State Sen. Pedro Espada at Tolentine Senior Center last week (Photos: J. Fergusson)
"¡Viva Tolentine!" shouted a beaming State Sen. Pedro Espada, Jr. at Tolentine Senior Center last Friday.
He was there to meet and greet seniors and to formally announce what they'd all heard a few days prior: that the center, located in the basement of St. Nicholas of Tolentine church in University Heights, wouldn't be shuttered after all; that funding has been restored in the city budget at the last minute.
Espada was given a warm and enthusiastic welcome, and had a word and a hug for just about everyone. Never one to be shy, he danced with the spritely and willing, and even joined in a sing-along at one stage, shaking a pair of maracas above his head.
Tolentine's seniors are very fond of Espada, the center's director, Elizabeth Sanchez, told me. "He's been here many times," she said. "They know him." Plus, he invites them to luncheons and other events, she said, including a "senior appreciation" lunch he held in June at Eastwood Manor on Eastchester Road for about 800 area seniors.
At Tolentine, Espada gave a brief speech. "I know its easy for elected officials to try to take credit," he said. "But it was your campaign, you called our offices, you visited your city council person, you visited you assembly [member], you visited your state senator, you told the mayor, you will not close us down. And today we say, you did not close us down!"
The crowd of about 60 cheered and clapped.
Espada also made it clear that he had a hand in halting Tolentine's closure. (Exactly what he role he played, though, has been the subject of some debate. Espada says he helped secure $18 million in Title 20 funding for Tolentine and other centers, wrote letters to the mayor, and worked closely with Councilman Fernando Cabrera and State Sen. Ruben Diaz, Sr. But last week the Daily News mocked Espada and Diaz for confusing what money went where. And Cabrera told us last week that he was responsible for keeping Tolentine open.)
Espada then took a copy of that day's NY Post, which carried an article about Gov. David Paterson's decision to veto thousands of member item requests (aka: legislative pork) from legislators.
Espada held the newspaper at arms length and scowled. "This is not pork," he spat. "This is about seniors, this is about family, this is about food on our tables. This is not waste. So we have to remind the New York Post, the governor, and everyone else who thinks we waste money by supporting our seniors, that this... is essential, and we must continue to fight for those member items to come to our community." (A list of vetoed member items was published yesterday.)
Afterwards, I had the opportunity to ask Espada a few questions about the budget and his reelection campaign.
"I’ve been a CEO for 30 years," he told me. "Missing deadlines is never good. The state budget should not have been late. But worse than a late budget is a irresponsible budget, a budget that would have done more harm to programs, like this [Tolentine]."
One of his priorities now, he said, is making sure that the state receives $1 billion in federal Medicaid monies, known as FMAP, which would improve peoples' access to healthcare and create jobs in the Bronx and beyond. (State legislators have been at loggerheads with Paterson over whether or not to pass a contingency plan to protect the state if the money doesn't come through.)
Before Espada arrived at Tolentine that morning, one of Espada's staffers had been handing out "Vote Espada 2010!" flyers, which listed a few reasons Espada thinks his constituents should reelect him. A copy is attached below. I asked him what else he would be talking about during the campaign and he bought up his majority leader position, a title he landed last summer after agreeing to return to the Democratic fold and end the Senate "coup" which he helped orchestrate.
"The poorest community in the state finally got one of the top political positions in state government," Espada said, adding, "I think all Bronxites should be proud of that, that we’ve finally got a real voice at the table."
One final note: you can get another take on Espada's visit to Tolentine at http://www.thebronxtruthnewsline.com/, a newish Bronx blog that exists solely, it seems, to portray Espada in a positive light. The blog, which is written by a "Robert Taft Lincoln," which we're assuming is a pseudonym, makes frequent references to Espada's press secretary, Frank Laboy (who also goes by Franck Strongbow), and often publishes photos he took at Espada events. Laboy insists he's not the author but declined to say who is.
Not sure if anyone's still reading this post, but here's some clarification re: the $18 million in Title 20 funds:
According to Jeanette Reed, a spokesperson for the city’s Department of the Aging, the Title 20 funds (money allocated to city seniors in one of the state’s emergency budget extender bills) didn’t impact Tolentine or the 49 other centers Mayor Michael Bloomberg has slated for closure. “That [money] really doesn’t affect whether the senior centers would close,” she said.
But if the Title 20 funds hadn't been secured, a different group of senior centers would have ultimately faced closure. The Council of Senior Centers and Services of New York City's website has more on this.
Espada Campaign Flyer