A Trump-Friendly, Anti-AOC Democrat Is Poised to Win a New York House Seat—With Some Help From the Pandemic

New York's 15th congressional district, with Yankee Stadium at its heart, is home to some of the country's poorest and most diverse people, an Obama oasis bordering AOC's neighborhood—and yet it is on the verge of electing a Trump-loving Democrat for its open seat in the House.

That Democrat is Reverend Ruben Diaz Sr., a flamboyant, cowboy hat-wearing New York City councilman who immediately distinguished his views when he announced his run in 2019, saying "I am the opposite of AOC in the South Bronx."

And that has national Democrats, opponents and progressives like Planned Parenthood and LGBT groups in a panic because the 77-year-old minister has a history of making inflammatory statements about homosexuals and strongly opposes abortion because of his religious beliefs.

"He would instantly become Donald Trump's favorite New York congressman," strategist Eric Koch of anti-Diaz super PAC Bronx United told Newsweek, adding that Diaz Sr. would be an unreliable Democratic vote in the House caucus.

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To complicate matters, he has a son, Ruben Diaz Jr., who is his namesake and a Bronx borough president many call the most popular politician in the borough. Diaz Jr. is regularly asked to comment on his father's actions, as he did disapprovingly when Diaz Sr. invited Senator Ted Cruz to visit the Bronx, but the consensus is that his son is a political plus for the reverend.

The 15th district is the poorest and most diverse district in the country—more than 97 percent of its residents are minorities and the median household income was estimated to be $28,042 in 2017. It is also comfortably Democrat. Barack Obama took nearly 97 percent of the vote there in 2012. It borders the district Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez represents.

The Bronx, where the district sits, also has more per capita infections and deaths than Queens, which has drawn national attention as the state and city became the American face of the crisis.

But Diaz Sr., in a field of 10, stands out, and insiders said that if the June 23 primary were held today, he would win. With no Republican running, all eyes are on a primary whose winner will shepherd a hard-hit district out of a pandemic.

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"There's a cruel irony that a Trump Republican could represent the most Democratic district in America," said Ritchie Torres, an opponent who has raised six times more money than Diaz Sr. and has $800,000 more cash on hand, according to the latest public filing.

While outside groups bristle at Diaz Sr.'s place in the modern Democratic Party, they don't get a vote in the community where he has devoted his time and resources for decades.

Diaz Sr., who is Puerto Rican, has a background that still matters in a historically Puerto Rican part of New York, which includes Hispanic evangelicals and seniors who are his base. New York political experts said the pastor, who can be seen wearing a baby blue cowboy hat on the New York City council website, is a master of constituent services.

"He has always had a great constituent service mechanism," said Jennifer Blatus, a political strategist who interned with Diaz Jr. "He's really good at connecting with the community, he knows who his base is, he knows how to reach them, his son is wildly popular, they have the same name and half the people that vote for him might think they're voting for Rubencito."

Diaz, who said he was a victim of anti-black discrimination while in the Army, was addicted to drugs and pleaded guilty to heroin and marijuana possession in 1965 before finding salvation in Jesus Christ, ministering to people who also needed to turn their lives around, and opening senior centers in the Bronx in the 1970s and 1980s.

An analysis of his spending by The City found that Diaz Sr. had spent $31,000 on gifts before the crisis struck New York, including buying Thanksgiving turkeys, Christmas toys, and gift cards from iconic New York standby, Western Beef.

"That is what I have always done," Diaz Sr. said when the legality of such gifts was questioned. "Giving back to the people and trying to help the community. This is nothing new to me."

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Ruben Diaz Sr. holds a rally. Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images/Getty

Blatus said Diaz Sr. has a lot of different tactics to help meet the needs of seniors, like having volunteers give older constituents a ride to the voting booth.

"He's fully bilingual, he's from Puerto Rico, he knows what hardship is, he can relate to these people," she said.

"The Diaz name has value not just because his son is the borough president, but because it has been a fixture in that community both politically and spiritually," said Hank Shienkopf, a veteran of New York politics since 1969, who grew up in the district, and helped elect Diaz Jr. as Bronx borough president.

Shienkopf said it's important to understand that local residents don't judge Diaz Sr.'s controversial statements because they feel they are the ones being discriminated against by a system that has never helped the Bronx. "If there is anything that is true about politics in New York City, it's that change is the only constant," he said. "But this is the one place where there hasn't been a change in their economic status."

That's not enough for his opponents, who believe the election falling during a crisis has helped Diaz Sr.

"You have a homophobe, misogynist, who's anti-choice and could win here but it's been hard to get people to focus on this seat," Melissa Mark-Viverito, a former New York City council speaker also running in the 15th district race to replace retiring Representative Jose Serrano told Newsweek.

His opponents are keeping score of his transgressions.

Diaz, who once compared abortion to the Holocaust, drew widespread condemnation in 1994 when the Gay Games were coming to New York City and he wrote in a column that the 20,000 athletes "are likely to be already infected with AIDS or can return home with the virus."

Diaz Sr. also was strongly criticized for saying the city council was "controlled by the homosexual community" last year and for refusing in 2005 to endorse Michael Bloomberg or Democrat Fernando Ferrer in the mayoral race because their support of abortion rights and same-sex marriage meant "they have nothing to offer me according to the Bible."

Neither Diaz responded to Newsweek's request for comment.

Bronx United released a digital ad highlighting his previous comments that if you dare to sympathize with Trump or wear a MAGA hat you are labeled a racist.

A national coalition launched by Victory Fund last week, which backs LGBTQ candidates and supports Torres, included NARAL Pro-Choice America, Latino Victory Fund, Congressional Hispanic Caucus BOLD PAC, Planned Parenthood Action Fund, and Human Rights Campaign to raise the alarm that Diaz Sr. wants to represent a district they argue has politically moved away from him.

But outside efforts over the next month may not matter. Experts said campaigning has been fundamentally changed because of the pandemic and there won't be traditional street or park events in the month before the primary. That means Diaz Sr. could be headed to Congress after all.

"The district has been devastated by the virus, but also devastated by poverty for the last 25 years, so the question is where were these people when the Diaz's were here?" Shienkopf said. "Who is standing up to scream about it? Diaz keeps proving he's the one that can yell the loudest, so that gives him some standing."

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New York City Councilman Ruben Diaz Sr. leads a rally outside his office to protest his suspension from a city council committee for making comments that many believed were homophobic, on February 14, 2019, in the Bronx borough of New York City. Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images/Getty
A Trump-Friendly, Anti-AOC Democrat Is Poised to Win a New York House Seat—With Some Help From the Pandemic | Politics