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The Latino Candidate: Yours, Mine or Ours?

In New York, Hispanic Once Puerto Rican, Now Politicians Face A Melting Pot


May 6, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All Rights Reserved.


At the polling place, pride can be offset by nationalistic rivalries.
Angel Franco/The New York Times

Gathered around a shaved-ice stand in Washington Heights one hot morning recently, four Dominican men agreed that they would regard a victory by Fernando Ferrer, a New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent running for mayor, as their own.

"If the Hispanic community wants to make progress, we should support Hispanic candidates, like we want Sammy Sosa to win every year," said one of the men, Alberoni E. Pena, 49, a maintenance worker who has lived in New York for 16 years and says he votes Democratic.

Mr. Ferrer is banking on sentiments like Mr. Pena's to vault him to City Hall from the relative obscurity of the Bronx borough president's office. Like Hispanic candidates in Los Angeles and Houston, he is hoping to ride the demographic tidal wave that has brought huge increases in the Hispanic population over the last decade. Recent census figures show that 27 percent of residents in New York City are Hispanic.

But while Hispanic candidates like Mr. Ferrer can generally count on the support of Latino voters, the strength of this power base can be unpredictable, experts on Hispanic voting said. One variable, they said, is turnout among Hispanic voters, which traditionally has been lower than that among blacks and whites. And as Hispanic populations become more diverse, increasingly there is the question of whether the candidate can cross over, not only to other ethnic groups, but also to other Hispanic subgroups.

"We know we need a high Latino turnout and at least three out of every four Latino votes," said Luis Miranda, a volunteer political strategist with the Ferrer campaign. "No doubt he has an advantage – there's a factor of ethnic pride – but he has to explain to Latino audiences how life is going to be different for them."

In New York City, "Hispanic" used to be synonymous with Puerto Rican. But as Mr. Ferrer, who faces three white opponents in the Democratic primary in September, goes about building his voting coalition, he has another type of voter to appeal to – the non-Puerto Rican Latino. His campaign estimates that these voters, mostly Dominican but also Colombian, Mexican and others, now represent about 43 percent of registered Hispanic voters in the city.

The hodgepodge of nationalities, and the split between recent immigrants and the American-born, make Latinos a group with wildly diverse concerns. Some are still more interested in the political affairs of their homelands than those of New York. Some issues, like immigration, are more relevant to groups like Dominicans, the city's largest Hispanic immigrant population, than to Puerto Ricans, who are American citizens by birth.

And the natural rivalries that come from nationalistic pride mean a candidate must also strive to unify while overcoming any competitive or negative sentiment that Latinos may have about Mr. Ferrer's national descent. Mr. Miranda said, for example, that Mr. Ferrer, who was born in the Bronx, must present himself as both a Latino and as a representative of Puerto Ricans, a pioneer Hispanic group that opened doors for others.

But Latinos show a high degree of solidarity in supporting their own, researchers who have studied Hispanic voting patterns say, and there is such a thing as a pan-Latin vote.

For one thing, Latinos as a whole vote overwhelmingly Democratic. And even though they are divided on some issues, like abortion and school vouchers, they come together strongly in support of others, like gun control, said Rodolfo de la Garza, a professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin who has researched Latino voting patterns in New York, Florida, California, Texas and Illinois.

When considering a Latino candidate, Mr. de la Garza said, Latino voters care more about party affiliation than about national origin. A Latino Democrat, he said, should be able to count on the vote of a Democratic Latino electorate, regardless of whether he or his parents hail from Mexico, Cuba or Puerto Rico.

"It's us against them," Mr. de la Garza said of the voters' mentality. "Better a Latino than a gringo."

National origin matters, however, if two Latinos are running for the same position. The mentality then becomes "better mine than yours," Mr. de la Garza said.

The political career of Maurice A. Ferre, the former mayor of Miami, a city where Latinos have long translated population numbers into electoral clout, illustrates how a candidate may or may not be able to count on Hispanic support in an election. When Mr. Ferre, 65, a Puerto Rican in a city dominated by Cuban-Americans, ran against a white opponent in 1979, he won the mayoralty with 90 percent of the Cuban-American vote, Mr. Ferre said. But two years later, when he ran against a Cuban-American, his share of the Cuban vote dropped remarkably, to 22 percent. (He managed to hold on to office with strong support from non-Hispanic black and white voters.)

