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Drug Law Foes Make Their Case in Spanish Ads, And Pataki Aides Raise Objections


June 21, 2002
Copyright © 2002 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved.

The city's largest Spanish-language television station pulled a commercial yesterday that had featured family members of imprisoned drug offenders and asked the governor for "real reform" on the Rockefeller drug laws. The ads were taken off the air at the request of Gov. George E. Pataki's senior aides, who called them inaccurate.

The incident, coming just as the legislative session was threatening to close without resolving how the drug laws should be changed, illustrates how important Hispanics have become in the re-election campaign of Governor Pataki, who often mentions his fight to reduce the mandatory, lengthy prison sentences in the laws when he addresses a Spanish-speaking audience.

That is not the only difference in emphasis in what might be called a parallel campaign: a Pataki spokeswoman, Mercedes Padilla, has told Spanish newspapers that he supports a state minimum wage increase, even as lawmakers say he has tried to prevent the issue from coming to a vote in the Senate.

Focusing on specific voter groups is nothing new, nor is saying things those groups want to hear. But Governor Pataki's appeals to Latinos have not gone unchallenged. Disappointed in his Rockefeller proposals, those who want to change the laws have funneled virtually their entire ad budgets, about $110,000, into Spanish ads that call the drug laws racist and demand "more action and fewer words" from "Señor Pataki." In a nod to the religious beliefs of many Hispanics, the ads quote officials of the Roman Catholic Church saying the drug laws are unjust.

The idea, advocates say, is to call the governor's bluff, to prevent him from winning what they call a rhetorical victory without delivering substantive reform.

Spanish-language newspapers and news programs have responded, editorializing in favor of changing the laws. Hoy, New York City's largest Spanish paper, wrote an editorial in May telling the governor that "we were going to keep his feet to the fire, and not just let him have a P.R. thing," said Louis Sito, the publisher.

The politics of race have abruptly upended the conventional wisdom that Rockefeller revision is too controversial for an election year, said Robert Gangi, director of the Correctional Association of New York, an advocacy group for prisoners. Now, he said, the perception is that "you're only going to get it this year, because of the Latino vote and a little bit of the black vote, and after the election there's no way."

The ad that was pulled from Univision, the Spanish-language station, said: "Thousands of New Yorkers have a family member serving obligatory minimum sentences of 30 years, under the Rockefeller laws. The reforms proposed by Governor Pataki will not reunite these families. We need real reforms."

The highest current mandatory minimum sentence under the Rockefeller laws is 25 years to life, not 30 years. Michael McKeon, the governor's chief spokesman, said that it was also not true that the governor's plan would not reunite families.

But Deborah Small, the director of public policy for the group that ran the ad, the Drug Policy Alliance, disagreed, saying reunion under the governor's plan is by no means certain. She said that the mistake in the sentence length came from a translation error. A spokesman for Univision said the station's lawyers would review the ads.

The strategy of both sides in the debate has depended on the presumption that the issue is of vital importance to Hispanics.

Yet there are more blacks than Hispanics in state prison for drug offenses, about 9,700 compared with 7,800 (there are 1,200 whites), according to Mr. Gangi. And Latinos are not necessarily liberal on law and order.

"To the surprise of many, our community may be even more conservative when it comes to these kinds of issues, because they're more exposed," said Gerson Borrero, the editor in chief of El Diario/La Prensa, which has editorialized in favor of major changes to the Rockefeller laws.

Polls generally show that Rockefeller revision is popular among all ethnic groups. Still, in a 1999 poll taken by Zogby International, Hispanics were far more likely (49 percent, compared with 29 percent for whites and 32 percent for blacks) to think that someone who voted to reduce prison terms for drug offenders was "soft on drugs."

"To me it's a little strange to see that as an election issue," said Esteban Creste, a reporter and acting managing director for Telemundo's New York news division. "Maybe it's a good thing, but it's not such an easy thing as Vieques."

Others note that the issue is not a new one to Hispanics, whose leaders have long worked to change the drug laws. "It's easier for those advocates to target the Latino community," said Luis Miranda, a political consultant in the Bronx and former president of the Hispanic Federation. "You don't have to import leaders. You don't have to create leaders. They exist."

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