Voters grill candidates at forum tackling low turnout

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It could be what some residents see as a chilling political landscape that has them clinging to vestiges of hope — that groundbreaking change still is possible. That their movement, riding on an ethos of resistance and resurrection, can triumph. 

Their power — at least in the eyes of the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition — lies in their right to vote. 

Leaders with the grassroots organization held a nonpartisan candidates forum featuring three candidates for state senate — incumbents Gustavo Rivera and Jamaal Bailey, as well as Jeff Klein challenger Alessandra Biaggi — at Monroe College on Aug. 22.

Klein, though invited, didn’t attend, nor did any of the conservative candidates for those districts.

The coalition’s aim? Raise awareness of the Thursday, Sept. 13 primary, as well as November’s general elections, and boost voter turnout in a district where the coalition says it’s “abysmally low.” 

“It’s the right time for us to check in and think about whether we’re being represented in Albany by people who are acting in our best interest,” said coalition treasurer Margaret Groarke, a political science professor at Manhattan College. 

While not every district has as exciting a race as the Biaggi-Klein showdown, Groarke said, the forum allows residents “to build a relationship” with candidates. 

“We need whoever represents us to know what our issues are, and to commit to us that they’re working hard,” Groarke said, fighting for legislation “on the things that we organize around every day,” from affordable housing to better public school funding.

That’s why pushing residents to the polls is paramount, said Groarke, who lives in Kingsbridge Heights. While there’s some variation from place to place, the northwest Bronx — and the borough, city and state, which ranked 41st in 2016 — have frightfully low voter turnout, especially in primaries. Her group seeks to change that.

Voting also is important, Groarke said, because elected officials pay attention to who votes and who doesn’t. 

“That’s how they’re able to remain in their position,” she said. “If my community votes less than some neighboring community, I may find that I don’t get the same level of attention from elected officials.”

But her coalition can’t do it alone. Residents also play a key role.

“We’re asking the folks who come tonight to vote,” Groarke said ahead of the forum. “But we’re also asking them to encourage their neighbors, to recruit in their churches and community organizations, in their mosques, so that we’re as fully represented as possible.”

More than 200 residents and activists packed into the college’s cavernous King Hall. Coalition members clad in yellow shirts lead them in chants: “Show me what democracy looks like,” and “The Bronx, united, will never be defeated.”

Increasing turnout is an ongoing effort, said coalition member Helene Redd, a resident of Bailey Houses, who’s especially focused on encouraging young people to register.

“Outreach is very important, because some people don’t know who these candidates are and what they stand for,” Redd said. “With this forum, you can’t hide. (Residents) are going to ask you a direct question.”

Holding elections on a weekday, however, doesn’t help turnout, said coalition board president Juan Nuñez, who heads his Kingsbridge Terrace tenants association.

“People work and get out late,” Nuñez said. “It would be great if they changed the date and allowed more time for people to go out and vote.”

But timing isn’t the only problem.

“People are just discouraged,” Redd said. “When we elect these officials, they say they’re going to do X, Y, Z, and when you go to them, they don’t care.” 

The forum, however, is a chance to harness “power in numbers. The more voices heard, the more things that could be moved.”

Biaggi said she participated to show she, in fact, does care.

Affordable health care, housing, education are “topics that affect everybody in the entire state,” Biaggi said. “There is no difference between this community’s needs and any others community’s needs, except that they’ve often gone unheard. So it’s important to listen. It’s our responsibility.”

Biaggi attributes low turnout to the fact New York State makes it “very hard to vote. We don’t have early voting. We don’t have automatic voter registration.”

Additionally, moving the primary to a Thursday — to avoid conflicting with 9/11’s 17th anniversary, and Rosh Hashana — will only throw voters off, Biaggi said.

“It’s, in my opinion, a way to suppress the vote,” she said. “What I would love to see is that we vote on Saturdays and Sundays, to make it easier.”

But low turnout, Rivera said, is nothing new.

“Sadly, in communities of color, in poor, working-class communities, it is a consistent problem,” the senator said. “I have been trying to change that ever since I got in the senate” by offering free civics classes at public libraries and community centers to engage and educate residents.

For Groarke, it’s all about continuing — or starting — the conversation.

“Every election is that opportunity for some kind of commitment, or recommitment, or resurrection,” Groarke said. “Election Day is my chance to reward you with my vote for having helped me out, or to look for another candidate if I feel that you have not been active on the things that I care about.”

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