By Sabina Mollot
The special election for the seat representing the 74th Assembly District is less than two weeks away, but one of the four candidates on the ballot is still hoping to get his name out there.
That candidate is Juan Pagan, a resident of Jacob Riis Houses in the East Village, who is running against three others from his own neighborhood. Also running are Democrat and Working Families nominee Harvey Epstein, Republican Bryan Cooper and Green Party candidate Adrienne Craig-Williams.
Pagan, 62, who worked in corrections at two points in the 1980s and 1990s, has run for office a handful of times before. Then, as well as now, he did it in part to protest “the machine,” or more specifically, the Democratic Party, which, he is arguing, chooses its favorites while edging out perceived interlopers. He first ran in 2006 against Brian Kavanagh for the Assembly seat he’s running for now, that Kavanagh ended up winning and holding onto easily for the next 11 years, before switching to the State Senate. Pagan ran again in 2010, 2012 and 2016. He also ran against then-Council Member Rosie Mendez in 2009 and for the seat again in 2017 once it opened up, though it was handily won by Carlina Rivera.
While he’s a registered Democrat, Pagan was able to enter this race by running on the Reform Party line. This, he said, protects him to some degree from getting booted off the ballot over petition challenges, as has been done to him in the past.
Still, in Pagan’s view, special elections are just another part of a system rigged to prevent candidates from running due to the short span of time any longshots have to spread the word about the fact that they exist. Of course, he also admitted, this is tough for any candidate, since special elections tend to have low voter turnout.
Pagan has been in the race for Kavanagh’s old seat for a month, following getting the nomination of the Reform Party. This was right after Pagan, whose parents emigrated from Puerto Rico to the Lower East Side when he was 11, returned from a trip to the still-hurricane-ravaged country. “There’s still no electricity where my brother lives,” he said.
Pagan said he hasn’t had time to fundraise though he has begun campaigning.
When he arrived at Town & Village’s office for an interview, Pagan was accompanied by a childhood friend and supporter, Silds Rodriguez. Like him, she’s a resident of NYCHA, and improving conditions in public housing is a staple of Pagan’s platform.
In the candidate’s own apartment, his bedroom floods whenever there’s a downpour for two days or longer. But, he said, rather than fix the outside of the building, whenever he complains, NYCHA will just send painters to his home to cover up the water damage.
“I say, ‘That’s not going to fix it. Something’s wrong with the structure outside,’ and they say, ‘Oh, we’ll work on that.’ You would think they’re playing a game,” he said.
Rodriguez, a resident of Baruch Houses, then piped in that her apartment also leaks when it rains, and to catch the water from the ceiling, she has a large, fish tank-like vase. “You change it every hour,” she said, adding that when it rains, “You can’t leave.”
Pagan, who’s lived at Riis for 50 years, said, “I want to focus on NYCHA, because I live in NYCHA so I have seen how cruel New York City has been to its residents. Shola (Olatoye) lying about lead, money being misused, mismanaged to a degree where things take forever to get repaired.”
He’s already drafted legislation aimed at improving conditions at the various city-owned developments.
“Families and individuals living on fixed incomes should be excluded from any rent increases,” said Pagan. “Period.”
Pagan has a grown son as well as a grown daughter who struggles with a learning disability. He said how while it might seem to people that he loves his daughter more, he loves his children equally but dotes his younger one more because, he explained, “she needs me more.” He mentioned them as an example of how he feels about the needs of residents of NYCHA versus those of people in stabilized rental housing like Stuyvesant Town.
“Stuyvesant Town would be my son and NYCHA would be my daughter,” he said. “Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village and (Campos Plaza, NYCHA housing) are two different worlds. NYCHA needs a representative in public office to really advocate for them. Whatever measures I need to take legislatively I will take.”
He added that this also goes for privately owned, rent-regulated housing. “The abuse by landlords, the constant demands for more and more. It’s not fair for working people.”
District issues he considers priority include the environment, and on his website, he details how wary he is of Con Ed’s local operations. On safety, Pagan said if elected, he would create a committee within the Assembly devoted to working with the City Council to balance keeping the community safe while “being more humane to those in custody awaiting trial and their families.” On seniors, Pagan said he wants to see more longterm care beds opened and existing medical facilities preserved.
Pagan said he retired three years ago after he was diagnosed with stage 4 blood cancer.
“I had five tumors in my body the size of baseballs,” he said. “I looked pregnant, not a beer belly; you would have thought I was pregnant.”
But fortunately, after a year and a half of chemo, “I’m back in good health,” Pagan said. He credits the fact that he was otherwise healthy and active for his recovery and he is now in remission.
Prior to retiring, Pagan, who did carpentry work, had been a partner in the construction/demolition business with his brother. The business however caused some friction with the Department of Corrections, because he was also working there at the time from 1994-1998. Pagan said he was pressured to leave, and eventually the dispute ended up in court though Pagan lost.
According to the bio on his website, Pagan, along with being a New York State corrections officer, was also a youth counselor. He also spent some time volunteering teaching music at a prison facility. He is also the former director of NYCHA’s Campos and Baruch Houses Community Centers, where he oversaw youth programming. He also has some educational activism experience, serving as a Manhattan representative with the Department of Education’s Citywide Council on High Schools.