Open Seat in South Bronx Attracts Newcomer Advocate

When news first surfaced of the retirement of Representative José E. Serrano, a congressman from the South Bronx who served for 29 years, Chivona Newsome could not believe it. A lifelong South Bronx resident, Ms. Newsome saw him as a neighborhood fixture — he lived nearby and she regularly saw him jogging through the neighborhood.

Although she respects him as a person, Ms. Newsome, 34, said she also felt like he had been in office too long. She researched the state of the community that Mr. Serrano represented: The college and high school dropout rates were high and the median income was low. She saw his departure as a chance to do something about it.

So Ms. Newsome, a community activist, made a decision she had never thought she would. She decided to run for the congressional seat in New York’s 15th district that Mr. Serrano would be vacating.

“I’m fighting for all these people in my community — for lack of a better word — just like starving and dying,” she said. “How can I not use my talents to serve the people in my community?”

Ms. Newsome would be entering a crowded field that includes a slew of established Democrats seeking the party’s nomination in next year’s primary for a seat that hasn’t been open in nearly three decades.

Since she has never run for office and has low name recognition, Ms. Newsome’s candidacy is expected to be a long shot. But it represents a tension within the Democratic Party between establishment politicians and outsiders who portray themselves as channeling the frustrations of marginalized communities.

Referred to by some as the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez effect, named for the Bronx congresswoman, the phenomenon is playing out across the country.

Even in a left-leaning city like New York, Democrats may not be far enough to the left for the insurgents like Ms. Newsome. Representative Eliot Engel, 72, faces a challenge from Kenny Belvin, 24, a recent college graduate. Representative Yvette Clarke, 54, who won last year with 53 percent of the vote against Adem Bunkeddeko, 31, will face a challenge from Isiah James, 32, next year.

Mr. Serrano almost faced a primary against Ms. Ocasio-Cortez in 2018; she originally filed to run against him before switching to District 14 days later.

The list of candidates who have said they will seek to replace Mr. Serrano include City Councilmen Ruben Diaz Sr. and Ritchie Torres, and State Assemblyman Michael Blake. This broad field only adds to the challenge for Ms. Newsome, said Bruce Gyory, a Democratic political strategist.

Ms. Ocasio-Cortez had the advantage of running against an incumbent, Joseph Crowley, in a one-on-one race, channeling populist frustration with the Washington establishment. The one-on-one path is the best opportunity for a political outsider involved in activism to transition into office, Mr. Gyory said.

“When you have a multi-candidate field, and you have to stand on your own and carve out your own niche and develop all your own support, it becomes a taller order,” he said.

Part of the challenge for Ms. Newsome, who is black, is demographic. The district is 34 percent black and 66 percent Hispanic. Within the Hispanic community, there are differences in terms of nationality and ideology.

A candidate like Mr. Diaz, an Evangelical pastor known for his fervent opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage, might appeal to the Pentecostal community, Mr. Gyory said. A candidate like the more progressive, openly gay Mr. Torres might appeal to a more progressive crowd. Michael Blake, who was an aide to former President Barack Obama, could appeal to black voters, and much of his State Assembly district overlaps the congressional district.

None of these candidates are likely to unite the black and Hispanic communities the way Mr. Serrano did, Mr. Gyory said.

Ms. Newsome believes she is the best candidate because of her history in activism combined with her stint as a financial adviser, which she said she can use to develop an economic plan to boost the financially struggling district.

“I know the heart of the Bronx,” she said. “I understand the community of the Bronx.”

Politics have always been present in her life, but through her activism, Ms. Newsome has gradually drifted further into the political sphere.

She got her start in politics during the 2004 election cycle when she ate warm peanut butter and jelly sandwiches canvassing for John Kerry in the Pennsylvania heat.

When Mr. Obama ran in 2008, she started grass-roots fundraising for his campaign, and his campaign took notice. After his election, she became a part of the Presidential Inaugural Committee in 2009 and attended the inaugural ball as a college student at Howard University.

When her brother, Hawk Newsome, ran for City Council in 2013, she managed his unsuccessful campaign.

Alongside her political work, she was active in mobilizing for black families who lost loved ones. She marched with the family of Sean Bell, who was fatally shot by the police on his wedding day in 2006, and protested the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watchman who killed Trayvon Martin in 2012.

In 2016, Ms. Newsome and her brother started Black Lives Matter of Greater New York at their mother’s kitchen table.

“It’s like every day they had a project. Every day,” their mother Doris Ann Newsome said. “I hardly couldn’t even cook in that kitchen. Posters everywhere.”

As a politician, Ms. Newsome said, she hopes to advocate for, among other things, a universal basic income, Medicare for all, ensuring Social Security, and preserving the rights of immigrants and members of the L.G.B.T.Q communities.

While she considered herself “just a girl from the Bronx,” who can hear the cheers from Yankee Stadium from her living room, she said she believed that working on national policy can help the people of her home community.

“Disadvantaged people and marginalized people are experiencing the same thing,” she said. “And geography does not stop that.”

Update, June 12, 2019:

The photo caption accompanying this article has been updated to correct
Chivona Newsome’s age. She is 34, not 29.