State Sen. Gustavo Rivera and challenger Miguelina Camilo are locked in a Bronx primary battle that pits the powerful chair of the Senate Health Committee against an attorney and first-time candidate backed by much of the Democratic establishment.

The race in New York’s newly drawn 33rd Senate District will be decided in the August 23rd primary. It has drawn attention from the city’s political class, partly thanks to the Bronx Democratic Party’s complicated decision to endorse Camilo over Rivera, a rare instance of the incumbent lacking party support.

But the race has drawn far less attention from actual voters, many of whom are unaware there’s an upcoming primary – New York’s second of the summer.

And the recent sweltering, sticky weather hasn’t helped, particularly as the candidates and their allies go door to door in an attempt to convince Bronx voters to join their cause.

Our biggest opponent is apathy.
State Sen. Gustavo Rivera

“Our biggest opponent is apathy,” Rivera said in an interview last week. “There's people that are either not knowledgeable that there’s a primary coming up, or they’re like, ‘Another one?’ It is a very big challenge to be able to connect with voters.”

Rivera paused. “And did I mention the heat?” (He had.) “It’s hot.”

Both candidates are facing a common foe in the scorching temperatures that have dogged them during the campaign’s final stretch.

“Funny enough, I have a great tan and people think I've been at the beach,” said Camilo, president of the Bronx Women’s Bar Association and a former vice chair of the Bronx Democrats. “But I've been outside.”

Rivera, Camilo have different ideologies

Rivera, a native of Puerto Rico, was first elected in 2010, ousting scandal-scarred incumbent Pedro Espada – a Democrat who, a year prior, had helped engineer a Republican coup of the state Senate and would later be convicted of unrelated federal corruption charges.

Rivera has risen to become the health committee chair, a position that gives him sway over health and Medicare spending that makes up a third of the state’s budget. With longtime Assembly Health Committee Chairman Richard Gottfried retiring, Rivera is in line to become an even bigger player in health care issues in Albany should he win re-election.

Rivera is the main sponsor of the New York Health Act, a long-standing legislative proposal that would enact single-payer health insurance in New York, and is considered one of the more progressive Democrats in the state Legislature.

He has sponsored and passed bills that would implement safe-staffing levels at hospitals, as well as Dakota’s Law – a bill, named after a Bronx girl, that would require doctors to assess children for lead-poisoning risks during health care visits. (Dakota’s Law is awaiting Gov. Kathy Hochul’s signature.)

“All of that is the legislative work that I'm incredibly proud of that is driven by how to make the lives of the people I represent better,” Rivera said.

Camilo, born in the Dominican Republic, is a lawyer who previously held commissioner and associate counsel posts with the city Board of Elections. She is the president of the Bronx Women’s Bar Association and was a practicing attorney before she put her job on hold during the campaign.

Thanks in part to a candidate shuffle caused by the state’s botched redistricting process, Camilo has found support from major Democrats in the Bronx and the city, with Reps. Ritchie Torres and Adriano Espaillat backing her campaign. Mayor Eric Adams is set to fundraise for her next week, according to Spectrum News NY1.

Camilo is running as more of a centrist. Among other areas, she points to her support of charter schools as a factor that distinguishes her from Rivera. (New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany, a Wall Street-backed super PAC supporting charter schools, has so far spent $266,000 on advertisements in support of her campaign, a large sum for a Senate race.) She’s a critic of the Defund the Police movement and said lawmakers need to be more “supportive of law enforcement.”

I'm a pragmatic Democrat and Senator Rivera has been open about being more of a left liberal, progressive.
Miguelina Camilo, Democratic primary candidate for the 33rd Senate District

“I'm a pragmatic Democrat and Senator Rivera has been open about being more of a left liberal, progressive,” said Camilo. If elected, Camilo would be the first person of Dominican descent to represent a State Senate district in the Bronx.

