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Latinos' Growth Not Reflected In Politics…Puerto Ricans Make Political Gains, Slowly

Latinos' Growth Not Reflected In Politics

By Susan Milligan, Globe Staff

JULY 15, 2002
©Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company. All world rights reserved.

WASHINGTON - Latinos are the new hot voter group, wooed by Democrats and Republicans who see the fast-growing population as a key to winning elections ranging from school boards to the presidency.

But when it comes to getting public office space of their own, Latino leaders complain they have been largely shut out by entrenched political powers more interested in protecting incumbents than in expanding Latino representation.

Latinos made historic gains in population during the last decade, when their numbers increased by more than 50 percent to 35.3 million nationwide, according to the 2000 Census. Some demographers believe Latinos now constitute the biggest minority group in the country, having eclipsed African-Americans.

Latino leaders had hoped the population growth would be reflected in the redrawing of local, state, and congressional districts since the census and propel more Latinos into political office. But the decennial round of redistricting, backed up by courts in some states, is likely to result in only modest gains for Latinos in elected office, political analysts and Latino leaders predict.

''There is a sense that there were opportunities in the 2000 redistricting process that we really weren't able to seize. The redistricting process was generally disappointing to Latinos throughout the country,'' said Rosalind Gold, senior director of policy, research, and advocacy for the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.

Latinos had hoped to capture nine to 10 more seats in the US House, helped by the reapportionment of congressional districts, Gold said. But the only near-certain pickups are two new districts in southern California and southern Florida, both places were the Latino population has swelled.

In Texas, where Hispanics went from being one-fourth of the population to one-third, neither of two newly created congressional seats has a Latino majority.

A Texas court drew the lines when the Republican-controlled Legislature failed to come up with a new map.

In California, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) charged in a lawsuit that the Democratic-controlled Legislature had intentionally diluted Latino voting power in two congressional districts and failed to create another Latino-majority district that MALDEF argued was warranted.

''Their number one priority is protecting their incumbents,'' said Nina Perales, a staff attorney with MALDEF's San Antonio office, referring to Republicans and Democrats. ''Really, the attitude is, `Let us draw the lines for you. You're better off with Anglo Democrats.'''

Representative Jose Serrano, a New York Democrat, said: ''There's been a lot of talk from both parties about the Latino agenda, but somehow that talk has not materialized into political support.''

Both major political parties said they had done what they could to increase Latino representation in redistricting plans, and each cast itself as the true friend of the voting bloc.

''As a party, certainly we continue to strive every day to represent our constituencies, and we do consider the Hispanic community our constituency,'' said Maria T. Cardona, chief spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee. ''We would be thrilled to have more Hispanic seats, but we do reach out to the Hispanic community and try to earn their support every day. Could we do a better job? Sure. But the ones who play a game of rhetoric without any reality behind it are the Republicans.''

Tom Hofeller, redistricting director for the Republican National Committee, responded in kind.

''Obviously we don't draw the lines. The lines are drawn out in the states,'' Hofeller said. ''In a huge majority of the cases, the aspirations of the minority groups to get new seats would come at the expense of sitting incumbent Democrats, and they should turn to the Democratic Party for the most part to ask them why they haven't done better.''

Nationwide, Latinos still vote heavily Democratic, but both parties agree the vote is up for grabs. Most Latinos are Catholic, and may reject the pro-abortion rights stance of many Democrats, political strategists note. The personal popularity of President Bush among Latinos in Texas is thought to have boosted Republican prospects of expanding the party's share of the Latino vote across the country.

After the round of redistricting in the early 1990s, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus expanded from 11 members in 1990 to 17 in 1993. Latino representation in Congress, currently at 19 House members, is expected to grow by no more than a few lawmakers after the November elections, depending on races in Arizona, New Mexico, and Nevada. No Latino candidate is expected to win a seat in the US Senate, which has not had a Hispanic member since the late 1970s.

Besides the self-protective interests of incumbents, demographics have handicapped efforts to create more Latino-majority districts. Some immigrants are not US citizens, and the Latino population tends to be young, so the rise in the number of eligible voters has not been as dramatic as the overall population increase of 58 percent in the last decade.

