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The GOP Could Win Puerto Rican Votes

By Michael Gonzalez,
deputy editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe's editorial page.

September 11, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE WALL STREET JOURNAL. All Rights Reserved.

Herman Badillo will probably lose to Michael Bloomberg today, but so will the Republican Party and New York City's Puerto Rican community. Had the scrappy 71-year-old former Bronx Borough president won his bid to become the GOP's mayoral candidate, he could have helped unlock the Democratic grip on the city's Puerto Rican vote. That would be a prize worth going for, if only because it would dumbfound Manhattan's supercilious liberal establishment. And Puerto Rican voters would have an alternative voice, one that doesn't pander to fears.

I emphasize Puerto Ricans because there is no such thing as a "Hispanic" vote. There may be a Mexican vote, a Puerto Rican vote and a Cuban vote, to speak of the three main groups, but not a Hispanic one.

Across the country, the vote breaks down, roughly, in the following way. The Elian Gonzalez tragedy will keep the Cuban-American vote in Florida and New Jersey safely Republican well into the future. Mr. Bush, meanwhile, is making heroic inroads with Mexican-Americans in Texas, who've always been socially conservative anyway, while his brother, Jeb, will get a chunk of the Mexican vote when he runs for re-election as governor of Florida. (It helps that his wife, Columba, is Mexican). But New York? Most of New York's Hispanics are Puerto Rican, and this is the group that vies with African-Americans and Jews as the Democratic Party's most loyal group. Right?

Well, yes and no. Yes, in an average year, the Puerto Rican vote will go heavily to the Democrats. And yes, Puerto Ricans in New York precincts haveconferred on the rest of the republic the inestimable services of Reps. Jose Serrano, Nydia Velazquez and Charlie Rangel.

But in 1993, after Mr. Badillo switched parties and supported Rudolph Giuliani against David Dinkins, Mr. Giuliani got a comparatively whopping 38% of the Puerto Rican vote. How much of that was due to Mr. Badillo's endorsement? It's difficult to parse these things, but in 1989, when Mr. Giuliani ran unsuccessfully, he got only 18% of the total Hispanic vote. A Puerto Rican mayor standing alongside El Presidente come 2004 would have done wonders, even (or especially) if La Senadora Hillary runs.

That probably won't happen now, given that Michael Bloomberg seems poised to win tonight. Would he stand next to Mr. Bush? The media mogul who now claims to be a Republican won't even say if he voted for the president, or if he's doing a good job. He's criticized the tax cut to boot. Mr. Badillo, by contrast, has chatted with Mr. Bush (in Spanish) about bringing in the Puerto Rican vote.

Of course, it's an open question how decisive this vote is, even in New York. The Big Apple is in flux, particularly within the Hispanic subculture. The 2000 census shows Puerto Ricans to have fallen to 37% of Hispanics in New York City. Only a decade earlier they were more than half. Today, however, a 21st century remaking of "West Side Story" would make Maria an Ecuadorian, or at least a Dominican, while the cast of the Sharks would resemble a pan-American soccer team.

This evolution, as with much else that happens inside the Hispanic community, has gone almost wholly unnoticed on the outside. What it means in practical terms is that those ubiquitous, Indic-looking Hispanics that you see beavering away at Korean delis are likely to be from Guerrero or Chihuahua in Mexico, or from Guatemala, Peru or Ecuador. They are not Puerto Ricans. The European-looking Hispanics who might show you to your table in a midtown Manhattan restaurant are not Puerto Rican either. They are more likely to be from Chile, Argentina or Uruguay.

The voting distinctions of these individuals will be eroded as they join the middle class and get a house in Queens, and later one in Long Island, or New Jersey or Connecticut. But that only means they're becoming Americans, not "Hispanics," which also means that they will in time vote Republican. If you want to see where they (or we) are going politically, look at the Irish, or, better yet, the Italians.

Cubans, for example, may be reliably Republican, but it's hard to find them in New York City anymore. I had lunch at a New York Cuban restaurant called Victor's Cafe this summer and not even the cook was Cuban. One of the waiters (a Honduran) informed me that there is a Cuban on the staff, but that he had the night shift. I felt cheated, but my wife reminded me that this was a sign of how middle class we Cubans have become, and showed why Cubans, a much smaller group than Puerto Ricans and Mexicans, have so much relative power. They have joined the professional (and suburban) classes and are active politically.

Besides, Cuba's communism led to a middle-class exodus to the U.S. These members of the professional (or aspirational) class came with nothing and assumed that, with toil, success would be theirs. Their example lays low the canard that Hispanics are somehow held back by discrimination. This is what Mr. Badillo said to Newsday last month, when asked if his striving for success was an "ethnic thing." His answer was, "I lived in Puerto Rico until I was about 12 years old. Not having been discriminated against when I was 12, I'm not going to accept that I'm inferior to anybody else now."

Unfortunately, Mr. Badillo, who came to the city aged 14 and speaking no English, probably won't be able to use the bully pulpit of Gracie Mansion to carry his message that discrimination -- even when real -- should not be an excuse. The city's Puerto Ricans are, too, the losers, for they will continue to be vulnerable to the relentlessly bad leadership they've had until now, which will continue to parrot the line that they're victims -- victimas -- and that only the government can save them.

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