Aspiring City Councilman Rick Del Rio raps his gold-ringed knuckles on the table as he speaks, his colorful bicep tattoos (“Jesus Christ Is Lord” and “The Lion of Judah Has Conquered”) peeking out from beneath the sleeves of a black button-up.
“I’m a political outsider, and being a political outsider means I have a lot to learn,” he says in a gravelly, booming voice that one can easily imagine bellowing across a pulpit. “But I’ll learn it. Because whatever I have to do, I will do. I’ve got no issues with ego; I just want to serve. And I’ve got no fear.”
With his Pentacostal fervor, gold bling and thick white-gray goatee, Del Rio cuts something of a cartoonish figure. Not five minutes before, the 61-year-old pastor had rolled up late to our interview astride a classic Harley Davison (he once earned the nickname “Father Harley” for his devotion to the chopper), looking a lot more like a Hell’s Angel than a Man of the Cloth.
But while the hog-riding clergyman may not resemble any of the portraits on the walls of Gracie Mansion, he’s a serious candidate. The self-described political outsider and community insider has been making real change in the neighborhood for decades. For Del Rio and his many supporters, elected office seems a natural stepping stone after decades of grassroots community leadership.
“My father’s ability to get things done without money, and without the traditional trappings of power or influence, has made him a local legend,” says his son, Jeremy Del Rio. “He’s always been the David in the proverbial David and Goliath story. And in 16-plus years, he’s overthrown a lot of Goliaths.”
This electoral season, the role of Goliath is being played by the two-term incumbent Councilwoman Rosie Mendez, and the struggle – of not quite Biblical proportions – is for the District 2 City Council Seat, which spans the east side of Manhattan, from the Lower East Side to Murray Hill.
The Lower East Side and East Village have long been Del Rio’s stomping grounds. He was raised in Brooklyn as part of a religious Puerto Rican family, and attended Zion Bible Institute and worked in construction before turning actively to the Ministry. In 1982, del Rio and his wife Arlene founded Abounding Grace Ministries, based in the Lower East Side. He chose the neighborhood because the NYPD told him it was one of the worst in the city. He took his wife and his three sons, bought a truck which he outfitted with a stage, sound system, and a banner reading “Jesus Loves You New York” and cruised around the LES blasting Christian rock and preaching the good word.
In 1992, the Del Rios founded Abounding Grace Christian Center as an official church. Over the years, Abounding Grace has become a major hub for youth development and community outreach, offering programs including substance abuse recovery, leadership development and assistance for the homeless. In 1996, Del Rio led a team of 13 young people to cofound the Generation Xcel youth center in the Jacob Riis Houses, offering after-school programs and summer camps to at-risk youths. In 2008, they launched 20/20 Vision For Schools, an educational nonprofit which creates partnerships between public schools and community stakeholders, and which his son Jeremy now runs.
“I don’t have this sense that I have to be a lone ranger, that I have to get credit for everything,” says Del Rio. “My desire is to empower others and see results.”
Del Rio views his community like an extended family. He and his wife adopted Mei-Ling, a participant in one of their youth programs, after her mother died. His home has long served as a refuge for young people with nowhere else to turn. In 1993, he says, he prevented a gang war by inviting the rival factions to his house to chat over hot chocolate and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. As he put it, “I called my wife and I said, honey, make some sandwiches: I’m bringing a gang home.”
In times of crisis, natural leaders emerge, and it was on two of the city’s darkest days that Del Rio’s talents as a community organizer truly shone. On 9/11, he was the only clergyman onsite at Ground Zero after the death of FDNY Chaplain Father Mychal Judge, and in the days and months following he convened a task force of local ministers who worked together on relief and recovery efforts.
When Sandy hit, once again, Del Rio roared into action. Within 24 hours, he was operating “Grace in the Storm,” providing food, water and emergency supplies to over 20,000 people through a network of grassroots community partnerships.
It was the government’s tepid response to Sandy that ultimately solidified Del Rio’s desire to run for office. He said he had long been frustrated by the neglect that arises when government officials are beholden to political agendas. “During Sandy, I saw the lack of attention. I just felt that, you know what, we need to get some leadership in here—one that shows up when the need is there and shows up on time,” he said. “And one thing that we’ve always done is show up.”
“He had been working in a community defined by drug wars and violence for 19 years, so that level of experience prepared him [for 9/11], and I think that moment prepared him for Sandy,” said Jeremy. “It’s very much a natural thing. He’s never campaigned to lead, he’s led when the situation required leadership.”
While the demographics of the district have shifted immensely over the past few decades, Del Rio remains a champion of the underrepresented. His biggest talking points as a candidate — affordable housing, education and youth development, preserving the shrinking middle class — are a reflection of years spent staunching the wounds of one of the city’s poorest and most diverse neighborhoods. And while there is no advance polling at city council level, this modern David is feeling confident about his chances.
“I play to win,” says Del Rio. “I fight to win, and I am expecting we will be victorious.”