth Marchant says he learned how to love learning. More than 40 years later, he says he is running to bring that mindset to children in the district. “My grandson came home from school and told me, ‘School is boring,’” he said. “They spend so much time teaching to the test, instead of making learning interesting.”
Marchant said he would support higher education and bring jobs to the Bronx. “If [President] Obama is investing in more community colleges, we could build a community college in Co-op City with emphasis on job training,” he said. “This way, jobs won’t be exported out of the Bronx.”
Marchant, who supported the construction of Kingsland Day School on Hammersley Avenue, also owns several dollar vans. The latter is something Marchant prefers due to the infrequent bus service found throughout the district. “It would improve transportation and prevent people from walking from the No. 2 train to the Edenwald Houses,” he said, referring to those who walk after the Bx31 (which serves Edenwald) stops running during late nights. “The government should help subsidize them to lower the costs.”
Marchant said he hopes for a governmental revamp of Co-op City after years of mismanagement. “If the government could bail out banks, they could bail out the largest housing development in the United States,” he said.
Marchant said he plans to create a business improvement district along White Plains Road. “With a BID, it would add security cameras and a cleaning crew,” he said. “If streets are cleaned, and businesses come in, tourists would come here instead of staying in Manhattan.”
Establishing a cricket field to cater to the large West Indian community is also on Marchant’s list. “A cricket field would bring international stars to play here,” he said. “We are one of the few communities not to have any sports leagues. When we take kids to New Jersey to play sports, they are thrilled to play.”
No “Water-Carrying” with Mitchell
With many politicians aligning themselves with Mayor Michael Bloomberg or Council Speaker Christine Quinn, attorney Neville Mitchell plans to serve the 12th District by remaining independent. “I am not here to carry water for Bloomberg, Quinn or anyone else,” he said.
A Wakefield attorney, Mitchell said he hopes to expand school hours to empower students and keep them off the streets. “Schools have the opportunity to teach pregnancy, early childhood, sports, and other things,” he said. “We have the perfect vehicles, but why are they closed at 3 p.m.?” He added that he opposes charter schools on the grounds that they take away resources and money from public schools.
Mitchell said he hopes to eliminate the procedures that prevent action from being taken against students, something he learned first-hand as a substitute teacher at ABC Bushwick High School. “On my first day, two kids were fighting each other,” he said. “When I broke it up, other teachers said, ‘What are you doing? If you get hurt, the union won’t protect you.’”
Mitchell said he is against the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy. “The term for reasonable suspicion should not be defined by a person who lives in a high-crime neighborhood, with pants sagging low, and looking at the cops,” Mitchell said. “I completely oppose it since it is unconstitutional.”
As for Larry Seabrook, Mitchell said transparency is a top priority. “If something is in the darkness, it will be exposed.”
Living Here and Loving It
Several years ago, Pamela Johnson was looking for scholarship opportunities for her three children. She found them and it opened several doors for her. “I became so good at it, I decided to share the information with others,” she said. “I started becoming known as, ‘The Scholarship Lady.’”
Eventually, “The Scholarship Lady” also joined Community School District 11′s Community Education Council and formed part of the Eastchester Heights Community Center (EHCC), which provides youths and adults with scholarship programs and internships. Most of those hired in the EHCC are from the district, says Johnson. “Why would we want to hire people from the outside if people here are looking for jobs?” she said.
The widespread demand for education opportunities gave her incentive to run for the open council seat.
In addition to education, Johnson hopes to improve community input with authorities. One issues is the creation of a business improvement district along Boston Road, near the EHCC. “While those who rent attend the meetings, the owners of the properties need to join us too,” Johnson said.
Transportation for residents is key, said Johnson. The MTA has restructured bus service in Co-op City over the past two years. Johnson, and opponents King and Simmons-Oliver, attended a rally a few months ago to fight for improved bus service for the development. “Co-op City is so big, but not as many people showed up,” Johnson said. “We need more to come out to meetings.”
Another issue Johnson hopes to tackle is the disparity in services between her district and its Westchester counterparts. She cites the proposed Co-op City Metro-North station, where the MTA says parking will not be added, as an example. “There needs to be a way to put a park-and-ride nearby,” she said. “Every station in Westchester has one, why not us?”
Each of the six contenders hope to make it “two-for-two” — a win for President Obama and a win for the 12th Council District.