The political career of Nelson Castro began with a piece of luck. In 2008, he received a message from the all-powerful Bronx Democratic county committee chairman José Rivera, who had a deal to offer. Rivera needed a reliable district leader in the 86th Assembly District of the West Bronx—a person who’d vote to keep him in power. District leader is an unpaid party post, small potatoes. But in return, Rivera could launch Castro’s political career. “What we have available is the State Assembly in the 86th District,” Rivera said.
“I was the most surprised of anyone,” Castro says, adding, with only slight exaggeration, “he chose me out of a hat.”
Rivera’s candidate was supposed to have been Hector Ramirez, a fireplug of a man with a shaved head and a highly imperfect grasp of English. Ramirez, a Dominican, had already put in half a dozen years serving the party. “It was Hector’s turn,” said one leader. But there was a problem: Chairman Rivera didn’t trust Ramirez, who was then serving as a district leader. “In his infinite wisdom,” Castro explains, “José said, ‘I’m not going to take this shit.’ ”
Given the shifting demographics of the West Bronx, Rivera, who is Puerto Rican, needed a Dominican. He’d occasionally crossed paths with Castro, a young, energetic community-outreach worker in health care, and Castro had lived in the Dominican Republic till age 11.
Though Castro had briefly worked in politics—he’d spent six months as chief of staff for Washington Heights then-assemblyman Adriano Espaillat, the first Dominican in the State Assembly—he had certain problems as a candidate, ones that might have disqualified him in another venue.* He had once been charged with grand larceny for collecting $4,950 in unemployment benefits while working part-time; in 2004 he pleaded to a misdemeanor and received three years’ probation. In March 2008, he was arrested for driving with a revoked license and for owing more than $3,000 in traffic tickets.
But to the chairman, these hurdles did not seem so high. After all, Castro had one all-important qualification: He was happy to take orders. “What do you need me to do?” Castro asked Rivera when they first met. Rivera was blunt: Castro could have the Assembly seat, but the chairman needed him as district leader, which was on the same primary ballot. “It was understood,” Castro says. “José would have had one extra vote that he probably needed to remain county chair.”
So the deal was made, and 32 minutes before the deadline, Castro was placed on the ballot for state assemblyman. And Castro was in. “José Rivera had total control in the Bronx,” says one political leader. “He could say a dog or a cat should be elected to the Assembly, and it would be.” (Rivera declined to comment for this article.)
Castro’s good luck did not last long, though it took five years for that to become public. This past April, Castro, now 41, had to resign his Assembly seat when it was revealed that he’d been indicted for perjury, after which he was a government informant for almost his entire tenure in the State Assembly—and helped make a bribery case against a legislative colleague.
Castro has agreed to meet me at Liberato, a Dominican restaurant next to an elevated subway line on Jerome Avenue at the edge of his former district. He’s wearing a sharp navy blazer, dress pants, a button-down shirt, looking like a young executive. He flashes a dimpled smile. I’m hoping to understand how he handled the tensions of his dual life. But Castro shows little hint of inner turmoil. Instead, as the oxtail stew arrives, he talks excitedly about his political life, which, he tells me, began early.
As a 7-year-old growing up poor in the Dominican Republic, Castro wanted to be president. He even made himself a sash like that of the president of the Dominican Republic. He colored the sash with crayons and wore it with his friends, who called him presidente.
“I always talked about how I would do things differently, and what I would change, even when I was a kid,” he says. After he won, an elated Castro phoned his mother, who lives in Michigan, doesn’t speak English, and wasn’t aware of her son’s latest career move. “żEn que te metiste [What mischief have you gotten yourself into]?” she asked him, suspiciously.
“No, no, Mom, this is good,” he told her. He was the first Dominican-American from the Bronx elected to state office. “I made history,” he said.
“The elation was short-lived,” he tells me.
The agent of Castro’s demise was an unlikely figure on the Bronx political scene. Richard Soto is a shrewd, indefatigable self-appointed agitator who’s run for one Bronx office or another in most election cycles of the past fifteen years—without a single victory. In 2008, he had wanted to run against Castro for state assemblyman but didn’t live in the district. “So I ran my brother, Mike,” Soto explains to me. “He’s a ‘good family man.’ ” We are sitting in Soto’s office, which is on the second floor of a three-story building, above a Dominican restaurant. The building’s entrance is a three-walled metal cage of a kind one might see in a prison. Soto, who sits behind a desk piled high with papers, is 63, with a wide belly and a white beard. “I fight corruption,” he tells me grandly, then supplies the motive: “I was fucked.” On his office wall is a campaign poster plugging a dark-haired Richard Soto for City Council in 1997—the first time, he says, he was done wrong by the machine.
*This article has been corrected to show that Castro worked as Espaillat's chief of staff for six months, not two years.