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Rommel Nunez / Staff Photographer

When Maria Ordoñez, a rising Columbia College senior, talks about her favorite small businesses in West Harlem and Morningside Heights, her joy is palpable. The Hungarian Pastry Shop makes her smile so much that she mentions it twice. When she tells me about Mofongo del Valle, a Dominican restaurant in West Harlem, she beams about the owners’ kindness—something she has experienced firsthand as she attended school with their daughter—and she describes just how much she loves the smell of 5 Estrellas Bakery in Washington Heights, exclaiming “Oh my gosh, I love it.”

It is no coincidence that Ordoñez chooses one business from each neighborhood of City Council District 7, but her methodical, intentional nature melts away with her inability to veil her enthusiasm for the local treats. It is the kind of personality people wish they saw in politics, so in that way, Ordoñez is well-suited to be spending her gap year campaigning for City Council District 7, placing her menagerie of posters in the windows of her favorite businesses. At only 21 years old, she is the youngest candidate in a packed race of 13. With primaries on June 22 and the general election on November 2, the race for city council has picked up the pace.

“I’m fighting against Columbia, and I’m a Columbia student,” Ordoñez says, addressing the point of strain that comes with being a lifelong resident of District 7 and a member of the Columbia community. Her tone is regretful and matter-of-fact as she relays the numerous wrongs Columbia has committed against her and her neighbors. She enjoys her experience as a Columbia student, but the housing, environmental, and educational policies Ordoñez proposes as part of her campaign platform show that her priorities lie with West Harlem first, and the University second.

Ordoñez’s knowledge of and proximity to both Columbia and the district places her in a rare position; she begins to bridge the gap between Columbia and the surrounding community. But her knowledge of how Columbia harms her home prompts her to take action against the University. Right now, that means running for City Council.

***

Ordoñez has lived in the same apartment complex for her entire life: 3333 Broadway. Reaching 35 stories tall, containing over 1,100 individual units across five buildings, and even housing a middle school, the complex located between 133rd and 135th streets is a fortress. When it was built in 1976, it was initially part of the Mitchell-Lama affordable housing program, which incentivized developers to provide low-income housing. When the building was paid off In 2005, it was no longer a part of the program, which caused rents to skyrocket and forced many of the original tenants to leave.

“We saw a new influx of market-rate people,” Ordoñez remembers. “People had to move out, so things change with that sense, rents go up.”

Ordoñez introduces these issues simply, without political jargon. She emphasizes the changes she has seen in the district throughout her life—her favorite bakery closing due to unaffordable rent, big chain stores replacing small businesses, the slow exodus of her original neighbors as rising prices forced them out of the area—and her ability to empathize with residents who have witnessed or experienced the same challenges, especially regarding Columbia’s invasive expansion: “Columbia’s taken away so much, but not given back. … We’ve seen all these false promises. There’s a point where we had hoped Columbia was going to do something, but it’s not there, people have lost hope, and that leads to loss of hope in politics.”

One particularly sore topic for Ordoñez is Columbia’s treatment of her middle and high school, Columbia Secondary School. The University promised CSS a new building so that it would no longer have to share one with two other schools. But the new building was never granted—after claims that the plan to move CSS to a structure on 125th Street was rejected, Columbia decided to turn the potential school building into graduate student housing with little exhibited intention to find another space for CSS to occupy. The school remains in its cramped quarters today.

It was at CSS, in the heart of District 7, where Ordoñez found her spark for political activism. She lists Meredith Hill, who was a professor at CSS at the time, as one of her major inspirations; she recalls that Hill made a massive effort to teach her students about sustainability, recycling, and composting as a form of small political art form. With this knowledge, the class planted in their community garden using soil they had composted and then harvested the fruits to make a salad. “No other professor was like her,” Ordoñez says. “It really centered a lot of my values.” She wasn’t even quite aware it was activism at first—to her, it was just being a part of her community and creating something positive one recyclable at a time. As she internalized Hill’s teachings, Ordoñez found a passion for environmentalism and became interested in combating the climate crisis, housing crisis, and educational system.

