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Diaz Builds His Profile and Power Beyond the Bronx
New York Times
Sam Dolnick

June 9, 2010
View the Original Article

As Ruben Diaz Jr. stepped onto a sidewalk in the South Bronx, his shiny black shoes the color of his air-conditioned Tahoe, a flock of violins began to play.

Mr. Diaz, the Bronx borough president, beamed as rows of second-grade girls standing outside their charter school serenaded him during a recent visit. He stood just blocks from the housing project where he used to hang out in the courtyard in a neighborhood far more welcoming today than when Mr. Diaz would sweep glass off a basketball court as a youth.

But while the Bronx is no longer the symbol of urban blight it was a generation ago, it remains mired in poverty. That is why Mr. Diaz is leading a campaign for legislation requiring that workers at all development projects receiving city subsidies be paid at least $10 an hour with benefits, well above the minimum wage.

The bill, before the City Council, faces an uncertain fate — Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, the real estate industry and business leaders all say it would scare off employers.

But the battle, no matter the outcome, provides Mr. Diaz a high-profile platform to promote his political appeal and talents beyond the confines of the borough president’s office.

And though he has been in power only since May 2009, Mr. Diaz is already being talked about in some political circles as a candidate for higher office, including as a potential mayoral candidate in 2013.

Mr. Diaz has raised eyebrows by taking on Mr. Bloomberg and winning, helping to defeat a plan last year to turn the long-vacant Kingsbridge Armory in the Bronx into a shopping mall because the mayor and the project’s developer refused to require all prospective employers to pay more than the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.

“To the members of my union who are clamoring for attention by city government, Ruben Diaz Jr. is becoming a rock star,” said Stuart Appelbaum, who leads a powerful retailing workers’ union.

City Hall may be a long way from the Grand Concourse, where Mr. Diaz has his office, but political analysts say Mr. Diaz’s record of advocating for low-income, minority communities, his largely progressive politics and his appetite for political scuffles make him someone to watch.

“He’s handsome, he likes to campaign, he’s got a good field organization, and he’s smart,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a political consultant who worked on Mr. Diaz’s campaign for borough president. “He understands the streets, and he can raise money. It means he can run for anything he wants.”

Mr. Diaz, 37, was predictably coy when asked about running for a citywide position.

“Having ambition for higher office, it can’t be some self-fulfilling drive or ambition,” he said. “It has to come from the fact that you’ve done well.”

With his hair always neatly trimmed, his mustache just so, and his demeanor unflappable, he exudes something of a feline swagger. On a recent whirlwind day, he visited a kindergarten class, spoke to an auditorium of middle-school students, danced with senior citizens and posed for countless photos — all before lunch. Mingling with constituents is required of all elected officials, but Mr. Diaz seems to relish it.

Mr. Diaz, a Democrat, served 12 years in Albany as an assemblyman representing Hunts Point and Soundview before winning a special election for borough president last year.

In New York’s political world, the office can seem like a distant outpost, a position more about ribbon-cuttings and proclamations than actual power. But Mr. Diaz has managed to use the office as a pulpit to draw attention to pet causes — and to himself.

In April, he held a “green jobs” conference to discuss the viability of a local environmental conservation industry. In May, he hosted workshops and other meetings to address obesity in the borough and its ties to health and employment problems.

Along the way, Mr. Diaz has attracted powerful opponents.

Steven Spinola, president of the Real Estate Board of New York, said Mr. Diaz’s stance on the Kingsbridge Armory would hurt his political prospects in the long run, saying, “I think it’s going to be difficult for him to attract support from the business community if he’s going to be taking these types of positions.”

Whatever Mr. Diaz’s aspirations, they will undoubtedly be complicated by his father, the Rev. Rubén Díaz, a well-known evangelical preacher and a Democratic state senator from the Bronx who revels in his reputation as a political troublemaker.

The relationship between father and son is immensely complicated, their points of disagreement abundant. The son, who is often referred to as Rubencito, has worked to build bridges; the father is known for setting them on fire.

The elder Mr. Díaz, with a reputation for fervent sermons and an impolitic tongue, is one of Albany’s most outspoken opponents of abortion and gay marriage. He once likened stem cell research to Hitler using “the ashes of the Jews to make bars of soap.”

In a reversal of the usual history of political families, the younger Mr. Diaz won his first election, in 1996, for an Assembly seat, five years before his father won his first election, for the City Council.

Since entering political life, the two have maintained a tricky balance that has kept them personally close — they recently got together to see Ruben Diaz III off to his high school prom — but politically distant.

“I love my father,” Mr. Diaz said. “My father and I disagree on social and moral issues. He’s not going to change my stance. We have a split household.”

His father said his son should be judged on his own merits.

“It would be unfair and unjust for people to take it out on my son what they have against me,” said the father. Ruben Diaz Jr. grew up in politics, so steeped in it that he now ticks off the names of Bronx titans from generations past as if he were listing the Knicks’lineup. “Gilberto Gerena-Valentín, Louis Nine, Bobby Garcia, Ramón Velez,” he said while driving through the South Bronx. “This was their area.”

He was 7 the first time his father ran for office, and he remembers licking envelopes, knocking on doors and pasting campaign posters on to street poles. “There were summers when we ate White Castle every night,” he said. “Campaigns are expensive.”

He first won public office at a tender age. He was 23 when he took his seat in the Assembly in 1997, already married to his high school sweetheart and the father of two boys.

In Albany, he focused on health and environmental issues — he cites asthma legislation and laws promoting green roofs among his biggest accomplishments. But it was his role as a spokesman for the family of Amadou Diallo, the man killed in a fusillade of police bullets in 1999 in the vestibule of an apartment building in Mr. Diaz’s district, that gained him widespread attention.

At the time, some critics accused him of being too shrill, but he says he has always supported most police officers — his sister, after all, is a police sergeant.

In Albany, he sat next to Assemblyman Richard L. Brodsky, one of the Legislature’s more experienced hands, and the two worked together on legislation.

“He’s smart and he gives a damn,” Mr. Brodsky said. “When you start with those two things, you can acquire the rest of the skills, and that’s what he’s doing.”