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Carrion Rises With The Bronx As The Borough Improves, So Does The Profile Of Its President; A Run For Citywide Office Could Come Soon


April 18, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Newsday. All rights reserved.

On a cold, blustery day in October, Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion Jr. watched intently as Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a $53-million project to transform an unsightly city-owned parking lot in the South Bronx into office and retail space.

Anchoring the project is the city's Department of Finance, which plans to consolidate 225 employees scattered about the borough into a new, two-story building at Third Avenue, between East 153rd and 156th streets.

But more important, Carrion told the small gathering of reporters and community leaders present that day, are the additional jobs and commerce the project will bring - 260 temporary positions during the estimated 18 to 24 months of construction and 200 retail jobs once it's finished.

"This development helps expand the impact of almost a billion dollars in projects currently under way in the downtown Bronx," Carrion said in a recent interview.

The ceaseless drive for capital improvement projects is a signature of Carrion's three-plus years as borough president. The focus appears to be paying dividends: According to recent statistics from the state Department of Labor, the Bronx is showing the strongest economic growth and consistency among the city's five boroughs. From 2000 to 2002, private-sector wages there increased by more than 8 percent, making it the only borough to create more private-sector jobs than it lost during the height of the city's economic downturn.

'His future is bright'

As the borough's fortunes have begun to rise, so too have Carrion's. A leader of the city's next generation of Latino politicians, he is prominently mentioned as a possible candidate for mayor, or for city comptroller should incumbent William Thompson Jr. seek the Democratic mayoral nomination.

"He is a very charismatic figure," veteran political consultant George Arzt said. "He has a very good relationship with the mayor. He has also gotten a lot of funds for the borough. He is street-smart and can sway a crowd better than almost any politician around today. His future is bright."

Arzt's words hold a hint of the high wire upon which Carrion now balances: He is an elected official and politician of the present who is a potential challenger of his more-experienced elders, who in turn have their own loyal followers - a constituency Carrion needs for his future, too.

"Adolfo is widely perceived as a comer," said Doug Muzzio, public policy professor at Baruch College. "He is articulate and politically sophisticated, being a former urban planner. He can run for comptroller, public advocate or even mayor in the future, but there is a line in front of him at the moment."

At the front of that line, Muzzio and other political observers say, is Fernando Ferrer, Carrion's predecessor as Bronx borough president, the man who in the 2001 mayoral race got the votes to force a Democratic runoff with then-Public Advocate Mark Green and very nearly beat him.

It is Ferrer - an expected mayoral candidate in 2005 - who is largely credited with charting the Bronx's course back to respectability. The once-proud borough had become synonymous with urban decay and out-of-control crime in the 1970s and '80s, and was further tainted by the corruption scandal of longtime Democratic boss Stanley Friedman.

While Carrion has expressed interest in running for mayor, he has said he won't if Ferrer enters next year's race.

Ferrer, asked about his successor, showed no hint of competitive spirit and declared himself an avid Carrion backer.

"Having done the job for 15 years, I would say that the Bronx is in good hands," Ferrer said. "I think he is doing a fine job. There are always going to be some initiatives that you keep and others that you don't ... but those are the choices you make. I support him."

A preacher's son

Carrion, 43, a preacher's son, earned his bachelor's degree in world religions and philosophy from Kings College and master's in urban planning from Hunter College before working in his native Bronx for the Department of City Planning. He is married to attorney Linda Baldwin and is the father of three daughters and a son, ages 14, 11, 9 and 5.

Once he ran for public office, Carrion moved fast. Elected to the City Council in 1997, he served one four-year term before running for his current post.

In the spring of 2001, during his campaign for borough president, Carrion gained international notice as one of the "Vieques Four" who protested the U.S. military's bombing exercises on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques. That summer, after trespassing on Navy land during a May protest, Carrion served 40 days in the federal Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn along with the Rev. Al Sharpton, Assemb. Jose Rivera (D-Bronx) and then-Bronx County Democratic Party Chairman Roberto Ramirez.

That fall, with Ferrer running for mayor, Carrion pulled out a squeaker in the Democratic primary over then-State Sen. Pedro Espada Jr. and later won handily over three other candidates in the general election.

Ambitious vision for Bronx

Since moving into the borough president's office on the Grand Concourse, Carrion has received high marks for his quiet diplomacy and tenacity in increasing the borough's economic well-being.

"This place where people once torched their property is now a destination," Carrion told a group of business leaders at a swearing-in ceremony of the New Bronx Chamber of Commerce in March.

In the interview with Newsday, Carrion rattled off his vision for the Bronx, home to more than 1.3 million people, according to the 2000 Census.

