Albanian Assembly Candidate Makes Inroads in Latino Stronghold

Even in a Bronx district that’s 45 percent Latino, an Albanian upstart candidate may give the incumbent Latino Assemblywoman a run for her money, reports El Diario La Prensa. Democrats Naomi Rivera and Mark Gjonaj will face off in the primary elections for the 80th Assembly District on Sept. 13. Although Rivera has represented the Bronx district since 2004, she faces aggressive outreach by Gjonaj, whose door-to-door campaign has won over some local residents with an “energy” and visibility that they say is missing from Rivera’s side.

The demographics may lean towards Rivera, who has a Puerto Rican background, but Gjonaj, who has Albanian roots, may also get his share of the Bronx’s growing Albanian population, which has jumped by more than 35 percent since 2000. And some Latinos told El Diario that they’re impressed with his campaign, too. Below is a translation of the El Diario article by reporter José Acosta, originally in Spanish.

If Puerto Rican Assemblywoman Naomi Rivera doesn’t get her act together and start drumming up votes, she could lose to a man of Albanian descent during the Democratic primaries in the race for District 80 in the Bronx.

Naomi Rivera faces Mark Gjonaj (pictured) in the Democratic primary elections for the 80th  Assembly District on Sept. 13. (Photo via El Diario/La Prensa)

The man in question is Mark Gjonaj, a real estate agent who is currently commissioner of the Taxi and Limousine Commission. According to local residents, he has launched an aggressive street campaign, going door-to-door and mailing flyers. His political platform includes promises to improve jobs, social security, and programs for senior citizens.

Although Naomi Rivera is a member of one of the most powerful political families in the Bronx (she is the daughter of Assemblyman José Rivera and the sister of City Councilman Joel Rivera), according to political analyst Angelo Falcón, the primary elections on September 13 will be very interesting if Rep. Nydia Velázquez decides to support Gjonaj against her fellow Puerto Rican, as Velázquez has indicated in the media.

“Since Naomi Rivera went to Brooklyn to campaign against Nydia Velázquez [during a past primary for the House of Representatives, in which Velázquez beat City Councilman Erik Dilan], Velázquez has said that she will go to the Bronx to campaign against Rivera,” said Falcón. “But Rivera has been in that position for many years, and I think it’s going to be challenging for her to beat Gjonaj.”

Although this newspaper could not confirm with Velázquez’s office whether she will indeed support Gjonaj, Velázquez did confirm in the media that she will not only endorse Gjonaj, but she will also campaign for him.

Rivera has been representing District 80 since 2004. The district comprises the Bronx neighborhoods of Van Nest, Morris Park, Pelham Parkway, Pelham Gardens, Pelham Bay, Allerton, Norwood and Van Cortlandt Village.

The Early Bird Gets the Worm

Luis Nin, 47, has been living in Pelham Parkway for nine years. She said she believes that “Rivera is resting on her laurels.”

“While Gjonaj is doing a door-to-door campaign in this district with a network of volunteers, Rivera is barely seen around here,” said Nin. “For example, there could be four eligible voters in a household, and Gjonaj has already convinced them to vote for him; he has influenced them with his promises to make improvements in the community.”

Nevertheless, Nin doesn’t doubt that Rivera will win again, but she added, “She needs to make herself more visible in the community.”

Morris Park resident David Ortiz believes Gjonaj could win because of the energy he’s putting into his campaign. (Photo by José Acosta / El Diario/La Prensa)

David Ortiz, 42 and a resident of Morris Park, agreed. Ortiz said that even though Rivera has experience, “Gjonaj could win because he’s campaigning with a lot of energy. You hardly see Rivera in the neighborhood, and even less so now that we have a lot of problems with crime, like assaults, robberies, vandalism, etc.”

The promise of a new voice

Mark Gjonaj said that he isn’t trying to get a seat in Albany for a job or a title.

“I’m doing it because I can make a difference,” he declared.

“The Bronx is at the top of the list for everything that’s going wrong. We have the highest rate of unemployment and we’re the poorest district in the nation,” stated Gjonaj. “I want to be the true voice for District 80 in Albany. I know what the people here need, and I’m going to work very hard for them.”

Regarding the potential backing of Nydia Velázquez, Gjonaj said that he didn’t want to discuss it at the present moment.

According to Census data, nearly 9,500 people in the Bronx identify as Albanian – an increase from 7,000 in 2000. Many of them live in District 80, where 32 percent of residents are white, 21 percent are African-American, and 45 percent are Latino.

Naomi Rivera was not available to discuss her re-election campaign.

Rivera’s achievements include legislation to combat the rise in childhood obesity in New York, which requires schools to remove unhealthy foods from cafeterias and vending machines, and she is the author of state laws that support women seeking restraining orders and protecting the anonymity of domestic violence victims.

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