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New York's 'Swing Vote'

By Stephanie McCrummen

April 21, 2002
Copyright © 2002
Newsday, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Albany - Salsa and merengue rhythms bounced around the normally staid concrete hallways of the Capitol this weekend, and stretched up and down them were blue-draped tables sponsored by state agencies, unions and corporate giants such as Coca-Cola and Citibank, a buffet of officialdom.

Feasting on pamphlets and seminars were about 10,000 Latino leaders, activists and lawmakers from across the state, in town for the 15th annual Somos El Futuro —

We Are the Future - an increasingly large and important political conference in New York.

There were workshops on all the big and little ways to navigate the government, from lobbying to how to fill out a senior citizen housing application.

But perhaps more than anything else, the conference was an impressive show of political power.

"We're the swing vote, baby," said Debra Martinez, head of the Grand Council of Hispanic Societies in Public Service and a state health department official. "That's the reality."

Indeed, the Latino vote is crucial in the race for governor this November, and so the three candidates vying for the job stopped by to pay homage.

Republican Gov. George Pataki hosted a breakfast for leaders, gave out trinkets such as emory boards and key chains with his name stamped on them, and delivered perhaps his longest speech yet in Spanish, about five minutes solid.

State Comptroller H. Carl McCall spoke not once, not twice, but three times to different groups.

McCall's rival for the Democratic nomination, former U.S. Housing Secretary Andrew Cuomo - criticized for not coming last year - stopped in Friday, finishing up his remarks with a few Spanish phrases, too.

Topics of discussion included the high cost of prescription drugs, affordable housing, civil rights and minority contracting.

"Really, this is the only chance we get to sit down, talk to each other and discuss issues that impact the Hispanic community," said Assemb. Peter Rivera (D-Bronx), who helped organize the event.

The conference also offered a rare opportunity for unscheduled mingling.

Prominent Latino leaders such as former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer and Rep. Jose Serrano (D-Bronx) milled about cocktail receptions with grassroots activists such as Altagracia Hiraldo, who heads a Manhattan group that conducts voter registration drives.

Adelina Muniz-Rivera, head of a youth program in Brooklyn, met McCall for the first time.

"We get to meet with all the agency heads and politicians, where sometimes, we don't have direct access to them," she said.

In the halls, people drifted from table to table to see what government and corporate America had to offer. State Department of Motor Vehicles Commissioner Ray Martinez was there shaking hands and answering questions. Coca-Cola gave out free sodas.

There was a table devoted to property tax reductions. Affordable-housing applications were fanned across another. Bronx activist Sandra Ramos took some and headed for a seminar.

"There's a lot of information," she said. "I need to get updated on new laws and what's going on.

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