Gustavo Rivera Looks to ‘Ice’ Primary
September 10, 2012
By Joe Maniscalco
In 2010, electoral newcomer Gustavo Rivera trounced scandal-plagued incumbent Pedro Espada, Jr. to win the State Senate seat representing the 33rd District. This year, he hopes to do the same against challenger Manny Tavarez.
But he’s still got a political science class to teach.
“I love to teach and be in front of the classroom,” Rivera says.
Originally from Puerto Rico, Rivera arrived in New York City in 1998 where he enrolled in a doctoral program in political science at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. A year later, he began teaching at Hunter College and was a member of the Professional Staff Congress.
Today, he still teaches part time at Pace University, but it was Rivera’s early involvement in efforts to open up the union to adjunct professors, that really set him up for a career in politics.
“One of the main reasons why I became involved in politics, and where I learned most of what I know about organizing, came from dealing directly with organized labor,” Rivera says.
The Kingsbridge Heights resident later went on to work as a community organizer for a number of different candidates at the state and local level. In 2008, Rivera applied his skill and know-how to the national stage teaming up with SEIU in trying to get a then-obscure U.S. senator named Barack Obama into the White House.
“Without the support of organized labor I would not have become a senator,” Rivera says. “I’ve always believed on principle that men and women should have the right to collective bargaining. And I’ve seen the power that can come from collective action. I consider myself a strong ally of labor overall.”
Rivera has since teamed up with Stanley Cup winner and New York Rangers great Mark Messier. Well, sort of. Both men are throwing their clout behind a proposal now being considered by the New York City Economic Development Corporation to build a massive 9-rink ice-skating complex at the old Kingsbridge Armory, not far from Rivera’s residence.
“There’s been a commitment from the developers that every job that they have there is going to be more than a living wage job,” Rivera says. “They are also open to the idea – depending on what kind of jobs they are – for there to be union jobs. This example shows that if we stand for something clearly as elected officials, as members of labor and members of the community, and we say, jobs for jobs sake is not what we need to talk about, we need to talk about how we create a strong union workforce of well-paid people, then we can achieve it.”
During his freshman term in the State Senate, Rivera opposed Tier 6 legislation aimed at slashing pension benefits for future public employees, and supported stalled attempts to raise the minimum wage.
“This is not only the popular thing to do,” Rivera says. “It is not only the right moral thing to do. It is the right thing economically to do. If there’s one thing that has demonstrated that it will activate the economy, it is putting money in the pockets of working men and women who will spend it.”
When not in front of a college classroom, or up in Albany, Rivera is interested in trying to instill vital – albeit largely ignored civic lessons – in the minds of grade school kids. Win or lose the primary, Rivera says a popular program his started last year teaching youngsters about their government will return to the Belmont Library in the Bronx later this fall.
“If you have people who know how government works, then they’re more likely to get involved in it,” Rivera says. “You can choose not to care. Just know that government makes decisions that impact you on a daily basis. Teaching people how government works, and that government should be responsive to them, is the first step in introducing them to the idea that they should hold their elected officials accountable.”
While he’s not likely to need the cash for this campaign, Rivera has pledged not to accept support from certain sectors – perhaps most notably from the union-bashing StudentsFirstNY initiative.
“It is true that whoever has the most money is probably going to win,” Rivera say. “But that is not always true. We became the majority in the State Senate slowly but surely, taking out better funded opponent. Not outspending them, but out-working them and out-organizing them.”