News / Politics

Amanda Septimo running for Arroyo’s seat

Kristina Siriotis

Amanda Septimo in December 2015

Activist-turned-political-operative announces candidacy for City Council

On her way home from school one winter day in 2005, Amanda Septimo stopped by the Hunts Point Rec Center, just a couple blocks from her home, to say hi to co-workers from her volunteer work over the summer. A notice on the bulletin board caught her eye: JOB FOR TEENS. PAID. NO WORKING PAPERS NEEDED. She tore a phone number off the fringe of strips at the bottom, and a few weeks later she had her first job at the age of 14: “community activist.”

It turned out that was also the start of her career. A decade later, Septimo is still a community activist, but now she has set her sights on the open City Council seat in Bronx District 17, which includes Hunts Point and Longwood. At 24, Septimo would become the youngest council member in the city, but not one without experience. She is currently district director for local Congressman Jose Serrano.

“I know I’m an activist. It’s in my core,” says Septimo, who grew up here and has always seen her future here as well. “I’m that young person who is doing well, and wants to come here and raise my family here. I have a proclivity for this area and I care about it.”

The council seat is being vacated by Maria del Carmen Arroyo on Dec. 31. A special election is likely to be held in mid-February, 2016. Septimo enters a crowded field of candidates that so far includes another community activist and Mott Haven entrepreneur, Julio Pabón, who lost to Arroyo in the Democratic primary in 2013 and Arroyo’s longtime chief-of-staff, Joann Otero, among others. The district manager of Community Board 2, Rafael Salamanca, has also said he is considering running and has registered a campaign committee with the city’s Campaign Finance Board.

If she is elected, Septimo says, it will be almost three years to the day from when she started in Serrano’s office in 2013. To Septimo, this means something. “I believe a lot in the intentionality of the universe, timing and things happening when they’re meant to,” she says.

Septimo was promoted to district director just one and a half years after joining the office staff full time, at the age of 21.

“I think that for the Congressman to choose her at that age says a lot about her talent,” says Adam Liebowitz, the former community development director of ACTION, the program at The Point where Septimo got her start. He worked with the young Septimo during her years there, where her fellow students elected her president of the group.

“She could have gone a lot of different ways, but she always had her eye on public service in the Bronx,” Liebowitz says, adding that Septimo always stood out from her peers. “She was always a leader-by-example. It was something she did because of who she is.”

Septimo spent two years during high school interning with Serrano two days a week after school; she spent the other three weekdays at ACTION. After nearly 10 years, she considers the congressman a friend.

“It’ll be good to have an automatic, natural ally. Plus I can count on at least one friend when it’s all over,” she joked.

Septimo went to School of the Holy Child, an all-girls Catholic school in Rye, N.Y., then to Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. It was there that she got to peek behind the curtain of inequality in the South through her internship at Metro Public Defenders— criminal defense attorneys for those who cannot afford counsel—in Nashville. That brought to mind the two worlds she straddled as a kid: she lived in the South Bronx, but went to a private college-prep school in Westchester.

She saw that in Nashville, like New York City, extreme poverty exists in close proximity to opulent wealth. She decided that it was the issue of access – to services, justice and resources – that determined life outcomes for residents. This reinforced her plan to come back to the South Bronx and work on those issues at home. She now lives next door to the house she grew up in.

“Amanda returned to the Bronx after college, but she didn’t have to,” said Paul Lipson, a former chief of staff for Congressman Serrano and a founder of The Point. “I think that the district is very blessed. There will be several great candidates running and people will have a number of committed public servants to choose from.”

Septimo is still surprised sometimes that she gets to make decisions for her district, but her confidence is evident when she uses phrases such as “when I’m in the council…” or “when I’m elected…” Still, she is preparing herself for the scrutiny and criticism she will no doubt receive as a candidate for public office. Already, after a story in the online news site DNAinfo.com about her candidacy, a reader called her an “opportunist” and questioned her loyalty to the South Bronx.

“It felt really personal. I have never had anyone question my motives or intentions as being anything but pure,” she said.

Her age will also no doubt be part of the discussion. But Septimo hopes her experience will work in her favor.

“If you’re the new kid, you’re the new kid. Plus I also happen to be a kid in a lot of people’s eyes,” she says.

One night late last month, Septimo had put her phone away after responding to the last calls, texts and emails for the day. She was ready to relax, Netflix ready to go on her computer, when she received the call that Arroyo would be resigning at the end of the year. Septimo had already been considering a run for Arroyo’s seat as part of the regular election cycle in 2017.

“I had about seven panic attacks in five minutes,” she recalls. The announcement just moved up her plans by a couple years. “It’s one thing to have a goal,” she says, “and another to watch it happen.”

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