Former Ally of Bronx Leader Becomes Critic
Ramon Jimenez looked up at the television in his law office, smiling as he watched a news story about the noisy challenge by a multiracial group of Bronx Democrats against their party’s county leader, Assemblyman José Rivera.
“There it is,” said Mr. Jimenez. “José Rivera versus the Rainbow Rebels.”
Mr. Jimenez chuckled. Thirty years ago, he and Mr. Rivera were allies in many protests against the establishment, fighting to save Hostos Community College, demanding the rebuilding of blighted neighborhoods like Charlotte Street and defending the rights of Puerto Rican New Yorkers.
About 25 years ago, Mr. Jimenez, a Harvard-educated lawyer, writer and activist, was urged to run for an Assembly seat in the Bronx. Not sure he could raise the money — or endure the borough’s bare-knuckle politics — he suggested to Mr. Rivera that he go for it.
He still remembers how Mr. Rivera, a rumpled-looking trade union activist, rallied a cross-section of support among politically liberal Bronxites, from young, college-educated Puerto Ricans to grizzled white activists. The political outsider won. Now, a quarter of a century later, Mr. Jimenez wonders what was lost.
He has given voice to that lamentation in “Last Hurrah for ‘Boss’ Rivera,” an essay that has been making the rounds among observers of the city’s Latino political scene.
In it, he describes how Mr. Rivera, the renegade, gradually became that which he fought, an insider who delivers for his friends (some of whom, like State Senator Efraín González, face their own legal woes) and family (many of whom are in politics or government) while becoming less vocal over the daily bread-and-butter issues facing his constituents. He wrote:
At that time, Jose came from a community organizer/activist background and was supported by many progressives…Now, this coming week, when facing the most serious challenge to his Bronx Democratic Leadership, he will find few progressives by his side.
“A lot of people helped him because he was seen as a progressive candidate,” Mr. Jimenez said. “But instead of empowering people, it came to be about ‘me, me, me.’ We expected something different from José. He had ability and creativity in organizing. That slowly dissipated and he became more concerned about his power and his family.”
Mike Nieves, a spokesman for Mr. Rivera, dismissed those criticisms, saying people have selective memories. He said Mr. Rivera helped even some of his critics embark on political careers.
“Is it easy to pick on José? Sure,” Mr. Nieves said. “ But tell me about the other part of José. I’m not going to allow these guys to take his 30 years of service and trash it because they did not get their way.”
Yet, Mr. Nieves went on to choose an odd metaphor for someone he portrays as a champion of the poor and disenfranchised.
“It’s easy to take pot shots at the king,” he said. “Why not give him a legitimate fight?”
Mr. Jimenez, whose law office above a neighborhood bar on 149th Street takes its décor from equal parts film noir, baseball greats and Puerto Rican nationalism, had long stayed silent about his former ally. But like others in some ethnic circles, he had grown uneasy about Mr. Rivera’s transformation, as well as the larger issue of the city’s Latino political class.
“It got to the point where I couldn’t stay silent,” Mr. Jiminez said. “ I think we have a serious crisis of leadership in the Puerto Rican community.”
The Bronx may be the center of the city’s Latino political universe, but Mr. Jimenez thinks its residents have been ill served by its officials, some who barely show themselves in their districts or turn their backs on local issues. He faults some of them for backing much-debated projects like the new Yankee Stadium or the Croton filtration plant despite significant opposition. That, in turn, breeds a certain cynicism or apathy on the part of voters, he said.
“You ever see the vote in some primaries?” Mr. Jimenez said. “There are student elections where there are more votes. You can get a few thousand votes and become a state senator.”
On Sunday, Mr. Rivera will face perhaps the most important poll of his career when Bronx Democrats meet to decide if he continues as leader of the Bronx Democratic County Committee.
“I think he has been wounded, no matter what happens,” Mr. Jimenez said. “People shouldn’t underestimate his street intelligence in terms of what could happen. It will be very close. But I think there is a good chance they could oust him.