A politician at heart, her tangent on school-age environmentalism was one of the few deviations she permitted herself—Ordoñez can redirect any question to her campaign and the issues that matter to her. When I asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up, her shell broke for just a moment as she laughed and said she had wanted to be a dentist—she used to be “very interested in the way that teeth work,” she says. Before long, Ordoñez connected this anecdote to her political convictions: “just like a dentist is fighting for that small little tooth,” she says, “… the person in the community is fighting for the block right there … or fighting for that tree so it doesn’t fall down.”

It was Ordoñez’s passion for community that ultimately led her to decide she wanted to run for City Council. The very first person she told about her plan was her brother, Luis Ordoñez, whose reaction was, in her words, “It was kind of crazy, but I think we should do it.” Ever since that moment, Luis has been by his sister’s side, campaigning with fervor. The rest of the Ordoñez family, her parents and other brother, have also been supportive of this gargantuan endeavor, and though they initially raised their eyebrows, they were not shocked by her candidacy. Instead, they accepted it with a laugh, Ordoñez recalls, just adding it to the list of the aspirational “weird stuff” she tends to strive for.

She mentions other “Maria things” she’s pursued in the past, brushes with politics and activism, that her family has supported; At 3333 Broadway, she helped develop a mass recycling program. At 18, she was elected as a county committee member, a role in which she met with the City Council member monthly as an avenue for representation of the community. At 20, she ran—and won, with over 20,000 votes—to be a presidential delegate for Sen. Bernie Sanders in her congressional district. Ordoñez lists these accomplishments casually, like someone might list typical high school extracurriculars, but they are all significant political positions generally held by older adults. Her parents might joke that their daughter is “crazy,” but they’ve also witnessed her unrelenting commitment to achieving her goals.

On February 7, 2020, just over a month before the coronavirus pandemic brought New York City and the nation to a halt, Ordoñez optimistically announced her campaign via Twitter. Ordoñez had already secured restaurants and people to hold fundraising events, but due to the pandemic, she had to turn to social media and virtual fundraising. “There was a gap of time where we just didn’t raise money at all,” Ordoñez explains, but before long, her campaign was able to raise the maximum amount of $200,000. With that as definitive proof of the community’s faith in her, it was time to move onto personal campaigning.

“The more people we can get Maria in front of, the better. That’s our best strategy, is just getting Maria out to the world, and having people talk to her directly, because she’s our best asset,” Caroline Cutlip, Ordoñez’s campaign manager, says.

Cutlip is charmingly excitable, quick to laugh, organized, confident, and positive of Ordoñez’s suitability for City Council. A Barnard graduate herself, Cutlip met Ordoñez while volunteering with the Bernie Sanders for President campaign. The two became fast friends as they organized phone banks, debate watch parties, and trips to Massachusetts and New Hampshire with other volunteers. When it came time for Ordoñez to choose a campaign manager, she started posting ads on job boards like Indeed, sourcing from anywhere in the country—she’s nothing if not relentlessly thorough—until she realized Cutlip was readily accessible. Now, the two are campaigning full-time, exhibiting palpable energy and excitement for every aspect of their work, especially constituent interaction.

“She just has a way of really pulling people in and really building trust,” Cutlip says of Ordoñez. It seems to be Ordoñez’s strongest quality, and one she needs as she is trying to talk to 100 voters every day. It is important to their campaign that, despite the pandemic, these interactions happen in person. Cutlip explains that District 7 has a high percentage of working-class people of color living below the poverty line who often lack access to technology. Now, Ordoñez is often met with shocked faces when she knocks on doors of District 7′s apartment buildings because residents and small business owners have never found a political candidate on their doorstep before.

In one recent case, Ordoñez entered a longstanding Latina-owned homemade juice shop, stocked with shelves of fresh fruit. When the owner spoke to Ordoñez, her typically professional composure melted away.

