As Corey Ortega looked out over the city from State Assembly member Keith Wright’s high-rise office in the middle of Harlem, he recalled his first foray into city politics, which began roughly four years ago just a few feet away from where he was seated.
Ortega went in for his interview with Wright and began work the Monday after, embarking on a career he said he has grown to love because it has allowed him to deliver meaningful help to citizens throughout the city. Now, he is just awaiting official support from the executive committee of the West Harlem Progressive Democratic Club before launching his own campaign for political office.
Within the next few weeks, Ortega plans to declare his candidacy for the City Council’s 7th District seat, which is being vacated by term-limited Council member Robert Jackson next year.
He recalled telling Wright in his job interview, “I’m going to be honest with you, I don’t know shit about politics. I just want you to know what you’re getting before you hire me.”
In the years that followed his sudden entrance into politics, Ortega has worked as a liaison to a number of city agencies, including the New York Police Department. These experiences, he said, would help him solve problems in a number of areas, including affordable housing and small business growth.
Ortega cited his past work in tenant advocacy as one of the strengths that will help him in his campaign. The housing problem, he said, could be improved by stimulating local businesses.
In describing his campaign goals, he repeatedly referred to the economic plan proposed by President Barack Obama, CC ’83. The plan would offer tax cuts to small businesses, help spur economic growth by allowing them to hire more workers, and increase demand for goods throughout the economy.
In Obama’s re-election campaign, the president emphasized the need for everyone in America to have an equal chance at economic success, which Ortega echoed with a promise to improve the structure and planning of local businesses.
“Ask a salon owner in this neighborhood, ‘How did you start up the salon? Did you write up a business plan? Did you have some projections?’” Ortega said. “A lot of the time they’ll say, ‘Hell no!’”
Ortega said he would help businesses grow from the bottom up, giving residents more money with which to stimulate the local economy. He invoked Obama’s economic rhetoric when he described the process as “from the bottom up and the middle out.”
Another focus of his will be to unite the district’s African-American and Hispanic populations, which he said was divided after the embattled Congressional race this year between State Senator Adriano Espaillat, a Dominican American, and Rep. Charles Rangel, an African American. Ortega, whose parents were working-class immigrants from the Dominican Republic, said his work in the Assembly member’s office would help him unite the two communities again.
“Whether it’s brown or dark, the issues are the same, and we’re going to address those issues together,” Ortega, who would be the first Dominican American elected to the 7th District seat, said. “I plan to use the relationships I’ve built to present a united front.”
Ortega has now become a familiar face at community board meetings and other local events, but before entering politics at Wright’s office, Ortega already had his hands full. A graduate of the College of Business at St. John’s University, he helped run a family-owned day care center and also devoted his time to P.A.’L.A.N.T.E. Harlem, a local tenants’ rights organization.
“I had just gotten out of college, I was making very good money, I got to work with my mother, and we ordered out together every day after work,” Ortega said. “It was a dream job.”
Recalling the more specific details of his interview with Wright, Ortega laughed. He said that he had bought into the negative image of politicians as “scumbags” before working for the assemblyman and was skeptical about Wright’s supposed passion for helping constituents.
“He said that he really liked his job, that he really liked helping people,” Ortega said. “And I was just thinking, ‘Who are you talking to? It’s just us. There are no cameras here.’”
Ortega made the decision to take the job in Wright’s office, he said, when he realized politics would be an opportunity to network and effect positive change in his neighborhood.
After four years of working with Wright, Ortega has lost his prior cynicism regarding politics, arguing that elected officials are responsible for accepting political failures and successes and also for providing help to the evicted, sick, and impoverished of the community.
Ortega said he sees the City Council seat as an extension of his work in local politics.
“I’m a firm believer that you shouldn’t take a job you won’t enjoy,” Ortega said. “And so far I’ve enjoyed every day.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story reported that Ortega would be the first Dominican American elected to the City Council; in fact, he would be the first elected to the Council’s 7th District seat. Spectator regrets the error.