Amanda Septimo is Catholic, Dominican, black and a woman. But first, she’s a South Bronxite, she says.
“I don’t identify with one particular group,” she says. “I identify with the average Joe community member. The one who doesn’t know who their assembly person, who doesn’t know how to fix this issue or that.”
Septimo is a millennial South Bronx native, and a candidate for New York State Assembly in the poorest Congressional district in the country.
She’s determined to change that statistic.
Determination is a Septimo family hallmark. Her grandfather, Severing Septimo, immigrated from the Dominican Republic. His workday began in the middle of the night in the city’s meat markets.
In his mind, the grueling work was a means toward an invaluable end: sending his four daughters to college.
At the end of Septimo’s mother’s first semester, she returned home with transcripts and a surprise for her parents: she was pregnant.
“Everyone has the chance to make one mistake in life,” Severing told his daughter. “This one is yours.” That “mistake” would turn out to be his granddaughter Amanda.
Septimo was raised by her maternal grandparents for the first four years of her life while her mother finished college, visiting her on weekends. She’s met her birth father once.
She credits her success to receiving what is most lacking for many South Bronx residents: opportunity.
Septimo’s Assembly District has the lowest median household income in New York City, at $22,863 in 2015, according to John Mollenkopf, a professor of political science at the City University of New York.
“Some of our streets looked like an opioid crisis,” she says of growing up. Her mother eyed an escape early on for her daughter: education.
Septimo recalls her mother returning home one evening with brochures from an independent school fair. That’s how she ended up attending a private prep school.
At age 9, as the youngest and only girl of color in her fifth-grade class, she was asked to write an essay on what she wanted to be when she grew up. Her answer? The first female president.
She went on to attend Vanderbilt University, returning home after college to work for Rep. José Serrano’s office in the South Bronx.
One of her first moves when she came home was petitioning the New York City Police Department to obtain a block party permit for her neighborhood, a privilege that had been denied to them for years due to local drug activity.
She is running against Carmen Arroyo, an incumbent in her 80s who has held her position since 1994. Arroyo “has been a fixture in Bronx politics for decades,” says political consultant Jonathan Greenspun. For a relative unknown like Septimo, “showing up” means everything, he says.
“Her best chance is knocking on as many doors as possible and be able to get a sense of what [residents] want to see changed in the district,” adds Greenspun. “The key is to tap into issues that voters are passionate about.”
If elected, she plans on connecting major district-based businesses such as Yankee Stadium with local schools, similar to adopt-a-highway programs. The stadium previously tried offering an olive branch to locals by creating a charity for district residents after the completion of its building on five acres of treasured public parkland in 2006. But many locals say they have not benefited.
Potential solutions like this are what she says drives her to ensure her community stays focused on what’s happening in the neighborhood rather than get caught up in outrage over President Trump or his policies.
On her campaign flyer, squared between a paragraph on immigrant vulnerabilities and homelessness, is a line stating that the Trump administration is not to blame for her community’s lack of progress.
“If you look at ins and outs of how people are suffering in the South Bronx, it’s been this way for years,” she says. “This has nothing to do with Donald Trump.”
Septimo’s vision is to be the local elected official that people will know. The one who can fix their issues.