Both Rivera and Camilo have support from powerful labor unions, though most of the more politically potent organizations, including the United Federation of Teachers; the Hotel and Gaming Trades Council; and health care unions like 1199SEIU and the New York Nurses’ Association, have stuck with Rivera. Camilo picked up support from several, including property service workers’ union 32BJ SEIU and DC37, the largest union of city employees.

Candis Tall, vice president and political director of 32BJ, said the union’s members picked Camilo over the incumbent based on her platform. But they also wanted to ensure support for women of color, she said.

“We want to support women,” she said. “We want to support women of color, and so that went into the decision, too.”

Top court shook up NY races

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

All of New York’s primaries were supposed to take place on June 28th, well before the hottest days of the summer. The Democrat-led state Legislature put a new set of district maps in place to account for population changes in the latest census.

Back in February, Camilo launched a bid for a soon-to-be vacant State Senate seat – a Bronx-based district that stretched into lower Westchester County and largely mirrored the existing 34th State Senate District currently represented by Alessandra Biaggi. Rivera was running, sans a primary challenger, for a newly drawn seat that more closely resembled his current district.

Then the state courts stepped in and turned everything upside down.

The Democrat-drawn State Senate and congressional districts were suddenly no more, with the state’s top court ruling them unconstitutional in April. Those primaries were pushed to August – typically a time when many voters are on vacation. And when a court-appointed expert (known as a “special master”) drew new district lines in May, they were substantially different from the Democrat-drawn maps – leaving lawmakers and their challengers scrambling to stake out their turf.

“I made the decision back in February to fully commit to this,” said Camilo, who spoke to Gothamist last week. “And you know, when we were faced with an overnight change – the map and then the challenger – it was a very quick thing.”

It all left a traffic jam of political candidates in the Bronx.

Camilo found herself in the new 33rd Senate District, which now includes Riverdale, Fieldston, Spuyten Duyvil, and Norwood, and chose to run there. Rivera found his current seat carved up among three different districts. His Kingsbridge Heights apartment building, where he’s lived for two decades, is just a couple blocks away in the new 31st Senate District, an upper Manhattan-based seat that’s also home to state Sen. Robert Jackson – a longtime ally whom Rivera was uninterested in primarying.

Pragmatic political decisions

Rivera ultimately decided to run in the 33rd Senate District as well, much to the chagrin of Bronx Democratic leaders who were hoping to convince him to run for a South Bronx-based seat to avoid a clash with Camilo.

“When the special master that hacked the lines up, (Rivera) wasn't gonna be running in the district where he resides in in any event,” said Bronx Democratic Chair Jamaal Bailey, a fellow state senator. “(There were) multiple conversations with multiple different groups of people. Ultimately, which is his right, the senator decided to run in the 33rd District.”

When it was time to back a candidate, the Bronx Democratic Party ultimately chose to stick with Camilo – whom it had previously endorsed for what was expected to be a different, vacant seat. That left Rivera, the incumbent, without the party’s support.

“We think the world of her,” Bailey said of Camilo. “We think she's a dynamic individual who is going to be able to do great things in the Legislature.”

Rivera said he chose to run in the 33rd District for a simple reason: It made the most sense, from his perspective. His district office, at 187th Street and Grand Concourse, is within the district, as are neighborhoods like Van Nest, which he was already representing.

The senator said he doesn’t understand the Bronx committee’s decision, but “that ship has sailed a long time ago.”

“This wasn't kind of like a pick here or pick there,” Rivera said of deciding which district to run in. “It was: this is the one that made the most sense. It's the district that I've represented. It has a chunk that's new, yes. But this is basically my neighborhood.”

Camilo said she wasn’t going to let a clash with Rivera scare her out of the race.

“We forged forward,” she said. “We continued to move forward because of the work of representing the people here, and all the campaigning I had been doing since February, all the work that we had been doing in the community – that didn't change.”

Early voting for the August 23rd primary begins on Saturday. Until then, the candidates seem to be staring down something of a reprieve: Temperatures are currently forecast to remain in the low-to-mid 80s until primary day.