NEW YORK — To the consternation of many Democrats, the front-runner in a crowded congressional primary in one of the bluest districts in New York City, if not the country, is a Pentecostal minister who opposes abortion rights, likes Donald Trump and has a long history of anti-gay comments.
City Council Member Ruben Diaz Sr., a cowboy-hat wearing political fixture in the South Bronx, is one of a host of candidates vying in New York's primary Tuesday for seats opening up because of the retirement of three veteran members of Congress: Democrats Jose Serrano and Nita Lowey and Republican Pete King.
Diaz, 77, is among a dozen Democrats running in the 15th Congressional District, now represented by Serrano.
The field is deep with liberal contenders, leaving Diaz standing apart.
"We firmly believe that a win for Diaz Sr. in this congressional race would be really a statewide and national embarrassment," said Brian Romero, the president of the Stonewall Democratic Club, which is supporting City Council Member Ritchie Torres, who is gay.
Diaz has not participated in debates or given interviews about his campaign, but he is well known, having served two stints on the City Council and one in the state senate. He is also the father of popular Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr.
Romero's club has joined other gay organizations in urging the candidates to unite behind Torres in order to fend off a win by Diaz, who has said he may vote for Donald Trump's reelection and who complained last year that the City Council was "controlled by the homosexual community."
Torres, 32, who was raised in a Bronx public housing complex and won his City Council seat at age 25, said it isn't his place to tell other candidates to drop out, but warned that "there's an imminent risk that the bluest congressional seat in America could fall into the hands of a pro-Trump Republican."
His rivals said they are staying in.
"I don't think it's anybody's place to tell me what to do," said Melissa Mark-Viverito, 51, who as City Council speaker was New York City's most powerful female elected official from 2014 through 2017. She said Diaz is the one who should drop out "because he is not a Democrat."
State Assembly member Michael Blake, 37, who served in the White House Office of Public Engagement under President Barack Obama and is a vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, would be the first African American from the Bronx elected to Congress, but the fact that he is not Latino could be a disadvantage in a district that's two-thirds Hispanic.
Other candidates include City Council member Ydanis Rodriguez and political newcomer Samelys Lopez, a housing activist who has been endorsed by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Democratic Socialists of America.
Lopez, 40, said some of her opponents are merely "posing as progressives." She cited the City Council's vote last year to close the city's Rikers Island jail complex and replace it with several smaller jails. Rather than build more jails, Lopez said, the city should invest in criminal justice reform that puts fewer people behind bars.
As the candidates battle in the Bronx, another deep field of Democrats is vying to succeed Lowey in New York's 17th Congressional District, which includes wealthy Westchester County communities like Scarsdale and Chappaqua and all of Rockland County.
First-time candidate Mondaire Jones, 33, an attorney who worked in the Justice Department under Obama, has been endorsed by Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez as well as by U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
Jones, who grew up in subsidized housing in the district then went to Stanford University and Harvard Law School, would be the first gay black man in Congress if elected. He remembers tagging along with his grandmother when she cleaned rich people's houses.
"Now I get to run to represent the same people whose homes I watched my grandmother clean growing up," he said.
Evelyn Farkas, 52, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia under Obama, has endorsements from former Secretary of State John Kerry and former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.
"We need to send someone who knows how the system works in Washington," Farkas said. "In Washington a lot hinges on whether you know the process and if you have the trust and the relationships to get things done."
Other contenders include Adam Schleifer, 38, a former federal prosecutor and the son of a pharmaceutical company founder who had given his own campaign $1.7 million as of March 31; Assemblyman David Buchwald, 42, who once sponsored a bill to let New York share Trump's tax returns with Congress; former NARAL-Pro-Choice America chair Allison Fine and Army Reserves Major Asha Castleberry-Hernandez.
Another candidate, State Sen. David Carlucci, 39, could be hampered by his membership in the Independent Democratic Conference, a breakaway faction of Democrats that allied itself with Republicans in the state Senate until it dissolved in 2018.
Carlucci said he's voted for progressive legislation on marriage equality, raising the minimum wage and gun control, among other issues.
"People in the district actually know me and know the work that I've done," he said.
FIGHT ON LONG ISLAND
Two Republicans and two Democrats are vying to succeed King, who is retiring from representing the 2nd Congressional District after 14 terms.
The Long Island district has leaned Republican, but his departure could make it more of a battleground.
Republicans will choose between Assembly Member Andrew Garbarino, who touts King's backing, and Assembly Member Mike LiPetri, who says he wants to deter the influence of "radical left-wing politicians."
Garbarino said he's optimistic he'll win over independents.
"Long Island is very different from the rest of the country. You have pro-labor Republicans. You have pro-environment Republicans," Garbarino said.
Democrats will choose between Jackie Gordon, a combat veteran and high school guidance counselor who recently served on the Babylon Town Council, and attorney Patricia Maher, who unsuccessfully ran against King in 2014.
Gordon, who was born in Jamaica and retired from the Army Reserve as a lieutenant colonel in 2014, said she expects to see an uptick in voting from people who want to address inequality.
"This pandemic has really pulled the blanket off of something and shown inequity in healthcare and education and housing," she said.