Two opponents team up to topple the Bronx machine in today’s special election

pjimage (1)
Jessica Haller (left) and Mino Lora (right)

It had all the makings of a smokey, backroom deal typical of the insider boys club in the Bronx, with a few exceptions. There was no smoke. There were no boys. And the back room was a kosher, vegetarian farm-to-table cafe. 

On a warm autumn day, at Moss Cafe on 235th St. and Johnson Avenue, Mino Lora and Jessica Haller, candidates for the city council seat in The Bronx’s District 11, met for the first time. Another candidate, Abigail Martin, who has since dropped out of the race, was also there. They acknowledged their differences then set them aside to create what has become the first real ranked choice voting strategy in New York City –– a coordinated attack to push back against a system that they said is intentional and corrupt. 

Only one can win in today’s special election for District 11. 

“We’re working against the machine,” said Haller. “The machine has had a stranglehold that has been slowly breaking down in the northwest Bronx.”

Both candidates were encouraged by the successes of female candidates backed by the party and the wins of progressive superstars, U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-Queens and the Bronx), U.S. Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-The Bronx and Westchester), and state Senator Alessandra Biaggi (D-The Bronx and Westchester). 

It wasn’t until a televised debate hosted by BronxNet, Riverdale Press, and Lehman College in early February that Haller and Lora made their decision to pair up as rivals a public one. 

New York City history was made with two texts. 

Haller texted Lora: “Let’s do this.” 

Lora responded: “Yes.” 

This strategy has since been followed by candidates Dan Padernacht and Carlton Berkley.

“The election is a job interview with 10,000 people. If we don’t get the job then we’ll figure something else out,” said Haller, who added that she is already petitioning for the June primary but can go back to other work if the numbers don’t go her way.

Theirs is an attitude that contrasts heavily with Bronx history–a history of dynasties that seem a little too convenient. Haller and Lora are up against Eric Dinowitz, the son of long-time state Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz. These candidates do not see it as a coincidence that the outgoing city councilmember, Andy Cohen, was nominated to the Bronx Supreme Court, conveniently leaving his seat open before the end of Cohen’s term. 

Special elections, which typically have low voter turnout, would be the perfect time to usher in Eric Dinowitz, they suspect. His father, Jeffrey Dinowitz, won his own Assembly seat by just a handful of votes in a special election in 1994. He hasn’t gone anywhere since.

In an emailed statement, Eric Dinowitz described this story of a backroom deal to get him on the city council as false and baseless. 

“It’s very unfortunate that my opponents have so little faith in our democracy and voters, and have crafted this false narrative in hopes voters believe them,” the statement read. “I have deep respect for the voters and trust them to make an informed choice on March 23rd. These fabrications are truly baseless — Andrew Cohen publicly talked about wanting to become a judge for years. I am proud to have the broadest coalition of support of anyone running for City Council. My focus is on ensuring a fair and equitable recovery for everyone in the Northwest Bronx.”

Norwood News also reported that Jeffrey Dinowitz did not actually cast a vote in the nomination of Cohen and that he had expressed interest in the Supreme Court for several years. 

That has not stopped Haller and Lora.

“It’s very practical things that are not a coincidence but very intentional.” Lora, who is originally from the Dominican Republic and who wants to be part of the new face of  Bronx politics in a district that is growing increasingly Black and brown. 

When Lora and Haller met, they made clear their differences. 

“If we were exactly the same, I wouldn’t need to run,” said Haller.

 Both continually reminded voters of this as they worked on their own ground game for today’s election

Lora proudly wears a progressive label. Her activism work started after surviving Hurricane George in the Dominican Republic. She demanded a response from what she called an “elitist, colorist” government that she said was to blame for the devastating effects of the hurricane on her country. 

“After that I started getting claustrophobic,” she said. 

She moved to the U.S. at the age of 19 to build something bigger. 

Her company, the People’s Theater Project, has been built up from a few hundred dollars of investment into a million dollar organization with a social justice mission for young people. She supports defunding the police and reallocating that money to fund education. 

Haller calls herself a pragmatic Democrat but said she is proudly progressive on matters of sustainability. Haller points to her work studying climate change as her primary campaign issue. She said she is deeply worried about the air quality of her district. It has led to higher rates of asthma and she thinks to higher rates of infection and death from COVID-19. 

“When you’re carrying a disproportionate share of infrastructure, that causes poor air quality. People die at a higher rate from respiratory illness. That’s not news, that’s 100-year-old science,” said Haller. 

The candidates align on many other issues –– their bond is as women and mothers. Lora said that this choice of strategy, to team up as opponents, is best for their district. 

“Ranked choice voting gives more power to the voters. It expands democracy.” Lora said.

It now comes down to their untested strategy to collaborate while running their own races. Special elections have notoriously low turnout. 

Lora doesn’t like to think about low voter turnout as a negative. It just means that every vote matters that much more, she said, especially if the special election goes to multiple rounds of counting. 

In December, when the Jewish Vote endorsed Lora for the city council position, they listed Haller, who is Jewish, as their second choice. 

“That incentivized Jessica and I to really make it public,” said Lora. 

As recently as last week, the two once again received a coveted mutual endorsement from state Senator Alessandra Biaggi. The senator also pledged to fight for whichever candidate comes in second in Tuesday’s special election in the Democratic June primary should Dinowitz win the special.

“One of us will do better and whichever one of us that is will get the other one’s votes and we’ll be able to topple the machine,” said Haller.

More from Around New York