The Lincoln Legislator: Driving the Bronx with Reverend Rubén Díaz, Sr.

An intimate tour of New York's 15th district with the conservative Democrat hoping to represent it in Congress

Wearing his trademark cowboy hat and a wool topcoat over his pin-striped suit, New York City Councilman Rubén Díaz, Sr., was hard to miss as he stood outside the Mechler Hall Senior Center in the South Bronx on a recent Thursday morning. The Pentecostal minister, who is running for a seat in New York’s crowded 15th congressional district, was there to see off a group of senior citizens before they headed to a theater in Westchester for a show and a meal.

It was March 12, the day Mayor Bill de Blasio would declare a state of emergency as the number of known coronavirus cases in the city began to increase exponentially. Though the proclamation was hours away, there was still a sense of danger in the air — a whiff of the apocalypse — as though some unknown, invisible force was taking hold in a city ill-equipped to deal with a looming epidemic.

“I am worried about senior citizens,” Díaz told Jewish Insider, taking a seat in his Lincoln sedan, which was parked at the curb out front. At 76, Díaz is a senior himself, but he said he was unconcerned with his own personal safety. “Me, I’m a minister,” he said. “I cannot live my life worrying about things.” 

That’s an apt summation, it turns out, of the reverend’s brash — and often tempestuous — approach to politics. Throughout his tenure in local government, the former state senator, who describes himself as a “conservative Democrat,” has earned his fair share of critics for holding some beliefs that would seem to be more at home in the Republican Party. In the past, Díaz has vehemently expressed opposition to same-sex marriage, likened abortion to the Holocaust and expressed an affinity for President Donald Trump.

These views have alienated Díaz from his opponents in the primary, which is set to be held on June 23, even as Gov. Andrew Cuomo has suspended the petitioning process in an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19, mandating that candidates only need to have collected 30% of the required 1,250 signatures to get on the ballot. 

“Rubén Díaz, Sr., is a supporter of Donald Trump — he does not hide that, he embraces it,” said Michael Blake, a former Obama staffer and one of more than a dozen candidates vying to replace longtime Rep. José E. Serrano — who announced last March that he would not seek re-election — in the 15th district, which includes most of the South Bronx. “He invited Ted Cruz here in 2016,” Blake said of his opponent. “That’s not a Democrat.”

Díaz is so polarizing that the race feels like a concentrated struggle for the soul of the Democratic Party, where social issues like gay marriage and abortion are mostly settled topics.

The man who may be best equipped to beat Díaz is Ritchie Torres, the 32-year-old Bronx City Councilman whose campaign exists as a kind of refutation of Díaz’s traditionalism. Torres — who has characterized his opponent as “the Donald Trump of the Bronx” — is openly gay, identifies as Afro-Latino and describes himself as “the embodiment of a pro-Israel progressive.” He has raised more than $1 million, nearly seven times the amount raised by Díaz. (Torres was recently diagnosed with the novel coronavirus and declined to comment for this article. He is now quarantined at home and “feels fine,” according to a spokesman.)

Still, the Puerto Rican-born Díaz is deeply rooted in the Bronx, and experts predict that it is unlikely his inflammatory statements will impede his chances at the polls. “He actually gets along with everybody,” said Lloyd Ultan, the borough’s historian. Díaz — already a minor celebrity in his district, thanks in part to his recognizable wardrobe — also enjoys extra name recognition from his son, Ruben Diaz, Jr., the Bronx borough president.

For his part, Díaz is complimentary of Torres. “He doesn’t talk to me,” Díaz said of his New York City Council colleague. “But he’s welcome. I have nothing bad to say about him. He’s intelligent, he’s smart, he’s got the whole world in front of him.” If Díaz is willing to dispense such praise, it may be because he is unworried about his chances. 

“I doubt that I’m going to lose this,” he told JI.

***

Diaz feels that it is simply his turn. Born in 1943 in the Puerto Rican municipality of Bayamón — whose nickname is “The City of Cowboys,” hence the hat — Díaz moved to the Bronx in 1965 and has lived in the borough ever since. “When the Bronx was down, when the Bronx was burned out and people left,” he told JI, “I was creating jobs here.”

Despite his bluster, it was his son who spurred him to pursue a career in local government, according to Ultan. Díaz, Jr., was elected to the New York State Assembly in 1997, well before his father — who served as a state senator representing the 32nd district from 2003 to 2017, when he was elected to the City Council. 

“It was basically Jr. who paved the way for Sr.,” Ultan said. The two share different political views, which has created some tension in their public lives, though Ultan said it hasn’t hampered their personal relationship. “It’s obvious that Jr. and Sr. love each other,” he told JI. “I’ve seen them together.” (Diaz, Jr., who had been expected to run for mayor, announced in late January that he would not seek public office after his term as borough president expires next year, opting to spend more time with his family. He declined to comment for this article.)

