Former state senators from one particularly hapless section of the northwest Bronx have something in common on their résumés: one went to jail, another is still in jail and a third now faces jail.
But Senator Gustavo Rivera said he would not follow in the footsteps of predecessors like Israel Ruiz Jr., who was expelled from the State Senate in 1989 after being convicted of bank fraud, or Efraín González Jr., who was sentenced to seven years in prison for corruption in 2010. Mr. Rivera does not even like to mention the man he ousted, Pedro Espada Jr., who was found guilty of theft on Monday for siphoning money from a Bronx health clinic that paid for lobster dinners, flowers and spa treatments, among other things.
“At first, I was the guy who beat Espada,” said Mr. Rivera, 36, an adjunct college professor and former political aide who defeated Mr. Espada by nearly two to one in a 2010 Democratic primary. “My goal after six months was to make sure that my name and his name were separate. I don’t mention him by name. I call him ‘my predecessor’ or ‘Mr. Past Tense’ or ‘Captain Knucklehead.’ ”
The freshman senator is seeking to make a name for himself as an honest politician in the Bronx, a place that seems cursed with more than its share of crooks, both in and out of elected office. New York’s poorest borough remains desperately in need of unimpeachable leaders to reverse the ravages of chronic crime, unemployment and health problems, but it has instead been brought low time and again by an entrenched culture of self-interest and corruption that has benefited a handful of political elites at the expense of its 1.4 million residents.
Upon learning of Mr. Espada’s conviction, Mr. Rivera said his priority since being elected had been to restore his constituents’ faith in government. “It is a sad day for Bronxites when someone who supposedly represented them is convicted of a crime, especially if that crime directly violates the public’s trust,” he said.
Within weeks of arriving in Albany, Mr. Rivera, hard to miss in pastel-colored shirts and paisley ties, proposed a bill requiring public officials to provide more detailed information about their outside income and clients. Though the bill never came up for a vote, similar language was later included in an ethics reform package championed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and passed by the Republican-led Senate and the Democratic-controlled Assembly.
“I’ve been saying in class for years that we need to demand more from the people who represent us, not less,” Mr. Rivera said. “The things I might have said, I get to do now.”
It is too early to tell if Mr. Rivera, who is seeking re-election this fall, will keep his promises, but his colleagues and their aides described him as hardworking, passionate and ethically scrupulous to the point that he does not allow lobbyists or special-interest groups to buy him a beer. “There are many people who say one thing to get elected and do another once they’re in office,” said Senator Michael N. Gianaris, a Queens Democrat who has served in the Legislature for more than a decade. “Gustavo is not among them. He is true to his word.”
As a junior member of the minority party in the Senate, Mr. Rivera has attracted little interest from Senate Republicans or other potential critics. But though he has not yet had any bills passed into law, he has sought other ways to advance his ideas. For instance, he has worked with Governor Cuomo’s aides on a new requirement that state agencies provide interpretation and translation services for non-English speakers, and on a proposed law to allow charitable organizations to post bail for those who cannot afford it.
In keeping with his push for transparent government, Mr. Rivera has also made much of his private life public. He led a campaign against obesity in which he was weighed publicly once a month at health fairs as he shed 27 pounds; the newspaper El Diario ran before-and-after pictures of him on its Sept. 28 cover.
Next month, he will introduce financial literacy classes inspired by his own struggles with low credit when he applied for a car loan. At the time, his credit score was 570 out of 850: the result of living for years from one paycheck to the next, he said. He added that after tighter budgeting, his score had risen to 615.
Mr. Rivera, who reported earning $99,064 in government pay and reimbursements and $3,075 for teaching a government class at Pace University last year, lives alone in the same rent-stabilized building in Kingsbridge Heights that he moved into in 2000 as a graduate student at the City University of New York. He upgraded last year to a one-bedroom from a studio, increasing his rent by $300 to $1,200. His one splurge since taking office was $26,000 for a Mazda 6 (an American-made model; Mr. Rivera is a staunch union supporter) to drive himself to and from Albany.
“Senator Rivera has been a breath of fresh air,” said Kenny Agosto, a Democratic district leader in the Bronx who added that he was disgusted by the revelations of Mr. Espada’s misspending of taxpayer money. “He doesn’t treat the job as if it’s his power. He’s a temporary holder of it, and he knows it.”
One day this spring, Mr. Rivera turned heads while bounding down a working-class stretch of the Grand Concourse in a natty gray pinstripe suit and a lavender shirt, with a fedora perched on his cleanshaven head. Mr. Rivera — who is not related to José Rivera, the patriarch of a leading political family in the Bronx — introduced himself in Spanish, then in English, to a couple of men standing on the curb and handed out business cards. “If you guys ever need anything,” he said, “stop by, O.K.?”
Mr. Rivera said he wanted people to know he was one of them. Mr. Espada used to appear in public with bodyguards and an entourage; Mr. Rivera has neither. When Mr. Rivera recently stopped by a 99-cent store, another shopper asked, “What are you doing here?” Mr. Rivera held up a package of toilet paper.
He and his aides said they had rebuilt the State Senate office over the past 16 months, after inheriting just two cardboard boxes of constituent cases from Mr. Espada but none of his staff members or contacts and not even his office, which was outside the district. During the campaign, they recalled, Mr. Espada acted as if Mr. Rivera — a former aide to Kirsten E. Gillibrand, a United States senator — were a young upstart who showed no respect for him.
Local residents have been surprised by some of Mr. Rivera’s efforts, including the free civics classes he taught at public libraries to encourage more involvement in local government.
“It saddens me a little that the expectations for some are so low that honestly, I could have showed up and smiled a couple times and that would have been enough,” he said.
Anna Rodriguez, 52, a housekeeper who voted for Mr. Rivera, said he had shown that he was honest and cared about the community. “I’ve seen that he’s doing his job and he’s working out well,” she said.
Then Ms. Rodriguez qualified her assessment. “Until now,” she said. “When people leave office, that’s when you hear bad things. That’s when everything comes out.”