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At Campaign Headquarters, Glitter and a Salsa Beat

A scrappy campaign runs out of an unlikely locale: A defunct neighborhood bar.

By Tracie McMillan


New York Times • Sept. 4, 2005

Nothing about Ruben Gonzalez’s block of East 108th Street near Third Avenue suggests a run for City Hall. The street, which is peppered with vacant lots and abandoned buildings, and punctuated by a fire hydrant spouting graceful arcs of water, ends, eloquently, at Poor Richard’s Playground.

But as August drifted to a close, it was City Hall — or, more precisely, the work of a candidate angling for a job there — that had drawn the attention of Mr. Gonzalez and his friends. Passing the afternoon in lawn chairs on the sidewalk, he and a bunch of fellow retirees casually eyed a building that once housed La Palma, a nightclub, but which is now the bustling headquarters for a City Council campaign.

”This is the first time we’ve had one of those offices here,” said Mr. Gonzalez, a 30-year veteran of the block, nodding across the street. ”I think I’d rather have that. You know how it is; club people get rowdy.”

La Palma, formerly known for the thumping Latin beat on its dance floor and the airbrushed paintings of Latin superstars like Marc Anthony and Celia Cruz, shut its doors last winter after its owner tired of the demands of running the place. Six months later, when Melissa Mark-Viverito, one of five candidates seeking the Democratic nomination in District 8, had to find new quarters, her search ended when Israel Santiago, La Palma’s proprietor, offered to rent the club’s space to her.

”When he told me they were thinking of La Palma, I was like, ‘Really? The bar?”’ said Ms. Mark-Viverito, sitting in a vinyl booth flecked with gold glitter at her new digs. ”Everyone who comes in here loves it.”

A community and union activist, Ms. Mark-Viverito, like many Council candidates, is running a scrappy campaign that relies heavily on volunteers. District 8 encompasses East Harlem and sizable chunks of the South Bronx and the Upper West Side, and to win, a candidate must appeal to the distinct demographics of each neighborhood. In part, that is why this is one of the most competitive of the 51 council races on the ballot in the Sept. 13 primary.

”Everyone who comes in here loves it.”

Ms. Mark-Viverito’s choice for her headquarters could be an asset in attracting younger voters, or at least in pleasing the younger workers in her campaign.

”Of all the campaigns we’ve been to, I think it’s the best,” said William Sharrieff, 18, who as an intern with the Bronx County Democratic Club has worked for several candidates over the summer. The nightclub-turned-headquarters has a relaxed atmosphere, with an intermittent soundtrack of hip-hop and salsa wafting out of the laptops of staff members, and a beer cooler that holds the occasional six-pack.

”A lot of the places don’t have these lights,” Mr. Sharrieff said, gesturing at the brightly colored hanging lamps. ”And let’s be serious: Did I mention the air-conditioning?”

Ms. Mark-Viverito’s campaign manager, Gustavo Rivera, cited another bonus. ”You know, they have all the alcohol in there,” he said, nodding toward the padlocked liquor cabinets under the bar’s empty shelves. ”I’m hoping that if — I mean when — we have a celebration party, we can convince the owner to liberate it.”

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