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Trump Bronx Supporters
Donald Trump’s supporters get ready to rally in the Bronx. Yuki Iwamura/AP

Bronx Democrats Took Donald Trump Seriously

Nobody thinks Donald Trump is going to win the Bronx, no matter how many rallies he holds. But local Democratic officials are deeply worried about what his limited appeal in New York City could mean everywhere else.

THE BRONX — As recently as Monday, many Democratic leaders here were planning to ignore former President Donald Trump when he came to Crotona Park on Thursday to make a pitch to Black and brown voters. But by the time the first barricades for Trump’s rally went up, they had changed their minds.

With polls showing signs of trouble for President Joe Biden among some segments of the Democrats’ traditional base — small shifts, to be sure, but large enough to cause heartburn for Biden allies watching the swing states — the Bronx leaders decided that if Trump truly wants to get to voters that look like people in the Bronx, he’d have to go through people in the Bronx first.

“Initially, my thought was, ‘I don’t want to give one inch of attention,’” Oswald Feliz, the New York City Council member representing the neighborhoods around Trump’s rally, told NOTUS. Earlier this week, he told Politico there was no need for a Democratic response to Trump in the Bronx.

“After giving it further thought, I said, ‘Maybe we should remind the people of the type of president that he was,’” he said Thursday.

Feliz crammed under a tent at one of the two Democratic events that bracketed Trump’s appearance, a press conference headlined by Bronx Rep. Ritchie Torres that kicked off in the morning, just as a massive thunderstorm rolled in. The biblical volume of rain kept attendance to a minimum, which was a relief to organizers so worried about Trump supporters showing up that they kept the exact location secret until just a couple of hours before the start time.

Obviously, the funny part about Trump’s rally is that he and his supporters say he can win the Bronx, and win New York. It is ridiculous, and ridiculous bluster is funny. But what’s not a joke is that he doesn’t really need to win the Bronx. If his Bronx message, aimed at the minority voters Democrats rely on, works on just enough of them in the right states, he can beat Biden handily. This is what brought Bronx Democrats out to counterprogram.

At his press conference, Torres tore into Trump’s record on COVID-19, on Republican plans to cut money from the social safety net. “Donald Trump’s presidency was a disaster for the Bronx,” he boomed to the huddle of reporters. Afterward, he told NOTUS Trump has “lower approval ratings than arsenic, lead and asbestos” in the borough.

But he said Trump has “made gains on the margins” with some traditional Democratic base voters. Not enough to put the Bronx at risk, of course. But enough to suggest Democrats need to reach out. Soon.

“The president has been effective, and he needs to tell his story more effectively,” Torres told NOTUS. He urged “a focus on bread-and-butter issues,” like the Biden administration’s efforts to cap the price of insulin. Torres said Democrats can be in a tough spot because their big achievements — CHIPs Act, Inflation Reduction Act, infrastructure — are “longer-term investments that might not be obvious in the short term but will become so in the long run.”

Bronx community leader Bernel Arthur Richardson spoke at the Torres presser and ticked off a litany of complaints about Trump dating back to the days of the Central Park Five. It was giving Trump grief in a way only a New Yorker really can. He implored minority voters to look back on the Trump presidency as he does.

“Beware of the devil. Do not falsely believe that this guy cares about us. He never has, and he never will,” he said at the mics. “We will say as our Jewish brothers say, we will never forget Donald Trump.”

Standing with several other Bronx community elders on the rapidly drying pavement after the press conference ended and the sun miraculously appeared again, he spoke of seeing new Trump supporters pop up, even in this bluest of blue places.

“There’s some people here in the Bronx, especially some young Black males, who seem to think that Donald Trump is all that,” he said.

Richardson, 80, said he’s worried enough to go so far as to send an email to the Biden campaign asking for a roundtable discussion between the president and young Black Bronx residents (a campaign aide, asked about the request, said in a statement, “Nothing to preview or read out here that I’m tracking.”) Richardson said he wants Biden to explain that he’s not an old man, disconnected from young people, but, “like your grandfather, I got the wisdom and I can help you get where you want.”

Biden’s messaging so far is making Richardson nervous. He appeared at the press conference to ensure Trump didn’t have the floor to himself.

“I’m out here because I have grandkids. I have nephews and nieces. And all of these young people who are here are my family. And I want to make sure that they don’t get delusional about this guy,” he said.

Trump Bronx
Trump speaks in the Bronx. Yuki Iwamura/AP

Trump’s actual speech at his rally dwelled on his past as a New Yorker and his business ties to the city. He spoke about the Bronx and and to minority voters, weaving the pitch into his national stump speech with its focus on immigration and crime and a vow to bring down energy prices. The event was large, but not his largest. It was a homespun version of a national message.

National Democrats pushed back. The Biden campaign trolled Trump on Truth Social, flagging posts from other New Yorkers attacking Trump’s visit. Recently sworn-in Harlem City Council member Yusef Salaam, one of the Central Park Five Trump once said should be executed in a full-page newspaper ad, released a statement through the campaign condemning the rally. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose district borders the one Trump was campaigning in, did a Mystery Science Theater-style watch-along of Trump’s rally on Twitch. The Biden campaign launched a slew of ads aimed at knocking down Trump’s claims that a vote for him would be good for minority voters.

Back in the Bronx, Amanda Septimo was giving her own reasons for taking Trump’s visit seriously. She’s the state assembly member for the South Bronx and was one of the headliners at a second Democratic rally held in the same Crotona Park and at the same time as the Trump rally, though the two were out of sight of each other.

“There were some people who said let’s not do anything, but we were never those people,” she said.

There are some signs the Trump operation was paying attention to Septimo’s event. On Septimo’s announcement on Instagram, top Trump adviser Lynne Patton commented with a warning that “it’s illegal for tax-exempt (501c3) non-profits to participate in organized political activity and run the risk of losing that coveted status.”

Septimo’s been paying attention to Trump too. She excoriated the former president for what she saw as the Republicans using the Bronx as, effectively, a political theme park featuring scenes of crime and poverty. She didn’t take Trump’s visit “seriously from an electoral perspective, but seriously from a messaging perspective and a representation perspective? Absolutely.”

Trump will not win the Bronx, she reiterated. The rally was silly as an act of GOTV.

“Politically, conceptually, it doesn’t make any sense to be spending time, resources, energy in a place that you are overwhelmingly going to lose,” she said.

But Trump making inroads into places like the Bronx? That she’s taking very seriously.

She recalled a woman walking by her rally set up on Thursday, asking what was going on.

“I was like, ‘Well, we’re doing an anti-Trump rally.’ And she’s like, ‘Oh, well, I support Trump.’ So I said, ‘Why do you support him?’ And we kind of had a conversation about it,” she said. The moment showed Democrats “need to do our work to make sure that we’re giving folks reasons to support Democrats.”

Septimo, the elected Democrat, did that work, right there on the sidewalk. She said she was able to convince the woman that what she had heard about Trump wasn’t true.

“By the end, she was like, ‘OK, well, you know what? I won’t support either of them,’” she said. Septimo’s eyebrows shot up and her voice turned sarcastic. “I’m just like, ‘Oh, great.’”

Evan McMorris-Santoro is a reporter at NOTUS.