In a move that signals his intent to declare his candidacy for City Council, Corey Ortega joined with local political figures and nonprofit partners on Saturday to celebrate the grand opening of his newly formed West Harlem Progressive Democratic Club.
Ortega, who announced late last year that he was planning to run for term-limited Robert Jackson’s 7th District seat on City Council, started the club with Democratic District Leader Rev. Jamaal Nelson, and hailed its opening as essential for serving the community before his campaign gets underway.
“If you serve the community, you’ll get the people, and if you get the people then they will put their faith in you,” Ortega said. “I wanted the club to be established first so people know we’re not going anywhere, and this is not just a dog and pony show.”
In addition to being a gathering spot for local Democrats, Ortega’s club will also serve as a community resource center for West Harlem, supporting local businesses as well as larger charities like Single Stop USA, which provides residents with drop-in services ranging from financial counseling to legal services.
Other planned uses for the club include an office for a youth baseball team run by the nonprofit Centro Juvenil R. Tony Fernandez, which works to keep children off the streets and away from danger. With Ortega acting as interpreter, Fernandez, the executive director of the group, said in Spanish that the storefront, located at Amsterdam Avenue between 131st and 133rd streets, would function as the team’s office for storage, meeting, and game planning.
Robert Goldberg, dean of Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine, said the storefront would also help house a high school medical tutoring program called MedAchieve. Goldberg said he was inspired to support Ortega after their initial discussions about the program.
“He asked probing questions, and through that I saw someone who was willing to make the right decision, not just the decision people wanted him to make,” Goldberg said. “So from a potentially adversarial position, there was mutual respect.”
Nelson, who also described the club as a “clearinghouse” for services related to important local issues like affordable housing and a path to legal citizenship, said the event also spoke to Ortega’s political character.
“There are few more dynamic leaders who are as committed to grassroots organization and empowerment as Corey Ortega,” Nelson said.
Inez Dickens, who sits on City Council for the 9th District, also made an appearance at the event, calling Ortega a “hardworking” member of the West Harlem community, and referencing his work as an aide for New York State Assembly member Keith Wright.
“Once you work for a member, you’re on duty 24/7,” Dickens said. “You’re a representative, and in Corey’s case, he was already a representative.”
But not every attendee at the event supported an Ortega candidacy. Walter South, a member of Community Board 9, called Ortega “honest” and commended his intention to incorporate the Democratic club into the community, but said that he would be supporting district leader Mark Levine in the upcoming election.
“All of these clubs are normally more or less divorced from the community,” South said. “I think Corey is very well-intentioned, but just not as qualified as Mark Levine.”
Ortega faces an uphill race against Levine, the frontrunner in fundraising and endorsements, and a host of other council hopefuls, including Zead Ramadan, the head of a Muslim civil rights organization, and Joyce Johnson, a former Congressional candidate.
Ortega has not yet specified when he will file papers with the New York City Campaign Finance Board, a necessary step to formally becoming a candidate. He will not be legally allowed to raise funds until those papers have been processed.