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Growing Latino Political Power In New York: The Vote To Watch; Latinos Hold Potential To Swing Statewide And Local Elections

Latinos Hold Potential To Swing Statewide And Local Elections Series


August 25, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Newsday. All rights reserved. 

Inside a midtown Manhattan hotel banquet room in May, the predominantly white Republican delegates listened contentedly to the customary convention remarks from Gov. George Pataki.

Suddenly, Pataki gestured toward a line of waiters standing silently along the wall and told the delegates that he had been speaking to "the crew" beforehand.

"These are people who were born in Ecuador, in Cuba, in Albania, in Montenegro," Pataki said. "And they are here, living the American dream."

One waiter put down his tray and began clapping. The other waiters did the same. And then the delegates rose to their feet and joined the cascade of applause as Pataki declared, "We must be the party that reaches out to everyone."

As the fall elections near, the Latino vote is being contested as never before in a New York statewide race. Like Irish and Italian immigrants a century ago, Latino voters are poised to unsettle New York's traditional electoral math by their surging population and assertiveness. That has left both parties clambering for votes that until recently were assumed to be unshakably Democratic.

The full force of Latinos' potential for swinging elections was not felt until last year, when Fernando Ferrer's campaign for New York City mayor galvanized record Latino support, bringing to the polls thousands of registered Latinos who had never voted before. After Ferrer lost the Democratic primary runoff, enough discouraged Latinos either sat out the general election or supported Bloom- berg to help ensure his election.

In this year's state races, several closely watched contests - including for governor, attorney general and a state Senate primary Sept. 10 in Manhattan - will test whether Latinos' past allegiance to non-Hispanic politicians can be undone by candidates of Latino descent, and whether Republicans can pry away from Democrats a chunk of the Latino vote.

"In New York there's always been black politics and there's always been Jewish politics and candidates know, 'I'm going to cultivate this population and I'm not going to offend them.' By and large the Latino population has been ignored even as it grew," said Lorraine Cortz-Vzquez, the president of the Hispanic Federation, a Manhattan-based network of 74 Latino nonprofit organizations. "I think now it's realized that they're not going to vote as a bloc."

But even while Latino politicians and activists revel in their new sense of consequence, making inroads as far upstate as Rochester, the increasing weight is revealing cracks that threaten to weaken Latinos' ability to sway policy.

Longstanding political divergences between African-Americans and Latinos are becoming more apparent, as are the burgeoning divisions between Puerto Ricans - who account for most Latino elected officials and senior party leaders - and the growing numbers of Dominicans, Central Americans and Mexicans whose needs, unlike those of Puerto Ricans , are shaped by their immigrant status.

" Puerto Ricans for many decades have had a stranglehold on Latino politics and we were just following along," said Fernando Mateo, a prominent Dominican businessman from Westchester. "As citizens, they are well protected in terms of health insurance and their rights. They don't represent the issues that we have."

In addition, there are few if any Latino leaders who can command large numbers of votes with the same authority as black ministers, rabbis, union leaders, party bosses or any of the other traditionally influential New York power brokers.

"We've never had a Jesse Jackson or a Martin Luther King Jr.," said Angelo Falcn, the senior policy executive at the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund.

All this has made capturing the Latino vote an elusive quest, with this key question still unanswered: Will enough Latinos shed their Democratic allegiance to turn themselves into the most critical swing vote in New York State?

"You don't have to swing very much to be a swing constituency," said Jeffrey Plout, a pollster with the Global Strategy Group, a political consulting group.

Latinos now comprise 2.9 million of New York's 19 million residents and are increasing at a faster rate than any other ethnicor racial group, according to the 2000 Census. While Puerto Ricans remain New York's single most populous Latino group, they now are only 38 percent of the state's Latinos, having barely grown over the past decade. Instead, the state's rapid Latino growth during the 1990s - from 12 percent of the population to 15.1 percent - was driven by 1.4 million new Dominicans, Mexicans, Ecuadorans, Colombians and other Central and South Americans.