Further, Latinos have become more widely dispersed across the country, diluting their potential political strength. While Florida, Texas, and California have seen huge increases in the Latino population, Hispanics have also settled in many states where they have not traditionally been concentrated, such as Iowa, South Carolina, and Tennessee.

Latinos have made bigger gains in redistricting for state legislative seats. In Illinois, redistricting is likely to double the number of Hispanics in the state Legislature, said Maria Valdez, senior litigator for MALDEF in Chicago.

In Massachusetts, meanwhile, the National Voting Rights Institute has filed a lawsuit alleging that the lines for state House districts were drawn in a way to dilute Latino voting power. The city of Chelsea could easily be a majority-Latino district, said Brenda Wright, the institute's managing attorney.

Some Latinos have won political office without the benefit of Latino-majority districts.

That was the argument made last month by a federal court in California, which dismissed a MALDEF lawsuit challenging redistricting of the state's congressional and legislative districts. The three-judge panel said that discrimination against Latinos in southern California elections had diminished to the point where they did not need the intervention of the court to win seats.

One condition for applying the Voting Rights Act to strengthening minority power in any redistricting plan is evidence that voting is racially or ethnically polarized. But in southern California, the court said, non-Latinos have shown a willingness to vote for Hispanics.

''It's an incredible injustice that needs to be fixed by the court system,'' said Thomas Saenz, MALDEF's vice president for litigation in Los Angeles. The group is still deciding whether to appeal to the Supreme Court.

Puerto Ricans Make Political Gains, Slowly

Number in elected office isn't on par with local population

By Daryl Nerl

JULY 21, 2002
©Copyright 2002 The Morning Call. All world rights reserved.

Inside a Clarion Hotel ballroom in Allentown, packed with a diverse and optimistic standing-room-only crowd, the January night belonged mostly to the new mayor, Democrat Roy C. Afflerbach.

But it also belonged, in healthy measure, to two of Afflerbach’s new political partners: City Council members Julio Guridy and Martin Velazquez III.

Guridy, a native of the Dominican Republic who immigrated to the United States through Puerto Rico, was sworn in as Allentown’s first Spanish-speaking councilman. His campaign had drawn new Puerto Rican voters.

"I think right now the community has the power to vote as a bloc for a candidate and make a tremendous impact…," Guridy says.

Velazquez, who eight years earlier became the first person of Puerto Rican heritage elected to a citywide office, was presented with a proclamation making him the city’s deputy mayor. Twice in the six months since then Velazquez has filled in for the mayor, running cabinet meetings and signing bills into law.

"Clearly there is certainly a lot of pride that goes with that," Velazquez says.

A half-century after their arrival in the Lehigh Valley, Puerto Ricans have become more visible and powerful in the political arena. However, they have not achieved a political parity that corresponds to their numbers in the area.

In Allentown, a city that is 17 percent Puerto Rican, one of seven city councilmen (14 percent) and one of nine school board members (11 percent) are Puerto Rican. Puerto Rico native Candido Garcia was elected to the Allentown School Board two years ago. These elections represent solid gains.

But in Bethlehem, a city that is 14 percent Puerto Rican, no elected officials hold citywide office, although Nancy Matos-Gonzalez has twice been elected district justice for heavily Latino south Bethlehem.

No Puerto Ricans and, indeed, no Latinos occupy any countywide offices in either Lehigh or Northampton counties. There is no one of Puerto Rican heritage in the Valley’s state legislative delegation in Harrisburg.

Eleven years after being elected, Matos-Gonzalez, a Democrat, remains the first and only Puerto Rican district justice in Pennsylvania. She doesn’t quite understand why others in Bethlehem have not been able to build on her success.

"I felt there was a momentum going when I was elected," says Matos-Gonzalez, who points to the efforts of dozens of others in achieving her success. "I was convinced at that point that there would be another. I do find it surprising that it has not happened in the interim.

"In some sense, we are underestimating ourselves."

Councilman Guridy says many Puerto Ricans are not registered to vote. The poorer ones are too concerned with survival. Others are moving into new homes, getting their children to school and working multiple jobs. They have little time for politics.

