Saint of the City who stepped out of line

Local Heroes: 7; Rafael Sencion
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The Independent Online
For the last year or so Rafael Sencion, a quietly spoken but serious-minded immigrant from the Dominican Republic, has not been behaving as he is supposed to. Acts of utter selflessness are out of place in New York; they tend to confuse people. Attacking the Mayor when you need his help is odder still.

Mr Sencion's story began last spring when budget cuts ordered by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani forced the city-funded housing association on the West Side of Manhattan where he worked to make 4 of its 12 staff workers redundant. Mr Sencion, then 39 and unmarried, was spared, but not so one of his co-workers, Larry Wood. Mr Wood had a wife, one child and a baby on the way.

And so for the selfless gesture: Mr Sencion concluded that Mr Wood needed to keep his job more than he did and so volunteered to walk the plank on his behalf. "Larry, you're about to have a baby," Mr Wood later recalled his friend telling him. "You can't lose your job right now."

So Mr Sencion left his $33,000-a-year post and Mr Wood remained. It was not long, however, before the local press got wind of what he had done. Always hungry for a heart-warming story on their otherwise brutal beat, they gushed in praise. "The Saint of the City", blared the front page of New York Newsday.

If editors like such stories, so do politicians. The Giuliani administration jumped in to reward Mr Sencion with another job, with better pay, for the city's Housing Authority.

But then came Mr Sencion's second move. He wrote an opinion column in Newsday downplaying his own sacrifice and directing attention to what he believed was the much more important issue: Mr Giuliani's wrongheadedness in cutting funds for services to the city's poor in the first place. The headline on the piece: "If I'm a Hero, the Villain is the Mayor".

Surprise: the doors that had been opened so enthusiastically for Mr Sencion began suddenly to close. The Housing Authority job was withdrawn the same day that the article appeared in Newsday. Some weeks later, Mr Sencion was put forward to become an inspector for the Civilian Complaint Review Board that monitors police misconduct. That too came to nothing.

It seems that that application was rejected by something called the Vacancy Control Board (VCB) that watches over all recruiting by city agencies. Hector Soto, the official who had originally suggested Mr Sencion for the job, scribbled him a note: "Dear Rafael, I'm sorry. Tried everything, but VCB wouldn't approve."

Mr Sencion, who is now working for just $22,000 a year for a housing association in the Bronx, is striking back. Last week, he announced he was suing Mayor Giuliani and several officials for denying him employment because of his views. "The city has basically blacklisted me. It's wrong and I am choosing to fight back."

Norman Siegel, director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said: "With this you open the door to loyalty oaths, to blacklisting, where government will choose who can work and who can't work based on their political views."

Mr Giuliani may or may not be a villain, but has not Mr Sencion been just a bit of a fool as well as a hero? He replied: "I want to be able to think and do and act the way I feel, independently of what the consequences might be."