Turf Battles


In deeply Dominican Washington Heights, a battle is brewing between old and emerging leaders in the 10th councilmanic district, which was carved out for this burgeoning Latino community. The council seat, like 35 others citywide, will become available in 2001 because of term limits. And two warring political factions are trying to negotiate a peace to divide up this prime Democratic power base and oppose a third contender.

In 1991, Guillermo Linares, the current City Council member for the district, scored a major breakthrough when he became the first Dominican-born official in the country. His longtime rival, Adriano Espaillat, lost in the ’91 council primary, but went on to win the 72nd Assembly District seat in 1996. (He defeated Brian Murtagh, who had Linares’s endorsement.)

Espaillat retaliated by throwing support behind Roberto Lizardo—now the local school board president—against Linares in a 1997 primary. “Mr. Linares and I have not always seen eye-to-eye,” the assemblyman says, “but there seems to be an effort to reconcile lately.” Both Linares and Espaillat are Democratic district leaders. Linares’s club is the Northern Manhattan Concerned Democratic Coalition, while Espaillat’s is the Northern Manhattan Democrats for Change.

According to Espaillat, hosting a reception for Hillary Clinton at a Dominican restaurant brought him and Linares closer. “We also worked on hurricane relief for the Dominican Republic.” he says.

Espaillat hopes to avoid a primary this year when he seeks a third term in the assembly; he has faced eight primaries as local leader and assemblyman. (One longtime political observer and Linares ally says, “If we beat Espaillat for assembly, he would then win the council seat. You can’t kill him, so you have to learn to peacefully coexist.”)

Linares, on the other hand, wants “respect for my legacy in the City Council.” He does not want Espaillat to oppose his choice for a successor: Victor Morisete, executive director of the Community Association of Progressive Dominicans (ACDP), a $3 million social service agency. (Linares also wants an even split of Democratic district leaders and state committee members in the Heights.) Congressman Charles Rangel is trying to broker the peace.

While they have yet to make a deal, Linares and Espaillat have united lately in their opposition to another Dominican leader, Roberto Lizardo, 35, a case manager at the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development. Lizardo once served as a “shield” for Espaillat by attacking Murtagh in the ’96 assembly race, but says that he is now “discouraged with my friend Adriano,” who is more likely to back Miguel Martinez, the president of Espaillat’s political club, for the council seat.

It was Martinez who contacted the Voice about “serious issues” on the school board that Lizardo heads. The Linares and Espaillat camps joined with a new group called Parents Advocating for Children at a “vigil” outside the chaotic April 5 board meeting. They protested the use of funds, earmarked to increase parent involvement in district schools, to promote Lizardo and acting superintendent Brian Morrow in cable TV ads and on a holiday card sent home with all 29,000 students in December.

Lizardo has built a five-member majority on the board, and his opponents say that he is improperly using the school board as a political base now that he is not aligned with Espaillat or any political club. “Unlike all the elected officials,” Lizardo counters, “I have never gotten paid for the services that I do.”

“Morrow is trying to become appointed superintendent and Lizardo is getting ready for another run for City Council,” says parent activist Sarah Morgridge. “Parent involvement? I think it’s public relations.” She is also charging irregularities in the selection process for superintendent. The Board of Education acknowledges that it is looking into these activities and will make a final report, but Lizardo and Morrow insist that no board rules were violated.

On April 18, the District 6 board recommended Morrow and Doris Collazo-Baker (once superintendent on the Lower East Side) for the superintendent’s job. Interim chancellor Harold Levy, a product of the neighborhood’s public schools, can either select one of these candidates, tell the board to come up with someone else, or select someone himself.

Whoever runs for the council seat in northern Manhattan will have to deal with a Dominican American community with a heightened political maturity, impatient for changes that will benefit its children.