Díaz is proud of his record, particularly when it comes to his stances on social issues, which he does not try to hide. “I’m against abortion,” he said. “I’m against gay marriage. I’m against gambling. I’m against using the schools to distribute condoms for children. I’m against the death penalty. I am pro-Israel.”

Such beliefs, he explained, are an extension of his evangelical convictions. “I don’t hate people because they gamble,” Díaz said by way of explanation. “I’m against gambling. That’s what we believe. I’m against smoking. I don’t hate people because they smoke, but I’m against smoking.”

His phone rang. It was his lawyer, Christopher Lynn, an attorney who once served as the city’s transportation commissioner under former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. “He’s gay,” Díaz announced, picking up the call.

“Hi, Chris,” he said. “I’m here sitting in the car with a reporter.”

“Well, fine,” Lynn huffed, going on to tell his client about conversations he was having with city officials over providing assistance to senior centers amid the coronavirus outbreak. Before hanging up, he issued a warning. “And please don’t talk to reporters,” said Lynn, whose many alleged improprieties — including insurance fraud — have been tracked by the local press. “None of them are any goddamn good.” 

The councilman laughed. In recent years, he has taken his lawyer’s advice to heart. Díaz said he rarely consents to interviews anymore, out of a suspicion that most reporters simply want to catch him in the act of saying something complimentary about Trump. Díaz doesn’t like talking about the president, perhaps because doing so deflects attention from himself, and he denies having supported him.

The two politicians have some things in common. Both have employed pugnacious lawyers with checkered pasts. Both have grafted their outsized personalities onto parties whose platforms seem to be at odds with their positions. Both have somewhat ill-defined policy approaches and both rely more on instinct than reason. Still, there are differences. For one, Díaz is not a man of privilege, while Trump — who presents himself as a champion of the working class — is a case study in entitlement. 

“Trump has done good things and bad things,” Díaz said, speaking in a vague yet calculated manner that suggested he did not want his words to be misconstrued. “Doesn’t mean that you have to hate him. Doesn’t mean that I have to support him. For example, which president has the guts to support Israel the way he does?”

Photo: Matthew Kassel

Díaz is a diehard supporter of the Jewish state; his philosemitism contributes substantially to his worldview. He wholeheartedly endorsed Trump’s decision to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and he talks reverentially about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He believes the Jews are an extraordinarily resilient people.

In fact, Díaz only consented to speak with JI, he said, because he considers himself to be such a strong advocate of the Jewish community. “They don’t have a better defender than me,” he boasted. “My savior is Jewish,” he explained. “I base my religion in the Jewish faith. There is no other candidate — oh man, the Jews? Forget about it. Don’t even go there, OK? To me, that’s the chosen people.”

***

Leaving the senior center — where he was greeted by a small group of older women who hollered excitedly at his appearance — Díaz headed onto his next appointment, a weekly meeting of the New York Hispanic Clergy Organization, of which he is founder and president. 

On the drive over, he spoke about his vision for the borough. “This congressional district has a bad reputation,” Díaz lamented. “They call it the poorest in the nation. That’s what they say. I don’t think that’s true.” His aim, he said, is to change that image if elected to Congress, though his plan for doing so is somewhat elusive. 

“See, you got to get there,” he said when asked how he would enact his vision. “If the Senate is controlled by Republicans, you’ve got to sit down with them. If the money is controlled by the president, you’ve got to sit down with him.”

The reverend is most decisive when it comes to the issues that appear to be most personal. If elected to Congress, he said he intends to ensure that Israel continues to receive all the foreign aid it needs. He also said he will lobby for Puerto Rican statehood. Diaz wears a small, star-shaped pin on his lapel, a symbol of devotion to his homeland. 

“The American flag has 50 stars,” he said. “They need this one.”

Díaz parked in front of a church on Longfellow Avenue and walked up to the building, but not before he was greeted by an exuberant taxi driver who got out of his car to thank the councilman for his service. 

“I don’t campaign too much,” Díaz bragged. “They have to campaign,” he added, referring to his opponents.

Ruben Diaz, Sr.

Inside, he sat down in a big leather chair at the center of a table in front of a crowded room. The chair was empty and waiting for Díaz, who, wielding a gavel — which he would occasionally bang when the proceedings got too boisterous — spoke at length about a number of issues as several people came forward to lay checks down on a nearby table — donations to his campaign. At the end of the meeting, Díaz blessed a man and a woman, placing his hand atop their heads in a solemn display, and made his way out.