But Cuban-American voters came through for him again in 1993, he said, when he ran for county commissioner and received more votes than a Cuban-American. He went on to win a runoff election against a white opponent.

Mr. Ferre, who this year is running for mayor again against Cuban- American opponents, said he had addressed the nationality issue head- on. "I say there are good Cubans and bad Cubans," he said. "Fidel Castro is Cuban. People react to that."

But he said that whether the Latino vote is monolithic or fractured "depends on the time, the place, the candidate and the circumstances."

While Latinos make up more than half the electorate in Miami, in cities like New York and Los Angeles, they are about a fifth or less. Hispanic mayoral candidates in those cities, political experts note, walk a fine line between highlighting their "Latinoness" to shore up support among Latinos and playing it down to avoid alienating other ethnic groups.

In Los Angeles, the former State Assembly speaker, Antonio Villaraigosa, is running as a coalition candidate for mayor. Jaime A. Regalado, executive director of the Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University in Los Angeles, said Mr. Villaraigosa spoke Spanish on the campaign trail and also spoke in a kind of code. For example, Mr. Regalado noted, to emphasize his background, Mr. Villaraigosa "calls himself the poster child for the American dream," which, in his case, means a Mexican-American born into poverty in the Hispanic East Side of Los Angeles who has succeeded enough to become a front- runner in the mayoral race.

In New York, which has never had a Hispanic mayor, Mr. Ferrer has so far presented himself as the "anti- Rudy," as in Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, rather than as the Latino candidate.

"I am who I am; I am what I am," Mr. Ferrer, 51, said in an interview, dismissing ethnicity as an issue. "Everybody understands this is a candidacy about all the people who have been left out, shut out."

But City Councilman Guillermo Linares, a Dominican-American who has endorsed Mr. Ferrer, said that to attract Dominican voters, Mr. Ferrer needed to address issues critical to them, like immigration, and make symbolic gestures like visiting the Dominican Republic.

Mr. Ferrer said he was confident he could win over most Latino voters. "David Dinkins got 70 percent of the Latino vote in 1989," he said, referring to New York's first black mayor. "Does anyone seriously believe I'd receive less than that?"

The question, however, is not so much whether most Latinos will support him – it is assumed they will – but whether they will turn out in sufficient numbers to make a difference. Angelo Falcón, a senior policy executive with the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, calculated that Mr. Ferrer needed at least 80 percent of both the Latino and the black vote, and at least 20 percent of the white vote, to win, assuming the turnout is about 60 percent of registered voters for each group. The usual turnout for Latinos is about 40 percent, he said.

Another Latino in the mayoral race, Herman Badillo, a Republican who left the Democratic Party in 1998, could split the Latino vote if he becomes the Republican candidate in the general election, but the city's Hispanic electorate, about 88 percent Democratic, would still favor Mr. Ferrer, political analysts say.

In interviews around the city, some Latino voters showed enthusiasm for Mr. Ferrer, but many others said they had not yet tuned in to the primary race, and some were not even sure who Mr. Ferrer was.

Among the undecided was Aida Gonzalez-Jarrin, an Ecuadorean who is running for a City Council seat in Queens. Ms. Gonzalez-Jarrin, the former director of cultural affairs for the Queens borough president's office, said, "These are very accomplished candidates." She added, "It's going to be very tough to make a decision."

Among Puerto Rican New Yorkers, Marianela Virella, 31, of the Bronx, a program analyst with the city's Department of Juvenile Justice, said she would vote for Mr. Ferrer because "he seems deeply rooted."

But in Queens, Alice Cardona, a community organizer, said of Mr. Ferrer, "All of these years, what has he done for the city of New York?"

Ms. Cardona, 71, is a member of Latinos con Green, a group that supports one of Mr. Ferrer's opponents, Mark Green, the public advocate, but she still wished her fellow Puerto Rican well. "I just hope he does enough numbers that he doesn't embarrass the community," she said.

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