Candidates and moderators during the online democratic primary debate for New York’s 15th congressional district. (Courtesy of Parker Quinlan)

Eight candidates for Congress in the South Bronx debate post-coronavirus recovery

As the South Bronx continues to grapple with the effects of the novel Coronavirus, eight of the 10 Democratic primary candidates in New York’s 15th Congressional race debated on Thursday what recovery should look like for the Bronx.

The debate’s highly unusual format – an online video call in which viewers could watch either via Facebook Live or by clicking a link to join the call– speaks to how difficult this congressional race has been for candidates since the pandemic began.

As participants navigated the online debate format candidates struggled to respond to attacks, at times talking over one another and forcing moderators to cut their audio to restore order.

As they tried to separate themselves amid the large field of Democratic challengers, candidates blamed federal and state leaders for not being able to adequately respond to the virus.

Former New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito blasted the response efforts as “woefully inadequate,” concerned that the federal response does not address the unique needs of the South Bronx.

“The Bronx and the 15th Congressional District in particular have been on the receiving end of policies that have been promoted at the national level that basically promote inequality that are based on politics and policies that are based in racism,” Mark-Viverito said.

Others like City Councilman Ritchie Torres contend that specific policies like the CARES Act passed by Congress in March provided little material support to the South Bronx.

“There is no hazard pay for essential workers, no housing support for renters on the verge of eviction, it’s been a disaster,” Torres said. “The United States has had the worst response in the world, and it’s been an embarrassment.”

The $2-trillion CARES Act is the third economic relief package passed by Congress to deal with Coronavirus, which provided $1,200 stimulus checks to every American, as well as $500-billion in subsidies to airlines in the United States, and relief to small businesses.

Samelys Lopez, an activist who has been endorsed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, also took an opportunity to attack Ritchie Torres over donations from hedge fund manager Daniel Loeb.

Loeb generated controversy in 2017 after comparing State Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins the African American minority leader in the New York State Senate to the Ku Klux Klan over her support of teacher’s union.

Loeb has since apologized for the comments, and has donated more than $5,600 to Torres’ campaign, according to federal filings.

Not every candidate running in the race participated in the debate. Notably missing from the panel was longtime Bronx politician Ruben Diaz, Sr.

Despite being seen by some as a frontrunner in the race, the city councilman’s absence was noted only in passing by other candidates.

Expecting to win largely on name recognition alone, Diaz, Sr. has taken a much different approach to campaigning, focusing almost no attention to policy, instead photographing himself taking free meals to low-income residents during the pandemic.

The June 23 primary election in the 15th congressional district is to fill the seat of current longtime Bronx Democrat José E. Serrano, who is leaving office in 2021 citing personal health concerns.

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