“She started to cry because she was unable to afford the rent, and it’s been months since the pandemic started, and she’s been harassed by her landlord,” Ordoñez recalls. It’s not an isolated interaction. Many people in the district are facing the same issues, whether it’s their living space or their livelihood that is being threatened. Ordoñez can, for now, try to connect them to resources; she can laud their services and offer her support, “but it really hurts to see that this is not just one story”.

***

As a working-class 21-year-old college student living in a crowded housing complex with her family, Ordoñez is a natural underdog in this race. Most of the candidates are running on very similar platforms, with Shaun Abreu prioritizing tenants’ rights, Dan Cohen emphasizing climate action, and Stacy Lynch fighting for better access to education. Abreu has the advantage of being endorsed by the incumbent, Mark Levine, who is vacating the seat to run for Manhattan borough president, and all of the candidates have the advantage of being older than Ordoñez.

It’s hard to say exactly where any one candidate stands, as City Council elections lack the polling of a mayoral or presidential race, and no politician wants to admit if their campaign is struggling. But Ordoñez is quick on her feet, eager to list her endorsements from the City University of New York’s staff and faculty union; the New York City Kids Political Action Committee, which advocates for the rights of children in New York City; and NYCAN, an organization advocating for primary and secondary students. As for her age, Ordoñez has cultivated a clear response: Age didn’t matter at 18 when she was elected for county committee member in one of the largest districts in the city, and it didn’t matter when she got over 20,000 votes for presidential delegate, so why should it matter now?

Ordoñez says that the new ranked-choice voting system in New York City’s elections has changed the tenor of interactions between candidates. “[You] have to be positive because you want to get each others’ number two,” she says. As a result, when the candidates see each other on the street, they’ll stop and chat, exchange smiles, and be on their merry ways—for the most part. Candidate Corey Ortega in particular has been critical of Ordoñez’s age in a forum they both participated in, but Ordoñez remains unshaken. She’s confident, with more than $190,000 left to spend on her campaign. “Corey has been struggling with his campaign, so I understand why he [would] react that way. He’s like twice my age!” she says.

Ordoñez took this year off from Columbia, but she plans to return to the University for her senior year this coming fall. Though much of her campaign focuses on giving power to the residents of the community and limiting the harm that the University inflicts, it means a lot to her to be a Columbia student—another one of those “Maria things” was taking Columbia classes as a high school sophomore and applying early decision to Columbia in her senior year.

As a Columbia student, she helped establish the Young Democratic Socialists of America chapter and organized with striking graduate workers. Now, her position as a Columbia student is a major part of her identity in the context of her campaign. She feels that other student opinions are valuable because they have a particular “bold vision” for change.

“We need to come together and fight together because … this is a fight for our communities, and ultimately, whoever moves this community is part of it,” Ordoñez says. As a City Council candidate, she’s proud to say she’s not affiliated with any political group, real estate, or university, but rather, personal voices.

This campaign has served to fuel Ordoñez’s fire—as she has broadened her exposure to the 7th District, she sees that the issues of her youth have only intensified. She has been exposed to the most pressing issues in the community and continues to meet constituents who need better representation: “You have to listen to everyone, and I say that because I grew up in West Harlem, and I know West Harlem is so diverse and everything,” she says. “But actually going into it, [into] buildings and talking to everyone, you hear even more of that diversity, not just in race and ethnicity, but in opinions, and ideas and theories.”

When I ask Ordoñez about the future, she remains laser-focused on the current fight once again. “Right now, my focus is 100 percent on City Council,” she says. The most she provides as far as the road ahead is a commitment to her community. “In the future—I don’t know what the future has for me, but what I do know is that I will continue to fight.”

For now, she’ll continue to campaign through the Democratic primary on June 22. If she ends up winning the City Council seat, she wants her victory to encourage that any community member could do the same. Even if she can’t shake the hand of every constituent she talks to, she’ll settle for as many waves “hi” and elbow bumps as she can get.

Enjoy leafing through our Eighth Issue!

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Maria Ordonez Maria Ordonez Columbia New York City Council District 7 Candidate New York City Council Candidate Columbia student city council Morningside Heights City Council
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