NEW YORK — On the Thursday before the presidential primary, Democratic state Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr. strode through his South Bronx district in his signature cowboy hat greeting fans and constituents — a group of Spanish-speaking men who stopped their conversation to shake his hand, a family waving from across the street and an older woman in a shawl and puffy jacket who stopped to ask the important question.
¿ Por quien debe votar?
Diaz clasped her by the shoulder and leaned in close so only she could hear.
“I told her to vote for Hillary,” he said a minute later with a grin and a wink. “But only in the primary.”
And in November? Who knows. “I do like Donald Trump,” he said later. “He’s like me, making enemies everywhere he goes.” Diaz has earned his enemies over 14 years in the state Senate, vehemently opposing gay marriage and abortion, and reveling in his notoriety among his peers. In these ways he’s got a lot in common with Ted Cruz, another candidate he just might support in the general, and for whom Diaz recently organized a meeting of local ministers in the Bronx.
As expected, that meeting didn’t go over well with fellow Democrats.
“It’s offensive to have invited Cruz to come ask for money and votes after he’s been so insulting to us,” said the Bronx borough president, who also happens to be Diaz’s son, Ruben Diaz Jr. “But you know how it is. We all have parents, and unfortunately parents don’t always listen or always get it right.”
The day of the Cruz visit ended up being a big one for the Diaz family. That morning, Ruben Jr. had chaperoned Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton on a much-watched ride on the New York City subway. He was the trim guy with the shaved head and natural smile. Since then, the younger Diaz has made the rounds on cable, speaking on behalf of Clinton and bolstering his reputation as a young Democrat with a bright future.
This kind of attention ahead of a primary isn’t normal for the Bronx. But Republicans have stormed Democratic strongholds searching for critical votes, and Clinton finds herself in a fight with Bernie Sanders that has lingered longer than anyone expected. It has put the Diazes in a special place of prominence as community leaders. It also has pitted them against each other, at least publicly.
“I know my positions hurt him,” said Ruben Sr., who was invited to last week’s black-tie gala for New York Republicans featuring Trump, Cruz and John Kasich. “In his political future it hurts him. I worry that my son will have to pay for the sin of his father. I will not change my belief, but it hurts like crazy.”
“I’m glad that he acknowledges that his actions can be hurtful to the body of work that we have been putting together over the last 20 years,” said Ruben Jr., while out campaigning with Bill Clinton. “No one is asking him to go back on his beliefs, but those beliefs that he has, like a woman’s right to choose, they have been settled already.”
For Ruben Sr., a minister by day, butting heads with colleagues and family is a regular occurrence.
In 2011, the elder Diaz held a rally to oppose gay marriage — and his 22-year-old granddaughter Erica Diaz, herself openly gay, held a counter-rally across the street in support of gay marriage.
In front of a divided crowd, Ruben Sr. hugged his granddaughter, kissed her on the forehead and announced that despite not agreeing with her lifestyle that he loved her.
Erica wasn’t having it, telling the New York Post at the time, “Love is empty when you say someone’s life isn’t natural.”
Diaz says that opposing gay marriage doesn’t mean he rejects gay people.
“I have a homosexual in my staff, I have a homosexual in my family, I have a lesbian in my family, my lawyer is gay with a husband,” he said. “So what does that say about me?”
And then there’s abortion. Donald Trump’s recent vacillating about whether women should be punished for terminating a pregnancy made Ruben Sr. livid, but not for the reason one might expect of a Democrat.
“It bothered me that he took it back,” he said. “You cannot have your cake and eat it, too. Either you say it’s a murder or its not a murder. Once you say it’s a murder, people have to be punished.”
For the younger Diaz, who says he may want to run for citywide office someday, it doesn’t help his political ambitions to have somebody with the same name saying such things.
“We understand they are different people, but I think Reverend Diaz is right on the money when he says it could hurt his son,” said state Sen. Gustavo Rivera (D), who considers himself a big fan of the younger Diaz and cannot wait for the elder to retire.
Ruben Jr. says he can’t ask his dad to change his opinions, but that doesn’t mean he can’t ask him to keep it down every once in a while.
“Every day he says, ‘Dad, keep your mouth shut,’ ” his father said.
And yet, the Diazes remain close. “I absolutely love and respect my father,” said Ruben Jr. “The fact that we share differences on political philosophies and who we are supporting will never, ever take away from the personal relationship.”
Last week Ruben Sr. texted his son each time he saw him on television to tell him how great he had done.
“He has a big political future,” he said.
After a tour of the neighborhood, Ruben Sr. headed back to his Senate office, emblazoned with a giant picture of himself on the awning. Nearby, two sets of buildings bore his name — projects he helped bring to the district. “I don’t just talk, I’ve worked,” he said. “Look at how much has changed here.”
He took a seat behind his desk and scrolled through his text messages.
“I got invited to go to the Republican gala,” he said. “But I don’t think I’m going to, because of my son. I don’t want to hurt him.”
Reached for comment later, his son laughed: “Maybe there is hope for the old man yet,” he said.