Puerto Rico Profile: Herman Badillo
August 17, 2001
Herman Badillo, the first Puerto Rican ever to serve as a voting member of the United States Congress, celebrates his 72nd birthday on August 21. He has had a long and distinguished career of public service, including his seven years in Congress, a stint as the Bronx (NY) Borough President, and most recently as Chairman of the City University of New York.
Yet despite a glowing record of accomplishments that paved the way for a generation of Puerto Rican politicians in New York, Badillo has no intention of fading quietly into the background of city politics. Instead, he is campaigning as a Republican candidate to be the next mayor of New York City.
Few observers of the New York mayoral race believe Badillo can prevail over his better-funded Republican opponent, financial media tycoon Michael Bloomberg, or over any of the four Democratic contenders in a city where Republicans constitute barely one fifth of the electorate.
Badillo remains undaunted by the long odds of his candidacy, however, just as he has been throughout a life of uphill struggles and historic victories.
Herman Badillo was born in Caguas, Puerto Rico, in 1929. By the time he was five years old, both of his parents and his grandmother had succumbed to tuberculosis. "I remember in Caguas just going to a lot of funerals," he later said. He was left in the care of his aunt, who brought him to New York when he was eleven years old. He entered the city public school system without knowing English and with limited prospects for a future career.
In high school, Badillo took vocational courses in preparation to be a mechanic, since at that time Puerto Ricans were not expected to pursue professional careers. However, he did join the schools newspaper staff, where an insightful fellow student saw his potential and encouraged him to attend college.
Badillo took his classmates advice, and in 1951 he graduated magna cum laude from City College of New York, with a Bachelor of Business Administration degree. He continued his education at Brooklyn Law School, which he attended at night while working as an accountant by day.
He was sensationally successful in law school, earned membership to the Law Review and the Moot Court Team, and graduated as Class Valedictorian in 1955. The following year he was admitted to the New York bar, and in 1956 he became a Certified Public Accountant.
A mere 15 years after arriving in New York poor, orphaned, and unable to speak English, Herman Badillo was well on his way to achieving great things. "I represent the original immigrant," he told the New York Times. "Everybody says that their parents and grandparents came here and couldnt speak English and they were poor. And in my case it wasnt my parents and grandparents. It was me."
In the early 1960s, after almost ten years of private practice as an accountant and then as an attorney, Badillo began a public life that has lasted close to 40 years. In a sense he entered politics in 1960, when he founded the East Harlem John F. Kennedy for President Club and ran a voter registration drive. Then, in 1962, he was appointed Commissioner of the New York City Department of Housing Relocation, the first Latino to hold such a high position in the citys government.
Three years later, he continued making history by winning the election for the Bronx Borough President, making him the first Hispanic leader of one of New Yorks five boroughs. Next he ran unsuccessfully for mayor of New York, the first of his four official campaigns for that position. (He ran as a Democrat in 1969, 1973, and 1977; he switched to the Republican Party in 1993.)
In 1970, Badillo was elected to represent the 21st district of New York, an area that comprises parts of the boroughs of Manhattan, Queens, and the Bronx, in the U.S. Congress. He served in Congress from 1971 until 1978. While in Washington, he sat on three committees that dealt with issues close to his fields of expertise. He brought his knowledge of the law to the Committee of the Judiciary; his business and city government background suited him well on the Committee on Banking, Finance, and Urban Affairs; and his strong faith in the power of public schools made him an influential member of the Committee on Education and Labor.
One of Badillos major contributions as a Congressman was a 1974 bill that mandated bilingual education in schools with high numbers of students for whom English is not their primary language. However, he has come to criticize the system that is in place in New York, for he does not believe it integrates immigrant students well enough into English language environments. "Bilingual education is not being practiced in New York," he has said. "It has become 'monolingual education,' which doesn't help the students."
Badillo resigned from Congress in 1978 to take the position of Deputy Mayor of New York. After a year in that job, he returned to practicing law full time. He remained active in city politics, however, briefly campaigning for mayor in 1985 and 93, and running for city comptroller in 1986 and 93.
In recent years, Badillo has taken a prominent role in the field of higher education in New York. He was appointed Vice Chairman (1997) and then Chairman (1999) of the City University of New York (CUNY), the public education system that includes his alma mater, City Collage.
As Chair of CUNY, Badillo took it upon himself to dismantle the policy of open admissions that had been instituted in 1969. Late in 1999, after a long and contentious debate, the policy officially changed so that the nations largest urban public university now has stricter entrance and graduation requirements, as well as a core curriculum designed to ensure each student an education grounded in the liberal arts.
Encouraged by his reforms at CUNY, Badillo is running for Mayor on a solid education platform. He has also pledged to continue many of the practices of the current mayor, Rudy Giuliani, with whom Badillo has worked closely over the years. Badillo believes he will do a better job than the current mayor, however, when it comes to working with immigrants and minorities, many of whom feel alientated by Giulianis policies.
ﾒI have one advantage because as a Puerto Rican, I cannot be accused of being a racist effectively," he told the New York Times. "Because it's clear that since I went through all these things myself, I'm not out to hurt one group or another. And I want everyone to work together."
When asked whether he considers his age to be an impediment in his race to city hall, he has pointed out that he is the same age as the Prime Minister of Israel and younger than Ronald Reagan was when he became President of the United States. Moreover, Badillo has kept himself in excellent condition over the years, jogging regularly in New Yorks Central Park. In fact, he has run in the New York City marathon eleven times seven more times than he has run for mayor.