The growth spurt, through a combination of immigration and births here, helped Latinos move past blacks to become the largest minority group in New York City and on Long Island. Latinos make up a quarter of the city population and 10.3 percent of Long Island, where Salvadorans grew at the fastest rate.

But the new immigrants have been slow to gain political influence. Unlike Puerto Ricans , who are U.S. citizens at birth, these other Latinos must acquire green cards and be naturalized before they can register to vote - a process that usually takes five years.

Even then, Latinos are less likely to vote than white or black voters. Though Latinos now comprise 15 percent of the state's population, they amount to no more than 8 percent of the voting electorate, exit polls show.

For years, Democrats did not fear a Latino defection because Puerto Ricans and Dominicans - who together make up 61 percent of the Latino population in New York State - are among the most reliable Democratic voters. In New York City, 76 percent of Latinos are registered Democrats, ahead of the overall population's 68 percent, according to an analysis of Hispanic surnames in voter registration records performed this year by Jerry Skurnik, a partner in Prime New York, a Manhattan-based consulting firm.

But the Democrats' hold has slipped in several crucial areas. Puerto Rican politicians are no longer acting as beholden to the party that gave them their start. State Sen. Olga Mendez, a Democrat who represents East Harlem, endorsed Pataki in 1998 and has been backing his re-election. Also in February, Sen. Pedro Espada Jr. of the Bronx defected to sit with the Republicans who control that chamber. Younger aspiring politicians are also showing a willingness to consider the GOP.

Latino leaders who do not hold public office also have demonstrated a new receptivity to Republicans. Health care workers union president Dennis Rivera, who had fought bitterly with Pataki when he was first elected in 1994, this year glowingly endorsed the Republican governor. Rivera's union, Local 1199 SEIU, is aggressively aiding Pataki's re-election.

A less noticed but equally striking Pataki convert is Jos Ithier, a Ferrer protege and longtime economic development official in the Bronx who joined the Pataki administration this year. "I think the Republicans are finally saying, 'Hey, we haven't knocked on the door,'" Ithier said.

These defections underscore a reality that Democratic leaders have long tried to ignore: Latinos do not share the common historical bond of the civil rights movement that has bound together blacks and the Democratic Party. Despite the fact that blacks and Latinos share many of the same economic characteristics, they do not consider each other automatic allies in elections.

Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion Jr., a Democrat, said: "Unfortunately, I think there are still seeds of ethnic, racial division that don't allow Latinos or blacks to cross over and vote for each other in the way that they ought to, or simply based on the record of somebody."

A number of political experts believe the strong Catholicism among Latinos makes them additionally receptive to some of the GOP's social positions. Global Strategy recently surveyed voters on their views about whether drug dealers should be kicked out of public housing. The survey revealed that Latinos were more amenable to that idea than blacks or whites.

"That kind of idea created the notion for me that Latino voters shouldn't be a lock for the Democratic Party," Plout said.

On top of all of this, George W. Bush's ascension to the White House may help unburden New York's GOP from much of the national party's reputation for hostility to immigrants created by ventures such as Proposition 187, passed into California law in 1994 to deny basic government services to illegal immigrants, and presidential aspirant Pat Buchanan's insistence on building a wall along the Mexican border.

In New York the GOP may have an easier time recruiting converts from the newer Latino immigrants. Hispanics in the parts of Queens with larger populations from Central and South America are less Democratic than Latinos in the sections of Manhattan dominated by Hispanics of Caribbean heritage, according to Prime New York data.

John Mollenkopf, director of the Center for Urban Research at the CUNY Graduate Center, said of the Central and South American immigrants: "They tend to be more conservative. They tend to be somewhat more middle class, higher income, property owning."

Currently, these more recent immigrants have among the lowest registration rates of Latino groups, and they have not established political organizations of any effect, as have Puerto Ricans and Dominicans. The third most populous Latino group in the state are Mexicans, but they mostly congregate through their Catholic parishes, where priests are not politically active in the way that African-American church leaders are.

"The Mexican community, the vast majority don't vote," said Alfred Placeres, an immigration lawyer who is president of the state's Federation of Hispanic Chambers of Commerce. "A lot have become citizens not to vote but to petition their relatives" - that is, to bring them to the United States.