There is an atmosphere of mutual neglect, Guridy observed.

"I think the issue, to be blunt, is sometimes the politicos do not want to spend too much time in the Latino community because they feel the Latino community does not vote," he says. "The Latino community does not want to vote because the candidates don’t come around and talk to them."

Still, there are signs of a growing recognition between candidates and the Puerto Rican community, and of the entry of Puerto Ricans into governmental affairs. Two Puerto Ricans work as Latino affairs coordinators for state Sen. Lisa M. Boscola, D-Northampton. And the Valley’s last two congressmen, U.S. Rep. Pat Toomey, a Republican, and predecessor Paul McHale, a Democrat, hired Puerto Ricans to serve as staff directors of immigration affairs.

Candidates paid attention to the Latino vote in Allentown last fall when both Afflerbach and his mayoral campaign opponent, Republican Bob Lovett, courted Spanish-speaking voters. On the Sunday before the election, Lovett met with 15 Latino leaders, while Afflerbach walked the streets of a heavily Latino neighborhood with former school board candidate and fellow Democrat Maritza Alvarez making personal appeals on his behalf, in Spanish.

Puerto Ricans also have a local training ground for potential political candidates. Sponsored by state Democrats, a leadership class aimed at Latinos has taught its students how to run for office and organize political campaigns. So far it has produced Guridy, who in that class learned the value of fund raising and forming political alliances with non-Latinos.

Also, a faith-based organization has been working with Allentown churches, two of them Latino, to build grassroots campaigns to pressure city leaders toward neighborhood goals. One early success: the coming renovation of Buck Boyle Park, a 9-acre swath of center city green space neglected for a generation.

Paradoxically, political assertiveness among Puerto Ricans, observers say, has been hindered by their unique status among Latino groups as American citizens. Airfare — not a passport or a green card — is all they need to go back and forth between the mainland and the island, making new arrivals less likely to put down local roots.

Guridy says mobility of the community prevents many Puerto Ricans from exercising their right to vote: An address change means another visit to an election bureau to change registration.

But many Puerto Ricans have established strong attachments to the region. And now some of their second- and third-generation heirs — aided by interest groups — are edging toward politics.

The Council of Spanish Speaking Organizations has worked on registering voters and Congregations United for Neighborhood Action has taught residents how to lobby their government.

It was through the efforts of CUNA and parishioners organized at the heavily Latino Immaculate Conception Church on Ridge Avenue in Allentown that city officials in the first half of this year paid attention to Buck Boyle Park.

It’s not uncommon for successful political leaders in Latino communities to springboard from such community-based groups. In Hartford, Conn., a city that is about one-third Puerto Rican, Eddie Perez in 2000 was elected the first Puerto Rican mayor of a U.S. state capital city. Perez was first a successful neighborhood organizer and helped run a nonprofit corporation that built a system of alternative schools in the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

Allentown Councilman Velazquez emerged in 1992 as a leader in opposition to a bill sponsored by Councilwoman Emma Tropiano to make English the city’s official language. Four years earlier Tropiano had publicly blamed Latinos for the city’s growing crime problem, an accusation that began to galvanize the minority population.

In 1993, Velazquez became the first elected Latino in Allentown history. Four years later, Democrats nominated him to run for mayor. Velazquez lost the general election to incumbent Republican William L. Heydt, but reclaimed his council seat two years later.

In some ways, Velazquez is a bridge between the region’s Pennsylvania Dutch roots and the emerging Puerto Rican and larger Latino communities. His mother is Pennsylvania Dutch and he doesn’t speak Spanish.

Velazquez recalls his mother and grandmother speaking Dutch — really a German dialect — at home at Christmas to conceal the gifts the children would be getting. And he remembers his father, a popular baseball coach who helped start Allentown’s Connie Mack League, taking him on parranda, the house-to-house holiday visiting that’s traditional among Puerto Ricans.

"In retrospect," he says, "I was in a perfect position to run."

Yet despite his political success and his ethnic pride, he is not completely accepted by the Puerto Rican community.

"Marty [Velazquez] looks white, he sounds white, he speaks only English. The majority of his friends are white and he was born here," says Guridy, his fellow councilman. "I don’t know that he’s totally accepted."