Back in the car, Díaz returned to his concerns about the Bronx, including the demographic changes that have been transforming the area in recent years. The Puerto Ricans, he said, were once the political power brokers. But the arrival of new immigrant groups including Mexicans, Dominicans and Bangladeshis has changed the makeup of the borough.

“Bodegas used to be Puerto Rican,” he said. “Now bodegas are Dominican.”

Regardless, Díaz said, he wasn’t worried about such changes because he knew he had widespread support in the majority-Hispanic district. “When many of them were not around, I was here trying to rebuild the Bronx,” he declared as he gave JI a tour of the area. “I’m not worried about that.” 

Melissa Mark-Viverito, a former New York City Council speaker who has also entered the race, disputed the reverend’s self-assessment. “He’s made horrific comments,” she said of Díaz, adding that his agenda is out of step with the district’s priorities. “There are people who do not support his point of view,” she added, telling JI that she had knocked on 4,000 doors before petitioning was suspended and heard from voters who were familiar with the reverend but expressed a desire to “turn the page.”

“He’s running on the Democratic line, but I don’t believe he really upholds those Democratic values,” Mark-Viverito said.

That may not matter in the 15th district. Borough historian Ultan said while people in the Bronx are generally “liberal,” they also tend to be more conservative than their neighbors in Manhattan.

Díaz’s contributions to the district are obvious — and extend beyond party politics. He gestured to his left, at the intersection of Intervale and Westchester Avenues. “That building,” he said, pointing to an apartment complex with his name on it. “You see that one there?” he asked, pointing across the street. It was another Díaz-branded building. 

“What I’m telling you is, I’ve been here,” he said. “People know me.”

***

As we drove on, the discussion veered toward Trump. Díaz said he had met the president “many years ago,” back when Trump was a real estate developer. Did he remember what the meeting was like? 

Suddenly, the reverend got cold. He groaned, annoyed by the prospect of discussing — once again — the man in the Oval Office.

“That’s why my lawyer told me don’t talk to reporters,” he said, shaking his head. “It’s obvious what you are trying to do.”

He steered the car toward his district office. He appeared to regret that he had let a reporter tag along with him for the day. The interview wasn’t going the way he had planned. “Everybody wants to tie me to Trump,” Díaz complained. “People need housing,” he said. “I have created housing for them. People need jobs. I have been creating jobs.”

“You’re not interested,” he said. “You’re interested in Trump.” 

He was also offended that he had not been asked to elaborate — at least to his liking — on his support for the Jewish state.

So JI obliged. Does he support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? 

“I support the state of Israel,” he said, sounding deflated. 

What about the Palestinians? 

“I support Israel.”

Did he want to say anything more specific? 

“I told you that Jews are the chosen people,” he said. “And because they’re the chosen, I support the Jews.”

Though Díaz has never been to Israel — he hates flying — he said he would probably make a visit if he gets to Washington. “As a congressman, I want to help you,” he told this reporter. “I want to help you.”

Díaz seemed to have gotten the sense that his devotion to the Jews was not completely appreciated, so he pulled out his phone. “I’m going to call somebody,” he said, dialing the number of a rabbi he knows. The call went to voicemail.

He turned on the radio as we rode on in silence, and then he turned the radio off. “So I thought you were a Jewish newspaper interested in Jewish issues,” he said, sounding miffed.

Pulling up to his district office, he took an elevator up to the second floor and sat down at his desk, behind which sat an array of flags, including the flag of Israel, which he described as “Jewish.” 

He sat back and explained, in more detail, the basis of his philosemitism, which — he finally made clear — goes to the root of his personal and political cosmology. “So, this is what I believe,” he said. “My savior, my savior, my leader, my God, is a Jew by the name of Jesus. So I believe that he came, he gave his life for me, and I am thankful to him.”

“There’s going to be a big war against Israel,” Díaz continued. “All the nations of the world will go against Israel. You see what’s happening now? The only nation that is standing by Israel is the United States.”

His phone rang. It was the mayor’s office, calling about the novel coronavirus — a reminder, for the moment at least, of more worldly concerns, and not long until de Blasio would issue his emergency declaration.

“The only thing that I am concerned with is senior centers,” he said. “I need to be sure that the senior centers are being taken care of and that they send people to sanitize the centers and to help the senior citizens.”

The call ended and he returned to the topic at hand. “There’s going to be a big war,” said Díaz, who believes that the Bible prophecies such an event. “Armageddon.”

Did he imagine that this would happen in his lifetime? 

“I see the signs,” he said. “It could happen anytime.”

And then what?

“And that’s the end.”

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