Two weeks ago, this journalist released a 45-second clip of Democratic New York City Councilman and minister Fernando Cabrera giving a sermon back in April, in which he told parishioners, “it’s harder being rich than being poor.”
“When you are rich, you have more things to worry [about],” he explained to the crowd. “Miillionaire people…got there because of their ability to handle more pressure. Every CEO, every president that got in there and stayed there, it’s because of their ability to handle pressure. They have increased their capacity.”
With each passing sentence the Bronx representative dug his heels in deeper, eventually telling his flock that their wages were a reflection of their individual “capacity.”
Watch Dem NYC councilman @FCabreraNY tell supporters "it's harder being rich than being poor" while blaming low wages on laziness. pic.twitter.com/m45LCajCVD— Walker Bragman (@WalkerBragman) July 13, 2017
No stranger to controversy, Cabrera has spent years trying to distance himself from remarks he made in 2014, praising Uganda’s anti-gay laws.
The reason for all the fuss is that the Democratic councilman represents one of the poorest places in the country. Cabrera’s district, CD-14, has an unemployment rate of 17 percent. An incredible 55 percent of those with jobs work in low-wage occupations—the highest rate citywide. District 14 also holds the lead for percentage of homeless students in the city (18). This helps explain why 34 percent of district residents do not have a high school diploma. A shocking 26 percent of students enrolled in school have experienced homelessness within the past five years.
Cabrera has responded to these dire circumstances by spending money on schools and welcoming private development. For example, he gave his support to a controversial project pushed by Mayor Bill de Blasio to transform the historic Kingsbridge Armory into a world-class private ice skating facility. Many community residents and business owners have expressed fear that they will be displaced by rising rents once the installation is completed. Councilman came under fire for that deal back in 2013, when he tried to use the deal to secure funding for a now-defunct nonprofit affiliated with his church.
Despite this record, Cabrera boasts the endorsements of several prominent unions and Democratic groups. That said, it would be reasonable to question whether his recently unearthed statements could threaten those endorsements.
The Bronx County Democratic Committee would only say that it did not support Cabrera’s remarks, and mere days after the story got out, Cabrera was seen walking to a meeting with Mayor Bill de Blasio, whom he had just done a town hall with. At that event, de Blasio praised the Councilman’s commitment to combatting “economic injustice.” The Mayor’s office did not respond for comment.
The unions were equally forgiving. On Tuesday, Cabrera was endorsed by the New York City & Vicinity District Council of Carpenters. On Wednesday he was endorsed by New York City’s largest public employee union, AFSCME District Council 37, in a three-step decision which ultimately came down to a vote by delegates as opposed to members at large.
In addition to new endorsements, virtually every single union that had previously pledged support to Cabrera’s campaign which Paste got a hold of, stood by the decision. The 32BJ SEIU released the following statement:
Our members decided to endorse Council Member Cabrera for re-election because of his history of supporting 32BJ members and the issues that are important to them. We hope he will clarify his remarks and set the record straight.
Jason Ortiz, the Political Director for the Hotel Trades Council, told Paste that his union would not be commenting on the story.
Meanwhile, Bruce Feld, President of The Benjamin Franklin Liberal Democratic Reform Club, a group that claims to be dedicated to “progressive politics and policies,” and which endorsed Cabrera relatively recently, told Paste that the decision was likely final. He had not seen the video, but upon being made aware of it, he explained that although procedures exist to rescind an endorsement, the bar to do so was high. Feld also expressed his unwillingness to bring a motion to start that process, as he was unwilling to second guess the group’s decision.
“I’m an officer of the club,” he explained. “After the club has secretly, and with consideration, made a judgment which has led some people to secure petition signatures to qualify the endorsed candidate, I’m not going to say I don’t support the candidate.”
Cabrera has defended his words, comparing himself to Jesus Christ and accusing his critics of taking him out of context.
“I know what it’s like to not go to prom because my mom didn’t have the money,” he told PuraPolitica anchor Juan Manuel Benitez. “I know what it is like to sleep on the floor. I know what it is like to lose 15 pounds because we didn’t have food. So for someone to tell me, and to take it out of context…the only thing that I feel honored about, is that they are treating me like Jesus.”
Conviction aside, on Saturday, the Councilman backed out of an upcoming August 1st debate, citing a scheduling conflict even though he had previously committed to attending.
This week, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York announced a bold new direction for his party. The test of that promise will be how incumbents are treated at all levels of government. So far as New York Democratic politics are concerned, given Cabrera’s continued support among Democratic and union leadership, things do not look too promising.
“This situation is a microcosm for everything wrong with establishment politics,” Cabrera’s progressive primary challenger Randy Abreu, a former Obama Energy Department appointee and Bernie Sanders delegate, told Paste. “This is why people don’t think the party stands for anything.”
Abreu’s assessment is supported by a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll which found that 52 percent of Americans now feel Democrats do not stand for anything other than opposition to Trump. With people like Fernando Cabrera falling under the “big tent,” it isn’t hard to see why.