George Washington Plunkitt, the state senator and Democratic Party leader of a century ago, would be proud. Today's Bronx politicos have taken his concept of "honest graft" and kicked it up a notch. As the Bronx continues to deteriorate, seemingly stuck in a permanent mode of decay and depression, political leaders find new ways to line their pockets as their constituents suffer.
This was driven home dramatically this past week with the unsealing of a new indictment against a Bronx state senator, Efrain Gonzalez. His constituents are among the poorest in the most poverty stricken county in the state. Yet when given the opportunity to bring some resources back to his district, Mr. Gonzalez, prosecutors charge, instead stole the money to finance a lavish personal lifestyle.
The senator is charged with diverting some $423,000 in public "member item" funds that he obtained for a group called Pathways for Youth, an affiliate of the Gloria Wise Boys and Girls Club. The latter was the group that inappropriately loaned $875,000 to the now bankrupt Air America radio network.
Mr. Gonzalez is a particularly ineffective legislator. There are no Gonzalez laws or initiatives, although he has spent 17 years in the state Senate. How does Mr. Gonzalez keep his job? In the Bronx there is currently no competitive political environment. For the first time in memory, perhaps ever, there is not a single Republican officeholder in the borough, the last being state Senator Guy Velella, himself a casualty of a bribery scandal.
A few Democratic clubs exist mainly in the few remaining middle-class enclaves, but most are affiliated either formally or informally with the current party leadership. Instead of clubs, we have clans. Many public offices are held by a handful of families who have also grabbed the political largesse for themselves, giving no reason for an outsider to toil in the political vineyards.
The Bronx Democratic leader is Assemblyman Jose Rivera. Mr. Rivera is a delightful fellow, well liked by all. But he is surely most loved by his family as the most generous of men. Mr. Rivera is in his second stint in the Assembly. He served in Albany for several years, tired of the commute, and got himself elected to the City Council. But the voters changed the rules of the game by demanding term limits, so in 2000 Mr. Rivera decided that perhaps the ride to Albany wasn't so bad after all. He reclaimed his Assembly seat, and installed his son, Joel, then a 22-year old college student, in his vacated City Council post. Joel's mother, Ivine Gallarza, holds a patronage post as district manager of Community Board 6. Some suggest she could be tapped to succeed Mr. Gonzalez in the state Senate should he be removed.
Perhaps feeling lonely on the long drives to and from the state capital, Mr. Rivera was able to install his daughter Naomi as the assemblywoman in an adjoining district.
The spouses of Mr. Rivera's children are also thriving in this tight-knit political world. Assemblywoman Naomi Rivera's hubby works for the City Council, and Council Member Joel Rivera's new bride has just landed a top job at the Board of Elections.
Despite having found this treasure trove for his children and their spouses, Mr. Rivera himself, the New York Times reports, is now under investigation by the FBI over a real estate deal.
Another dynasty is forming in the South Bronx and may have found a source of family pork and power in the charter school movement. For a generation, until the school board reform law took effect in 1997, Assemblywoman Carmen Arroyo controlled appointments of principals and assistant principals in the local public schools ó with disastrous results.
When the school boards were eliminated to give control of public schools to the mayor in 2002, her grandson, Richard Izquierdo, was president of School Board 7. Mr. Izquierdo, aside from pulling down a state salary as his grandmother's chief of staff, has surfaced as chairman of the South Bronx Charter School for International Cultures, even as he struggles to finally complete his own associate's degree at Hostos Community College.
In order to insure the success of his school, Mr. Izquierdo hired Evelyn Hey, a former public school principal who has the distinction of being removed as principal not just once, but twice. The first time was in 1993, when it was alleged that she got her job because she was the girlfriend of a school board member. The second removal was due to charges that she helped students cheat on standardized tests, resulting in a 22-point gain for her school. She spent years in a "rubber room," before finally being reinstated, her case unresolved, shortly before retiring.
Mr. Izquierdo is preparing to run for grandma's Assembly seat when she retires, so he is changing his last name to Arroyo. That's what his aunt, Maria Aguirre, the assemblywoman's daughter, did when she successfully ran for City Council as Maria del Carmen Arroyo.
He may need to change his name to help him get elected, but Mr. Izquierdo won't need much practice in dispensing member-item pork. The assemblywoman now funds the Freedom Community Center, whose board chairman is her loving grandson, and the South Bronx Community Corporation, whose executive director is, you guessed it, that same grandson, Richard Izquierdo-soon-to-be-Arroyo.
One thing is for sure, we have just seen the tip of the iceberg. More scrutiny of member items, the groups they go to, and the money they dispense will surely lead to more trouble for New York's piggy pols, particularly those in the beleaguered borough of the Bronx.