When it comes to fielding their own candidates, other groups are moving along in their political maturity.

William Salgado, a Colombian lawyer who made a previous unsuccessful bid for the state Assembly, is running this fall for an open State Senate seat in Corona. Last year, two Ecuadorans and a Dominican competed against a Puerto Rican , Hiram Monserrate, in the Democratic primary for the 21st City Council District representing Corona, East Elmhurst and Jackson Heights.

Although Monserrate won, he was attacked by the other candidates as a product of the "Bronx Puerto Rican machine." Angel Del Villar, a Dominican candidate, complained during the race that the Queens Democratic organization, which backed Monserrate, "still believes that everyone that speaks Spanish is Puerto Rican " and that "there are other Hispanic groups that are not being allowed to grow politically."

Among Republicans, no candidate has cultivated these new Latinos with more energy than Pataki. Though the governor showed little interest in Latino issues when he was elected in 1994, he earned points last year when he came out against the Navy bombing practice on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques .

Other Pataki efforts have been less flashy than his Vieques stance but perhaps more substantial. Last year Pataki set up a state citizenship unit to help undocumented immigrants get their green cards under a limited federal amnesty program.

He has lobbied the federal government to make it easier for Colombians to stay in the United States to avoid the violence back home, sent the state's National Guard to help Caribbean and South American countries struck by earthquakes and floods, and traveled to the Dominican Republic to offer his assistance to the families of those killed on American Airlines Flight 587, which crashed in Queens last fall on its way to Santo Domingo.

Pataki's most substantive legislative appeal to Latinos has been in the area of health care. In 1998, with his first term nearing its end, Pataki dropped his resistance to expanding Child Health Plus, the state program that uses federal money to subsidize the cost of health care for poor children with incomes too high to qualify for Medicaid. The following year, Pataki and the Legislature created Family Health Plus, which subsidized health insurance for poor adults who worked in jobs that did not provide insurance yet earned too much to receive Medicaid.

Democrats complained that Pataki had taken credit for their ideas by starring in tens of millions of dollars worth of public service advertisements urging people to enroll in Child and Family Health Plus. They also noted that for five years, Pataki refused to extend Medicaid coverage to recent immigrants, until the state's highest court ruled last year that New York's resistance violated the state and federal constitutions.

Pataki received only a quarter of the Latino vote in 1998. Still, Latino voters' favorable rating of Pataki, which was only 20 percent when he was first elected, has skyrocketed to 73 percent in this summer's annual Hispanic Federation survey.

"We hadn't really expected very much from Pataki," said Falcn, the executive at the Puerto Rican legal defense fund. "Mario Cuomo, we battled with because we had high expectations."

Falcn recalled that a year or two ago, he was surprised to be invited to a brainstorming session attended by the governor, and even more amazed by other prominent and outspoken Latinos who were present. "That's when I realized Pataki was so flexible," Falcn said.

Earlier this year, Falcn's group issued a report complaining that Pataki had appointed only two Latino judges, one to the Appellate Division and the other to the lower Court of Claims. The report stated those appointments were "widely viewed within the Hispanic community as simply an election-year move in light of his previous failure to appoint a Hispanic in his last seven years in office to any of the 28 vacancies he had to fill in the Appellate Division."

"We released that report on a Monday," Falcn said. "On Friday, he met with a group of Latinos and announced he was appointing two Latino judges to the Appellate Division. I had never had that kind of response to anything I'd done before." Today, Pataki has appointed a total of five Latino judges.

As he seeks a third term, Pataki established his own group of Latino campaign supporters, named "Amigos de Pataki." The ultimate success of Pataki's effort could go a long way to clarifying Latinos' willingness to abandon the Democratic Party for a white candidate who aggressively courts them. This election will be a good test, for both of Pataki's Democratic rivals have strong appeal among Latinos.

Andrew Cuomo is relying on the lingering popularity of the gubernatorial administration of his father, Mario, as well as his life's work on housing issues, which rank as among the most important to Latinos, along with education and the economy.