Guridy and Guillermo Lopez, an Allentown activist, say the separateness some see in Velazquez is unfortunate because Velazquez is a good representative for the whole community. "He’s liked by many people," Guridy says. "That’s the way it should be, really."

It’s also unfortunate, Lopez says, because in Velazquez the Puerto Rican community has an opportunity to cultivate a unique advocate.

"Groups that are in a position lacking power have not figured out how to support the few leaders they have," says Lopez, executive director of Casa Guadalupe, an Allentown agency that offers a variety of services primarily for Hispanics.

In Bethlehem, District Justice Matos-Gonzalez said she too has been criticized from within the Puerto Rican community. The complaints are due partly to her even-handedness, she said. In court, she gives Latinos no breaks.

"I don’t always make the most popular decisions around here," she said. "[But] my whole point is that the worst harm I could have done for the Latino community was for me to fail" as an impartial judge.

Matos-Gonzalez was only 25 when she first won a hard-fought primary, defeating John Rybak, the son of a former state representative, and Joseph Bedics, a 25-year veteran of the Bethlehem Police Department.

Some whites expressed concerns that she would favor Latinos appearing before her court. "It is no small miracle that I was elected," she said.

Matos-Gonzalez was backed by state Sen. Jeanette Reibman, an influential Democrat. But the judge first credits the South Side community for realizing the importance of having someone with empathy in the job. It helped that predecessor John Gombosi, a man beloved by south Bethlehem’s Latinos for his compassion and cultural sensitivity, had paved the way.

Many people who had never voted before registered, Matos-Gonzalez said. Hundreds of people donated $10 to $20.

"One of the greatest personal experiences for me," she says, "was women in their 70s and 80s who had never voted before feeling that this was important enough to stand in line and vote."

Democrats Matos-Gonzalez, Velazquez and Guridy all represent beachheads of local Puerto Rican and Latino political strength. Whether others follow depends upon emerging issues and future candidates.

Leaders like Casa Guadalupe’s Lopez point out it’s presumptuous to assume that Puerto Ricans or any other demographic group adhere to a unified agenda or political perspective. "You mean you want us to behave like white people?" he facetiously asks.

That said, one issue that may unite Puerto Ricans and the Latino community is Allentown’s English-only law, which forbids the city from distributing nonemergency official notices in any other language. Among the politically savvy within the Latino and Puerto Rican community, there is talk of working to have it overturned.

Puerto Ricans and other Latinos have rallied behind certain candidates. Latino leaders point to Democrat McHale’s 1992 upset of Republican U.S. Rep. Don Ritter as the watershed event demonstrating the potential power of their vote as a bloc.

"Latinos came out in large numbers for McHale," says Delia Diaz, the Latino affairs coordinator for Boscola. "Since then, Latinos have become more politically conscious."

That consciousness may translate into more victories for candidates of Puerto Rican descent, but advocates fret that there are few willing candidates, especially among educated and affluent Puerto Ricans.

"The professionals that we have — many of whom are doctors, some of whom are engineers — have shown a complete lack of interest, thereby leaving the community at large adrift," says David Vaida, an Allentown attorney and Spanish radio personality. "They should be the ones who step up to the plate and show leadership. But they haven’t done anything."

Others are less accusatory.

"The reality of how upward mobility works in this society is that you don’t look back," says Lopez. "It’s no different in our community than it is in any other community when people are successful. What they are accumulating is for their family and their children, and to expose them to anything else is going to slow them down."

Boscola aide Diaz, who with the help of the Hispanic Leadership Institute in Chicago organized the leadership class that helped prepare Guridy to run for Allentown City Council, agrees.

"We haven’t been blessed with the opportunity of the right person wanting to run," Diaz says, meaning a well-respected, educated political activist with knowledge of the American political system and an ability to get along with people of all cultures.

"We have people like that right now," Diaz says, "but they have no interest in running for political office. They came here for other reasons."

Matos-Gonzalez says candidates have to be encouraged and developed in local Puerto Rican communities. "It is absolutely possible to empower," she says. "It’s absolutely possible to motivate. People who don’t think it can be done: It can be done."

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