BRONX, New York. –– Oswald Feliz, tenant’s rights lawyer and city college professor, has declared himself the winner in the special race for New York City's 15th Council District.
Despite the race going mostly unnoticed among New Yorkers, the stakes did appear to be high in many respects. Big money poured in, with Alice Walton ––Walmart heiress and world’s richest woman according to Forbes–– pumping part of her fortune into the special election. Her political action group, New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany, reportedly donated some $75,000 to boost candidate John Sanchez.
On the other hand, Elisa Crespo, a young, Latinx socialist ––not unlike a certain other high-profile Bronx political figure–– touted her candidacy as potentially historic. She would have been, had she won, the first trans woman of color elected to the New York City Council. Not surprisingly, Crespo dominated the headlines in the months and weeks before the election, though this ultimately did not translate into votes (she came in fourth, after Sanchez and Ischia Bravo).
And yet, it was a young, unassuming lawyer and city college professor who would ultimately snag the top prize to replace Ritchie Torres as the new councilman for the city’s 15th district. At just 30 years old, Feliz stands to become the youngest elected official in the City Council.
At first, his victory could come as a surprise, being a mostly unknown figure in local politics. Yet he touted the support of heavyweight figures in the community: Victor Pichardo and Carmen de la Rosa from the State Assembly, councilman Ydanis Rodríguez and, perhaps more notably, congressman Adriano Espaillat.
“His support made all the difference,” Feliz told Univision New York about Espaillat. “He’s done a very good job, fighting for our Hispanic community in the Bronx.”
Espaillat’s influence in the borough is evident, if unsurprising. More than half of the population in the Bronx is Hispanic/Latino, and of those, an estimated 22 percent are dominican, according to a 2018 report by the city comptroller, rendering them an increasingly powerful force in the borough’s local politics. Espaillat, who was born in the Dominican Republic and continues to have close ties to the island and its diaspora, understands and is firmly embedded in the fabric of the community.
But the same could arguably be said of Feliz, who has made a career of fighting for the rights of the borough’s working poor. His dual profession as a lawyer and professor has informed the two biggest pillars of his platform: tenant’s rights and education.
"One thing that made a big difference is the work I've done in the community, as a teacher and as an attorney defending tenants who are at risk of eviction or being harassed by their landlord," Feliz said of his victory.
In a city where one of the central political battles continues to be housing, Feliz has made a case of putting tenants' needs first. “We need housing that is truly affordable,” he said. “By that I mean that tenants do not have to pay more than 30% of their income.”
Feliz understands that a good portion of his constituency suffered a greater toll as a result of the pandemic. “Back rent affected our community, families lost their jobs overnight due to the coronavirus”, said Feliz. “We need our city to help these families pay their rent.”
Despite housing one of the city’s poorest populations ––the congressional 15th District now represented by Torres, which partly overlaps with Feliz’s district , is the poorest in the nation–– the 15th city council district is a magnet for big money. Notable real estate magnates like William L. Zeckendorf and Larry Silverstein were reportedly among those who poured money into the race.
“In a district like this, one of the poorest, billionaires who have never walked our streets want to come and invest millions?” said Feliz, confidently touting that his platform spoke louder than any money. Yet he is not entirely opposed to the idea of big developments, as long as they don’t leave the borough’s most vulnerable behind.
“They can come and build their developments, but 50% of their apartments must be affordable”, he said. “The city gives them millions in tax breaks, let them at least give us half of those apartments in affordable housing.”
Feliz hopes to tackle the borough’s socio-economic problems at their core, namely through better education. He has vowed to racially and economically desegregate the public-school system. “It all starts with schools that have the tools to prepare our youth for their future,” he said.
Though the Board of Elections has yet to certify the results, Feliz has already claimed victory. His presumed success follows a vote count spanning several weeks, this being only the second race to implement ranked-choice voting in an election with extremely low voter turnout. It’s a system that Feliz considers superior, though its execution is lacking, he feels.
"It's good because you don't split the vote. They all count," but he added "the city failed to inform the public about the new system."
“It wasn’t done right”, said Feliz. “Many voters had not even heard of it until election day.”
Feliz will still have to defend his seat in the June primary, as he is only supplanting Torres for what would have been his remaining year in office. He will most likely face Sanchez and Bravo, over which he only had a marginal lead, though neither has officially confirmed that they will run (Crespo has already stated that she will not).
Should Feliz’s victory be declared official by the Board of Elections, he would become the youngest member in the Council and the third dominican, further solidifying that community's power in borough.