Conservative Democrat could win primary in U.S.’ bluest district

The bluest congressional district in the U.S. is located in the Bronx in New York City, bordering famous liberal Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s district. But among the 12 contenders vying for the open congressional seat, one of the top contenders is a conservative Democrat Reverend Rubén Díaz Sr., a polarizing city councilman with a history of endorsing Republicans and making homophobic comments.

Díaz Sr. is known for wearing a cowboy hat and courting controversy. He resisted calls to resign last year after saying the New York City Council was “controlled by the homosexual community,” although the committee he led was dissolved. Díaz Sr. has proclaimed himself to be “the opposite of AOC.”

In 2011, Díaz Sr. held a rally against same-sex marriage while his granddaughter held a dueling event in support of it across the street. He voted against legalizing same-sex marriage in 2009 and in 2011, when the measure was successful. He has compared abortion to the Holocaust and said “murderers, assassins and criminals are pro-choice.”

Díaz Sr. did not respond to requests for an interview by CBS News.

Charter School Rally Rubén Díaz Sr., D-Bronx, speaks during a charter school rally at the Legislative Office Building on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016, in Albany, N.Y.

Mike Groll / AP

“There’s a real risk that a Trump Republican masquerading as a Democrat could represent the bluest district in America,” said New York City Councilman Ritchie Torres, one of Díaz’s main rivals in the race. Hillary Clinton won the congressional district by over 93% in 2016.

A poll by the liberal think tank Data for Progress conducted in May found Díaz Sr. leading the field of Democratic candidates with 22% support, followed closely by Torres. Torres was the youngest person elected to the city council in 2014, and the first openly gay person to be elected to higher office in the Bronx. In an interview with CBS News, Torres painted the primary as a two-person race between himself and Díaz Sr.

“We have a historic opportunity to have a new generation of leadership, and we have a historic opportunity to retire the politics of hate and fear,” Torres said, adding that the election of Díaz Sr. “would be one of the greatest tragedies of 2020.”

Torres has been endorsed by The New York Times, and several national progressive groups like the Human Rights Campaign. The Times endorsement of Torres said Díaz Sr. “talks and acts like a pro-Trump Republican.”

Although he has frequently railed against same-sex marriage and abortion, Díaz Sr. has insisted that his opposition is based in his religious beliefs and not bigotry. The Puerto Rican-born Díaz Sr. is the pastor of a Pentecostal church in the Bronx. Torres argued that Díaz Sr. has an “irreducible base of evangelical support.”

Díaz Sr. entered politics in 1993, when he was confirmed by the city council to serve on the police civilian complaint review board. He has endorsed Republicans Rudy Giuliani, George Pataki and Rick Lazio, Clinton’s opponent in her 2000 run for Senate. He has more recently invited President Trump to attend his church and Senator Ted Cruz to visit his district.

Díaz Sr. served as a state senator before being elected to the council in 2017. The South Bronx is filled with buildings bearing the Rubén Díaz name, such as Rubén Díaz Apartments and Rubén Díaz Plaza. His son, Rubén Díaz Jr., is the popular Bronx borough president.

Election 2020 House New York  In this Jan. 7, 2015 file photo, state Sen. Rubén Díaz, D-Bronx, watches in the Senate Chamber at the state Capitol in Albany, N.Y. 

Mike Groll / AP

Díaz Jr. has not endorsed his father, and has previously distanced himself from Díaz Sr.’s more controversial comments. However, the two have frequently appeared together in recent days, including handing out food boxes to Bronx residents on June 5. The 15th Congressional District is one of the poorest in the country, with a median income of $30,000 and nearly 34% of people living below the poverty line.

Bronx United, a political action committee that opposes Díaz Sr., has filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission earlier this month, alleging that Diaz Sr. knowingly accepted “illegal corporate contributions” by distributing food provided by Fresh Direct to the city borough presidents outside his city council district but within congressional district. Díaz Sr. has denied that he was campaigning.

“As a pro-Trump, anti-choice, anti-LGBT politician who has spent his entire ineffective career boosting Republicans like Ted Cruz, Sarah Palin and Rudy Giuliani, Rubén Díaz Sr. should not bring his traveling circus to Washington. At a time when we need dynamic leadership, Díaz Sr.’s bizarre antics and extreme views would hurt the South Bronx and New York City,” a spokesman for Bronx United said in a statement to CBS News.

Díaz Sr. may also benefit from being listed on the ballot as “Rubén Díaz,” with no junior or senior modifier, meaning that some people may be unsure of which Rubén Díaz they are supporting.

“I think the fact that he’s on the ballot as ‘Rubén Díaz,’ he’s trying to confuse people,” said Assemblyman Michael Blake, another candidate in the race. “He absolutely is competitive, you can’t ignore that, but like any campaign you have to tell your own story.”

Blake, who is also the vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, has the support of several influential local unions. Blake has also been endorsed by the political arm of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Ocasio-Cortez and the Democratic Socialists of America are supporting community activist Samelys López. Other candidates include former city Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito; Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez; Chivona Newsome, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter of Greater New York; Tomas Ramos, a program director at Bronx River Community Center; and Frangell Basora, a former intern for Serrano.

Having an open congressional seat in New York City is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for many young politicians, as several members of the New York delegation have been in the House for decades. Torres noted that several of the candidates in the primary, including Blake, ran for New York City public advocate, a position seen as a stepping stone to becoming mayor, in 2019.

“There are opportunistic elected officials who keep running for higher office,” Torres said. He also argued that “every insurgent thinks they are the reincarnation of AOC.”

Blake replied that “people are going to vote for whoever they vote for,” and said that his theme of ‘Believe in the Bronx’ is “not just a one liner, it’s a true mindset.”

Progressive candidates in neighboring congressional districts are gaining traction. In addition to Ocasio-Cortez in the 14th District, progressive candidate Jamaal Bowman is mounting a significant challenge to longtime incumbent Eliot Engel in the 16th Congressional District. In a region where winning the Democratic primary is tantamount to winning the election in November, whoever prevails in these contests could set the tone for the future of politics in New York City.

“You have the poorest congressional district, the most diverse district, and the most Democratic district all in one. And New York-15 can demonstrate to the country where we go as a country, especially in urban America,” Blake said.

© 2020 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

More from WTOP

Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up