"He's not going to fool anyone," Cuomo said on a televised debate last week. "You go to the Latino community and ask, 'Do you have more affordable housing? Are the schools better? Do you have a minimum wage increase? Are the Rockefeller drug laws reformed?' No."

The other Democratic candidate, State Comptroller H. Carl McCall, has already started running television advertisements in which Ferrer praises him.

"The sophisticated people out there are making a distinction between their new friend and their true friend. Gov. Pataki has become a new friend of the Latino community because he realizes, boy, this community really comes out and votes," McCall said during the debate. "Those people are going to stay with us."

Such confidence aside, state election board records show that McCall is not relying on good will alone to snag the Latino vote. This year, McCall and his unofficial running mate, Dennis Meheil, have paid $124,755 to two consultants for their advice and coveted Latino voter lists. The duo - Roberto Ramirez, the former Bronx Democratic leader, and Luis Miranda Jr., the founder of the Hispanic Federation - have parlayed their stints in public service into the most influential Latino consulting partnership in the state.

Aside from Pataki's efforts, the GOP's other main push to win Latino votes is taking place in the attorney general's race. There, the Republicans have put up their first Hispanic statewide candidate, former city Circuit Judge Dora Irizarry, against incumbent Eliot Spitzer, whose office has worked to dissuade Korean grocers and supermarkets who pay well below minimum wage to their mostly Latino workers, deliverymen and day laborers.

While most political experts do not expect Irizarry to come close to beating Spitzer, they are eager to see how much of the Latino vote she can pull away from the Democratic Party solely on the basis of her Latino heritage.

"I think these elections are going to be crucial because they will give the politicians an indication of where Latinos are going to go," said Dolores Fern ... ndez, the president of Eugenio Mara de Hostos Community College of The City University of New York. "Years ago the Democratic Party could really count on the Latinos. I don't think that is true any more."

Next: A State Senate primary exposes divisions.

Rising Force

The percentage of Hispanics among the state population has been on the rise for the past decade, fueled primarily by a surge of Central and South Americans.

1990 2000
Non-Hispanic White 69% 62%
Non-Hispanic Black 14% 16%
Hispanic 12% 15%
Asian 4% 6%
Other 1% 1%
Puerto Rican 1.1 million 1.1 million (0% increase)
Dominican 336,625 652,347 (78% increase)
Colombian 111,419 152,715 (37% increase)
Ecuadoran 92,569 177,957 (92% increase)
Mexican 86,131 274,480 (219% increase)
Salvadoran 48,956 105,639 (116% increase)
Total Hispanic 2.2 million 2.9 million (32% increase)

While Hispanics' numbers have increased, they remain clustered in the metro area. Several Hispanic groups saw their numbers soar, while Puerto Ricans remained steady.

SOURCE: Lewis Mumford Center for Comparative Urban and Regional Research

The Dominican Factor: Group struggles with political growing pains

By Jordan Rau

August 26, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Newsday. All rights reserved. 

On a humid evening in Washington Heights earlier this month, Adriano Espaillat paced the floor of a church basement converted for the night into the home of the political club he founded a decade ago on his way to becoming the first Dominican elected to a state Legislature anywhere in the country.

With a colorful background of campaign posters plastered over the church's ocher walls, the assemblyman, who has represented this neighborhood since 1996, briefed about 80 club members on the various candidates the club was supporting.

It was a typical meeting of the club but for one anomaly: the presence of a guest who had never before been welcome. Sitting quietly at the front table was Espaillat's archrival, Guillermo Linares, who in 1991 narrowly defeated Espaillat in a City Council primary to represent Washington Heights.

Since that election, these two top Dominican-American elected officials had been engaged in a feud considered fierce even by the rancorous standards of New York politics. Each recruited proteges to challenge the other's re-election, while their surrogates, groomed in their dueling Democratic clubs, vied for control of ground-level posts within the county Democratic organization.

"All these years we've been fighting him and he's been fighting us," said José Fernández, the current president of Espaillat's club. "This is the first time we're going to run a campaign together."

