Espada found one outlet in boxing, and a first mentor in José Torres, the light-heavyweight champ. “I grew up in St. Mary’s public housing, on Cauldwell Avenue, and I met Torres at St. Mary’s rec,” Espada says. Short then and now, Espada got some valuable career advice from Torres: Stay in school. Espada laughs. “The ability to take and dish out punishment I learned in the ring has stayed with me, though.”
Homesick after his freshman year at Syracuse and devoted to his hometown girlfriend, Connie, Espada transferred to Fordham. At 17, he married Connie and they had the first of three sons. After college, Espada worked as a public-school teacher, took graduate courses, and became a community organizer and the head of a tenants association. He spotted a need for health care and enlisted a young doctor to help open the Soundview Health Center in 1981. “We worked together for three years,” Dr. Neil Calman says. “The idea was to recruit family physicians who were oriented toward working in the community rather than having patients go to impersonal emergency rooms at big hospitals.” Soon Soundview was handling 20,000 patient visits a year; it has since expanded to locations in three other neighborhoods. “Pedro’s vision was always bigger than health care, though,” Calman says. “And he had one eye on politics from the beginning.”
Espada lost his first race, a 1988 Democratic primary challenge to Congressman Robert Garcia. But then he aimed lower and hit on a winning formula.
“Pedro’s lived all over the place: Soundview, the South Bronx, the West Bronx,” says a borough political insider and sometime Espada ally. “What he does is find the person who’s vulnerable, come in with a lot of money, and beat them. Is it his own money or does he have backers? Impossible to tell, because he doesn’t file reports.” Espada has, indeed, come up with a novel approach to campaign-finance disclosure rules: He simply doesn’t file many of the required reports, paying fines instead (last month, he belatedly filed some of the forms, which claimed there had been “no activity” during his contentious 2008 campaign).
Soundview has been a base of goodwill and a source of campaign volunteers. And so Espada has been a state senator from the 32nd District from 1993 to 1996 and again in 2001 and 2002, with a short stopover in the City Council. Last year, he won a nasty (Espada’s son Alejandro allegedly scuffled with a blogger) and creative (Soundview employees gave away fruit, vegetables, and condoms) race to represent the 33rd District, unseating incumbent (and indicted) Efraín González Jr.
Espada styles himself an outsider, and that’s true—to an extent. He’s never been part of the corruption-plagued Bronx Democratic machine, which has made him enemies. “If you’re independent and self-reliant, that naturally causes a clash with the lockstep, go-along-to-get-along county-machine-type politics,” he says, and finds a corollary in larger progressive circles. “The racism part and the stereotyping comes in where whether it’s stone racists that just don’t know you or care to know you or the more so-called progressive whites who think they know you and want to be your mercenaries. I’m not depending on anybody to articulate for me. I can do this myself.”
Yet even some allies take a dimmer view, casting Espada’s independence as sheer opportunism. “Pedro is his own organization, with his own following,” a Bronx politico says. “The loyalty he gets is just astounding. I don’t understand it. People have gone to jail for him, and they’d never give him up.”
Certainly Espada talks a good game, playing to ethnic pride and bootstrapping idealism. “The mentality of the welfare state and the push for entitlements always missed the entrepreneurial spirit that I saw on the ground in people I lived with,” he says. “In Puerto Rico, there are very few entitlements. People are poor, but they make a living, the families are relatively intact. You take the air bridge over, three or four hours later you see communities with no political participation, families that are fragmented by a social-welfare system that creates dependency, very little self-initiative. I needed to try to deal with that.”
Yet Espada’s philosophical musings are wrapped in a giant contradiction. He preaches independence from the government social-welfare system, yet his life and political career have been utterly dependent on that very system—from the public assistance that kept his family afloat when he was a child to the federal grant money that allowed him to open Soundview and the millions in Medicaid and Medicare money that it receives today.
The teenage Espada was inspired by the boxer Torres, but he cites other role models for his business and political career. “Ramon Velez, who developed a lot of nonprofit organizations in the Bronx, and Father Louis Gigante, who was very much into the development of affordable housing,” Espada says. “They were the transformational figures in the community that were doing incredible things to uplift mostly the Puerto Rican–Latino community.” Velez was also a frequent target of good-government groups and law-enforcement officials, often accused of using public funds and social-service groups to amass political power and profits. Gigante (the brother of bathrobed mobster Vincent “the Chin” Gigante) shares with Espada a crossover career path—he was, for two terms in the seventies, a councilman representing the South Bronx. In later years, however, Gigante was tarnished by charges that he’d devolved from well-intentioned low-income housing activist to slumlord.