- See more at: http://blogtimenow.com/blogging/automatically-redirect-blogger-blog-another-blog-website/#sthash.Q6qPkwFC.dpuf The Education of a Councilman: Bronx's Cabrera Makes Strides in First Year | Bronx News Networkbronx

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Education of a Councilman: Bronx's Cabrera Makes Strides in First Year

Councilman Fernando Cabrera (second from left) at a finance committee meeting. He says he’s learned a lot from veteran Council members, such as Joel Rivera (middle). (Photo by A. Kratz)
[Ed. note: this article appears in the latest issue of the Norwood News, which it out on streets now.]

Councilman Fernando Cabrera’s office on the 17th floor of 250 Broadway, a large municipal building across the street from City Hall in downtown Manhattan, is spartan — the walls a blank canvas, the desk tops free of clutter. There are photos on and behind his desk: of a baby smiling, a close-up of a flower, a beautiful landscape. They are not his photos. They came with the frames.

The scene is fitting. As Cabrera enters the final weeks of his first year representing the 14th District, which includes Kingsbridge, University Heights, Morris Heights and Mt. Hope, two things have become clear: he has been busy and he is still moving in.

“Greg [Faulkner] is the best chief of staff in the world,” Cabrera says, smiling, “but he’s not much of a decorator.” Besides, Faulkner, the former chairman of Community Board 7, has enough on his plate helping Cabrera navigate the complex machinery of the New York City Council.

“There’s always something new,” Cabrera says. “Always something to learn. This is the biggest city government, the biggest city budget.”

So Far, So Good

“I think he’s been an exceptional council member,” said Patrick Jenkins, a political consultant who worked on Cabrera’s campaign and continues to work for the Bronx County Democratic Committee. “He’s earned the respect of his colleagues. People find him approachable and dependable. He has a tremendous work ethic.”

Make no mistake, Cabrera remains low on the Council totem pole. City Hall, a newspaper that covers city politics, ranked him 47th out of 51 Council members in terms of influence and the money he is allocated for his district is relatively low compared to, say, Joel Rivera, who represents the district next door.

Cabrera with aide Zellnor Myrie near City Hall.
But Cabrera has impressed colleagues, helped constituents and made people forget about his predecessor.

Rivera, who supported incumbent Maria Baez despite strong Democratic and union support for Cabrera, said Cabrera “came in inquisitive and has been a very good student.”
Unlike Baez, who had the worst attendance record in the Council for years, Cabrera shows up to work. He has perfect attendance at “stated” Council meetings (when the whole body convenes) and says he’s made 89 percent of his committee meetings.

Recently, Cabrera has achieved some important firsts. This fall, he passed his first piece of legislation — a minor bill that aims to improve lighting efficiency in buildings. And in November, he became chairman of his first committee — technology — which gave the entire Bronx delegation chairmanships for the first time in recent memory.

Last week, he introduced a resolution calling on Congress to pass a bill that would fund local gang violence intervention programs. It’s a problem area he has focused on since a group of young gang members (the Latin King Goonies) were arrested and charged with kidnapping and torturing two teenagers and a 30-year-old man for being gay. The crime, committed within his district, garnered national headlines.

Last year at this time, weeks before assuming office, Cabrera was already making regular trips to City Hall as the Council negotiated terms for the redevelopment of the Kingsbridge Armory, which is in his district. The Council ended up killing the project when the developers wouldn’t guarantee a “living wage” ($10 an hour plus benefits) for employees who would have worked at an Armory shopping mall. Cabrera says the Armory battle was a tremendous learning experience for him personally and also helped the Bronx representatives show their political strength as a delegation.

Fanfare and a Budget Crisis

The city’s Democratic elite showed up to his inauguration ceremony at Bronx Community College and predicted great things for this college professor and pastor who was a registered Republican up until 2008.

From the beginning, Cabrera found himself embroiled in budget talks, sifting through grant applications from community groups and fighting to save the handful of senior centers in his district.

In what he says was his biggest challenge this year, Cabrera managed to help save two of the five senior centers in his area from extinction by budget cuts. “The [Department of Aging] Commissioner was put in a difficult position [having to cut so much from its budget], but through persistence, we overcame resistance.”

There have been losses, too. Cabrera fought in vain to keep University Heights High School from being pushed off the Bronx Community College campus. But he is learning from his defeats. “Dealing with the DOE [Department of Education] was not pleasant,” Cabrera says.

One of the most important things he learned during his rookie year is the limitations of his office. “The mayor holds a lot of control — schools, police,” Cabrera says, adding that his job is to work on the things he can control, like helping constituents in need.

All year, Zellnor Myrie, Cabera’s legislative director, says the 14th District team has “hit the streets,” letting residents know Cabrera’s office is there to help. He revamped an old city office on Burnside Avenue and is open for business starting at 8 a.m. Most of the constituents he’s helped are walk-ins.

Still, Cabrera’s office is exploring alternative modes of communication to increase his ability to help people. His staff developed an interactive website and a tool that allows you to text message complaints into the office. Now, Faulkner says, they are using computer software to track complaints and discover which issues are most affecting his constituents. (Overwhelming, it is tenants having trouble with their landlords.)

A Day at the Office

Cabrera with ex-Red Sox star Mo Vaughn.
Last week, Cabrera started another whirlwind day with a breakfast meeting with representatives of DC 37, a union that represents city workers. Later, while waiting for a finance meeting to start, music began blaring from outside of his office window.

“Daycare workers,” Cabrera said. Already, he says, the protests over budget cuts, which will reach $2.7 billion next year, have begun.

Cabrera briefly attended a finance committee meeting and voted to approve tax breaks for the nonprofit company operated by Mo Vaughn, the former Boston Red Sox slugger who develops low-income housing in the Bronx and elsewhere in the city. “Mo’s a great guy,” Faulkner says.

At 11:30 a.m., team Cabrera met with a lobbyist for the Mosholu Montefiore Community Center to talk about youth programs — or lack thereof — in Cabrera’s district.

Half an hour later, Carole Post, the commissioner of the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT), briefed the new technology chairman about the city’s programs. (Did you know “hundreds” of hackers try to infiltrate the city’s databases on a daily basis?)

“I’m hungry,” Cabrera says at 1 p.m., the starting time for that day’s stated meeting. Instead, Cabrera, Faulkner and Myrie mull housing legislation before heading over to the Emigrant Savings building, two blocks away, where the Council has been meeting while the Council chambers at City Hall are renovated.

Cabrera walks in and immediately starts talking to Jamie Van Bramer, who worked with the Related Companies while they were trying to push through the mall plan for the Kingsbridge Armory. He then dips into a back room, where Brooklyn Council member Lewis Fidler has, thankfully for Cabrera’s stomach, provided Hannukah donuts.

Finally, the stated meeting begins with about an hour of ceremonial gestures and photo ops, followed by voting on a bill and then the introduction of Cabrera’s gang violence prevention resolution.

Earlier in the day, Cabrera said he would much rather be “in the field,” going to schools, talking to constituents on the street. But it all ties together, Faulkner says.

After the anti-gay attacks in his district, Cabrera had the opportunity to walk around Morris Heights with the most powerful politician in the Council, Speaker Christine Quinn. Faulkner says residents recognized Cabrera. Quinn came away impressed.

“If you’re taking care of business back home [in the district],” Faulkner says, “it gives you credibility down here [in the Council chambers].”

--All reporting and photos by Alex Kratz

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