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Diversity Lags Behind Census


March 18, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All Rights Reserved.

HEMPSTEAD, N.Y – Despite census figures released this week showing that one in 10 Long Islanders is Hispanic, Latinos remain almost invisible in local and county government, political experts agree.

The disparity, which is roughly the same throughout New York City's suburbs, highlights one of the emerging issues of political life throughout the region: while the population is growing increasingly diverse, that diversity is seldom reflected in village or town councils or county legislatures.

On Long Island, for example, only one of Suffolk County's 18 county legislators is Hispanic; none of Nassau County's 19 lawmakers are. Few Hispanic candidates have been elected to town or village governments, local school boards or even local library boards.

So when Pauline Velazquez, the chairwoman of the Nassau/Suffolk Hispanic Task Force, a civic group, lobbied local state lawmakers last month at the group's 13th annual conference at the Brentwood Country Club, it went without saying that none of the lawmakers were Hispanic. "Right now we have no one," she said. "So we're back at, what do we do?"

It was also in Brentwood, a hamlet in the town of Islip where more than half the population is Hispanic, that John Velez helped start what he said was Long Island's first Hispanic Democratic Club two years ago. "It's about time that we start moving," said Mr. Velez, 58, who works in insurance. "It's about time that we start demanding that the clubs open the door; it's about time that we start running Hispanic people for elected officials; it's about time for elected officials to pay attention to us."

The census figures could hardly come as a surprise to anyone who has ridden the Long Island Rail Road lately, or shopped at Roosevelt Field, strolled around downtown Port Chester in Westchester County or eaten the stuffed corn pancakes known as pupusas that are sold in any of the Salvadoran restaurants in Hempstead.

The figures, based on a comparison of the 2000 census count and numbers adjusted by the Census Bureau for the 1990 census, showed that the percentage of Hispanics grew by 54 percent in Rockland County, by 56 percent in Westchester County and by 61 percent in Suffolk County.

But the figures would come as an enormous shock to anyone who tried to draw a demographic portrait of the suburbs by looking at their elected bodies.

Politicians, civic leaders and analysts point to a number of factors to explain the lack of Hispanic elected officials. In many areas, they say, new Hispanic arrivals may not yet be citizens or may be slow to register to vote. And, since the Hispanic category on the census encompasses people of different nations, backgrounds, races and opinions, those who do register to vote do not necessarily vote as a bloc.

Then there is the style of local government on Long Island. Nearly all the towns are governed by at- large representatives, rather than by representatives of a specific geographic district. This makes it harder for enclaves like Brentwood to elect Hispanic candidates to the Islip Town Council, since each candidate must win the whole town.

But the slow pace of growth has frustrated some. "There is very little representation in the government structure," said Agnes Rodriguez, a Democrat who is running to become a trustee in the Village of Hempstead in Tuesday's elections. "But there are the bodegas all over the place, run by Hispanic workaholics who work 18, 20 hours a day, and they keep the tax rolls going."

The only Hispanic county legislator on Long Island does not represent a very heavily Hispanic district: Vivian Viloria Fisher, a Democrat who was elected in 1999, represents Stony Brook. Ms. Fisher, who was born in the Dominican Republic and teaches high school Spanish, was picked to run for office after she became active in the community as a Girl Scout leader, a soccer coach and an advocate for breast cancer research.

"As long as Hispanic or Latino leaders feel that they have to work on quote-unquote Hispanic issues, they are going to have a problem getting elected," Ms. Fisher said. "You have to look at issues that affect Long Islanders as whole: the environment, education. You have to represent your whole district."

Still, she said she thought her presence had made a difference on some issues, noting that there has been no more talk of an English-only law in Suffolk County since she has been in the Legislature. "I hope I have had an effect in precluding that kind of bias and feeling," she said.

Some see the growth of the Hispanic population here as a continuation of the old patterns of immigrants coming to the suburbs, and slowly gaining political power.

"People always come looking for the American dream, for better homes and better schools," said Larry Aaronson, chairman of the Nassau County Democratic Party, who said he expected to see more Hispanic candidates running for office. "It's going to have a dramatic effect on the political process here."

Anthony Santino, a spokesman for Joseph N. Mondello, the chairman of the Nassau County Republican party, did not return a call seeking comment about how the island's changing demographics would alter the political landscape. Mr. Mondello has noted in the past that his mother was born in Puerto Rico.

But in some ways the current influx is unlike past migrations: many of the Hispanic immigrants now arriving from Central America head straight to the suburbs, bypassing the traditional first stop in New York City. That gives them special needs, said Miriam Garcia, the executive director of Adelante of Suffolk County, a group that provides social services. "They need special help assimilating," she said, explaining why she thinks it is all the more important for them to marshal political power.

And some say that the transfer of power from group to group simply takes time. Robin Bikkal, an immigration lawyer who is the chairwoman of the Hispanic Advisory Board for Westchester County, said progress was already being made, noting the election of a Hispanic family court judge last November and the fact that several Hispanic candidates are running for office in local governments around the county.

"I think we're going through the natural progression politically," she said. "I don't think we're lagging. We're slowly building."

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