There is the construction of a shopping mall in Marble Hill with a Target and a Marshall's department store. A proposal to move the Police Academy from cramped quarters on the East Side to a large Bronx site at East 153rd Street and Grand Concourse. A possible expansion of refrigeration facilities at the new Fulton Fish Market in Hunts Point to help alleviate traffic and create 600 new jobs.

But his two pet projects are development of the Bronx waterfront and a new Yankee Stadium that would anchor a luxury hotel, convention center and new Metro-North station.

All projects, Carrion asserted, would pay for themselves by generating jobs and city tax revenues.

"My message to the development community and to policy-makers is to help us build affordable housing and develop the waterfronts," Carrion said. "We are now emerging from decades of decline. ... It may become the next West Side."

Carrion envisions housing, bike paths and parks along the waterfront, which stretches along the Hudson and Harlem rivers and Eastchester Bay.

"It's beautiful, and it's always been there," he said. "We just couldn't get to it. The New York City waterfront, in particular the Bronx waterfront, is a story of missed opportunities."

Other fast-growing sectors Carrion spotlighted include health care, higher education and waste management.

He readily admits the borough continues to face serious problems. The overall jobless rate among Bronx residents is 10 percent. The borough has some of the city's highest rates for diabetes, asthma, breast and prostate cancer. Encouraging a healthier Bronx is vitally important, Carrion said.

Maxine Golub, senior vice president for the Institute for Urban Family Health, a primary care organization with four health centers in the Bronx that also performs community outreach, said Carrion was instrumental in establishing the Bronx Westchester Area Health Education Center. That program encourages young people from underrepresented groups to pursue careers in health care, the largest industry in the borough.

"He has offered tremendous support for programs that we are running to address critical health needs of Bronx residents," Golub said.

But as Carrion's profile rises, he is finding it can be difficult following in the footsteps of his predecessor, Ferrer.

For example, during a recent public hearing at DeWitt Clinton High School about a controversial water filtration system, Carrion was forced to stop reading a statement after being shouted down by angry residents opposed to the project. Carrion supports the system in large part because of $240 million in attendant park improvements that will be spent in the Bronx. Ferrer opposed the project when he was in office.

Several elected Bronx officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Carrion has been unfairly saddled with constant comparisons to Ferrer and hasn't always gotten his message out effectively.

"Adolfo has all the tools to be a star in the Democratic Party ... but he just needs to get serious on the issues," said a Manhattan-based political operative who requested anonymity. "It starts with staff."

Rafael Martinez-Alequin, a Bronx resident and former member of Carrion's press staff, says Carrion's politics are fine but he needs to be more aggressive.

"When Adolfo got elected, I was proud of him and I thought he would be able to continue the work of Fernando Ferrer," said Martinez-Alequin, who was recently fired because of budget cuts. "Instead he has concentrated on a citywide profile, which has caused him problems because we know he is capable of doing a great job."

Too aggressive?

Others believe Carrion has been too aggressive in pushing his initiatives, which at times has placed him at odds with the powerful Rivera, now Bronx County Democratic Party chairman.

Ramirez, Rivera's predecessor as county Democratic boss, is a close friend and political confidant of both men.

"Adolfo has brought an incredible level of energy to the job ... and there is no question that he is part of a new generation of leadership that will shape the future of the city," said Ramirez, now president of the MiRAM Group, a Manhattan-based political consulting firm. "I had differences with Freddy when I first started, but we worked things out. That comes with both jobs. In the end they will both do what is in the best interests of the Bronx."

Carrion politely dismissed his critics, saying, "There is too much work to be done.

"I am flattered every time somebody suggests me as a candidate running citywide," Carrion said. "The notion of running for mayor is something that really excites me, but I think right now my

Carrion concentrated on talking about the borough's pressing needs: building affordable housing, providing economic opportunity and harnessing the energy of its residents.

"We have a young population and we need to house families ... and it is a very wise investment if you look at the stability of the neighborhoods where housing was built," said Carrion, citing thousands of affordable-housing units built in the 1980s as part the 10-year plan of former Mayor Edward Koch. "People are now trading in real estate, and their purchasing dollar remains here. There is low crime and it has been a very good investment."

Carrion credited Ferrer "for ushering in a period of good government and for setting a standard for the way to do politics."

"My predecessor's challenge was restoring destroyed neighborhoods," Carrion said. "Now, we have neighborhoods that are stable and almost fully reconstructed.

"The challenge for us now is to grow the Bronx economy and make it competitive in the region to ensure that the people who are living in the Bronx have the skills to compete in this marketplace. To give this generation of kids that are growing up the opportunity this city has offered so many people," he said. "If you have a good neighborhood, you have good opportunity."

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