Desiree Pilgrim-Hunter speaking at a July 15 Kingsbridge Armory rally
at Our Lady of Refuge Church. (File photo by Adi Talwar)
By Alex Kratz
Desiree Pilgrim-Hunter, a Bronx activist who became the face of last year’s strong community push for living wage jobs at the Kingsbridge Armory, is exploring the possibility of making a run at the state Senate seat occupied by Pedro Espada, Jr.
In the past two weeks, in preparation for a possible run, Pilgrim-Hunter has begun assembling a team of advisors and has quietly reached out to potential donors and supporters.
“The next few weeks will basically be a stress test to see what kind of support is out there for me,” Pilgrim-Hunter, 53, said in an interview over the weekend. “But I am taking steps to prepare myself should I decide to run. Because one thing is for certain: if I get in, I'm getting in to win. And it’s as simple as that.”
So far, Pilgrim-Hunter said she has received positive feedback, including this accolade from the head of the retail workers’ union.
"Desiree is someone I know well from the Kingsbridge Armory campaign, where for years she fought for community benefits including living wages and workers' rights,” said RWDSU president Stuart Appelbaum in a statement provided through a Pilgrim-Hunter advisor. “She has proven herself to be a strong and effective advocate for the community. The RWDSU is proud to have worked with her."
Pilgrim-Hunter was reluctant to offer specific criticism of Espada, who became Senate majority leader last summer after siding with Republicans in an ugly power struggle that highlighted the state legislature's dysfunctional political culture. (Espada was rewarded with the title of majority leader in exchange for returning to the Democrats.)
But she did not have a problem attacking Albany’s sinking reputation.
"No one is happy with what's gone on in Albany over the past year or so. People are angry and distrustful of the process,” Pilgrim-Hunter said. “But my message would be, in spite of these feelings, we cannot simply just look away. Because if we don't pay attention to politics we get the candidates we deserve.”
In 2008, Espada defeated incumbent Efrain Gonzalez who was, at the time, awaiting trial on federal corruption charges. Espada soundly defeated Gonzalez but garnered less than 5,000 votes.
This would be Pilgrim-Hunter’s first foray into politics. She does, however, have some experience running for office.
Three years ago, Pilgrim-Hunter led a successful campaign to replace the executive board at Fordham Hill, a large co-op development near Fordham Road, which counts among its 4,000 residents Assemblyman Jose Rivera and former City Councilman Israel Ruiz, Jr. In the process, Pilgrim-Hunter was elected board president and has helped stabilize the co-op's shaky finances.
For the past five years, as a vocal leader for the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, the area’s oldest and largest grassroots organizing group, Pilgrim-Hunter has fought to alleviate school overcrowding, taken on Wall Street for its role in the foreclosure crisis and played a crucial role in fighting for responsible development at the Kingsbridge Armory. The Village Voice recognized her in November as one of the city's “unsung heroes” and has been honored by Congressman Jose Serrano for her community work.
Her nascent effort has already attracted support from different parts of the district, which stretches from Kingsbridge to Mount Hope.
Concerned that no one had yet surfaced to run against Espada, Kingsbridge Heights resident Jack Marth invited friends and neighbors, including allies of Pilgrim-Hunter's, to his house last month to discuss the race. Marth, an attorney who directs the legal clinic at Part of the Solution (POTS) in Bedford Park, and even considered running himself lest Espada run unopposed, believes Pilgrim-Hunter will attract broad support.
“A lot of people who haven't been involved in political campaigns are very interested in this campaign and want to put a lot of time and effort into it,” he said, adding that tenants' rights advocates like himself who are disappointed in Espada's record as chair of the Senate's Housing Committee will be drawn to the effort.
Yorman Nunez, who mounted a volunteer-fueled campaign for City Council in the 14th District last year before pulling out over the summer, says his campaign's experience will now be put to good use.
“My race was about getting the people of the community trained and ready to elect people from the community,” he said.
Asked for comment, Espada's spokesman, Franck Laboy Strongbow said, “Frankly, I think it’s a little early to be commenting on potential candidates.” He added, “I think that even those who disagree with Senator Espada on certain issues would agree that he has been, on the whole, good for the district.”
Even for the diverse, immigrant-heavy Bronx, Pilgrim-Hunter’s background is unusual. Born to Guyanese parents in London, she immigrated to New York City from Lagos, Nigeria in 1962. For the past 25 years, she has lived in the Bronx, where she has raised her two daughters and continues to live with her husband. She recently became an American citizen.
After witnessing the overcrowding in her daughter’s high school, John F. Kennedy in Riverdale, Pilgrim-Hunter, who has worked in cosmetics and fashion retail and as a welfare-to-work counselor, decided to join the Coalition and demand more space and smaller classes at public schools.
Pilgrim-Hunter, now a member of the Coalition's executive board, advocated turning part of the Armory site into four new public schools with 2,000 new seats.
This past year, Pilgrim-Hunter became the public face of the Coalition’s and Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance’s (KARA) effort to guarantee living wage jobs at a revamped Armory, which the city was planning on turning into a shopping mall.
After it became clear the city and the developer would not guarantee living wage jobs, Pilgrim-Hunter and KARA successfully lobbied to have the project scrapped. In December, the City Council killed the proposal in a rare and overwhelming defeat of a Bloomberg-backed development project.
Pilgrim-Hunter said the rejection of the Armory plan sent a message to the mayor and developers. “Development should be about creating a partnership with the community,” she said. “[The mall plan] was not a true partnership.”
If she runs, Pilgrim-Hunter said she will make the community a partner in the political process as well.
“For me, politics is about making sure the community’s voice is part of every conversation or policy decision in Albany,” Pilgrim-Hunter said. “It’s about being faithful to the best interests of this community, and putting the people first. If I get into this race, the people of this district will know that my loyalty to them is not for sale at any price."
Jordan Moss contributed to this article.