It was a political showdown for the ages as state Sen. Jeffrey Klein squared off, for the first time in person, against primary challenger Alessandra Biaggi.
The battle took place April 25 at the Riverdale Temple on Independence Avenue, where more than 150 members of the Benjamin Franklin Reform Democratic Club considered endorsements for the state senate, as well as for governor and lieutenant governor.
In addition to the Biaggi-Klein face-off, state Sen. Gustavo Rivera and Jamaal Bailey successfully solicited endorsements from club members.
After being a no-show at a town hall hosted by Northwest Bronx Indivisible the weekend before, Klein appeared unflappable at the start when questioned about the recent disbanding of his Independent Democratic Conference, the group of eight renegade Democrats who shared power in the senate with Republicans.
“The motives are very simple,” Klein said. “I’m very proud of all the things we’ve been able to accomplish over the years — paid family leave, $15 minimum wage, universal pre-K — which was Mayor de Blasio’s number one priority — all the work I did on taking on the banks and foreclosures. The list goes on and on.”
But with the election of Donald Trump, “we hit a brick wall,” Klein added. “Yes, we were able to get some things done, but I found myself constantly fighting the ill impacts of federal legislation” on New Yorkers, like the elimination of the state and local tax deduction as well as the Trump administration’s “horrible immigration programs.”
If Klein appeared calm, collected and even comfortable, Biaggi showed a frenetic energy accented by her characteristic unrelenting optimism.
“I’m ready to just speak my truth,” Biaggi said, before taking the floor. “The truth of why I’m running this race, why it’s so important. And it’ll be, hopefully, a spirited, balanced conversation.”
But why did Biaggi take on such a formidable task, mounting a challenge against district 34’s political juggernaut?
“Because there’s too much at stake, and this district deserves better,” she said. “There’s a lack of funding in a lot of areas like public schools and housing and jobs, and the list goes on. And we just can’t wait anymore. We have to do it now.”
Club member David Hochhauser, clad in fiery suspenders, grilled Biaggi on what he claimed was her lack of community experience.
“I worked for your grandfather for many years,” Hochhauser said. “And every Saturday, I took the pleasure of watching Congressman (Mario) Biaggi go in and take care of the constituents, and meet with every person that wanted to come and meet the congressman. How can you run for this office when you have no community experience at all?”
But Biaggi was unfazed.
“Not only do I have ties to the district, I’m three generations in this district,” Biaggi said. “I love this district.”
Born in Mount Vernon but raised in Pelham, Biaggi “came of age in the Bronx,” spending her weekends here with her grandparents.
“The past 10 years of my life have actually been dedicated solely to public service,” Biaggi said, “to the community, to training myself to make sure that I was making my community better.”
Dedicated as Biaggi may be, Klein already has had a chance to prove his commitment to the community, according to supporters like Sergio Villaverde, who’s also chair of Community Board 8’s economic development committee.
“The local issues are what matter to me, and not just what you do, but being there,” Villaverde said. “And I know that Jeff Klein has been there. We have more merchants associations now because of Jeff Klein than we had before he was in office. It’s not just sending money. He physically shows up to the meetings.”
Given the setting, it was clear the odds were stacked against Biaggi, said Daniel Barnett, a speech therapist for the city’s education department.
“She basically answered like, OK, she’s never worked with Republicans, and that we can trust her, that she’ll be in alignment with the Democrats,” Barnett said. “That was a good answer. I would have liked if she would have had a bit more time to expand on the issues, and how she is distinct from Jeff Klein, and how she would be better.”
Barnett revealed he voted for Biaggi, in part, based on trust.
“The sentiment of a lot of other people is Jeff Klein dissolved the IDC, but how can we be sure that he’s going to keep his word to keep it that way?” Barnett asked. “That he’s not going to go back to reestablishing that?”
In the end, Klein did get the endorsement with 106 votes in his favor compared to Biaggi’s 43 tallies.
Biaggi remained resilient.
“That’s not my political club. That’s his political club,” Biaggi said of Klein. “A lot of people stood up and spoke for me, in their support for me, and it was a moment to be proud of, because I was asked some hard questions — questions that were supposed to trip me up, and didn’t trip me up.
“I still was who I am, and nothing changed that center.”