Linares and Espaillat herald their new cooperation - sealed by a deal in which Espaillat agreed to back Linares' bid for State Senate in return for Linares' support should Espaillat run for Manhattan borough president in two years - as evidence of the maturation of Dominicans in New York State politics. "There's going to be a unity that's going to be explosive," Linares, who was forced to retire from the City Council last year because of term limits, told Espaillat's club that night.

Yet New York's Dominican leaders are far from unified, even as Dominican residents realize that their burgeoning population has made them a force to be reckoned with in city and state politics. If anything, the fissures among the Dominican leadership are growing wider as they scramble to become power brokers for an ethnic group that has until recently been considered little more than an adjunct to the older Puerto Rican political establishment.

Other immigrant groups are likely to experience similar growing pains as they mature, making the current Dominican divisions a particularly valuable object lesson for the Mexicans, Ecuadorans and Salvadorans in the city and on Long Island.

While Linares and Espaillat consolidate their influence, a new generation of Dominican aspirants for higher office are bristling at their lack of opportunities. "By making those deals between the two without trying to bring Dominican leaders together, I think it doesn't show a level of inclusion," said Ydanis Rodríguez, who has run against the clubs' candidates for City Council.

Meanwhile, a number of prominent city Dominicans, including businessman Fernando Mateo, are aiding the creation of the first Latino Republican club in Washington Heights, which would be quite an accomplishment since Dominicans historically have been among the most loyal Democratic voters. (Eighty-one percent of Hispanics in the 72nd Assembly District are registered Democrats, one of the highest rates in the city.) Mateo is also spearheading one of the most aggressive Latino fund-raising efforts for Gov. George Pataki's re-election, raising by his own estimation $400,000 so far.

"When there's only one airline the tickets are expensive, but when there's more than one there's competition and they have to make sure they do their best," said Ramón Tallaj, a Dominican physician who is helping to organize the new club.

At the same time that Democratic and Republican leaders are grasping for new influence, some of the most respected Dominican elders fret that the needs of regular Dominican immigrants and citizens, many of whom remain working-class, have been neglected in the quest for power.

"I think we have lost a lot," said Rafael Lantigua, a veteran Dominican activist who is professor of clinical medicine at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. "In the 1970s, we were very idealistic. The leadership was not there for themselves. At that point we were thinking about the people, how to improve the quality of life for Dominicans.

"Now the leadership's goal is to go after this position or that position," Lantigua said. "It's more selfish, more about ego. We have not been able to achieve a real agenda."

Over the past decade, the Dominican population more than doubled to more than 650,000 people, making it New York State's single largest immigrant group, according to the Lewis Mumford Center for Comparative Urban and Regional Research at SUNY Albany. Although Puerto Ricans still outnumber other Latino groups and, as U.S. citizens by birth, are all entitled to vote, their population stagnated in the past decade while Dominicans accounted for half of New York's Latino growth.

And while Puerto Ricans are dispersing out of the city and to Long Island and other suburbs as they blend into the middle class, most of the state's Dominican population remains clustered in the Washington Heights and Inwood neighborhoods of upper Manhattan, making it a potentially cohesive political group. It is from there that Dominicans have had their greatest political successes, controlling two seats on the City Council and one in the Legislature.

It is widely anticipated that if U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel (D-Harlem) were to retire he would be replaced by the first Dominican member of Congress. Dominican neighborhoods are expanding in parts of Brooklyn and Queens in numbers large enough to make them potent forces there.

Historically, Dominican churches avoided politics and the first political clubs were consumed by affairs back in the Dominican Republic. So the principal sources of political power in Washington Heights have been social service agencies. Because they depend on government support, these nonprofits are places of political sophistication, making them ideal training grounds for aspiring office holders and power brokers. Before running for City Council, Linares, for instance, helped found the Community Association of Progressive Dominicans.

The largest of the nonprofits is Alianza Dominicana, started by Lantigua, a doctor at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center. Exasperated by city hospital budget cuts that forced layoffs and long waiting lines for patients, in the early 1980s, Lantigua and a fellow Dominican, Moises Pérez, decided to set up a separate social service agency to help deal with problems in Washington Heights. In 1987, Alianza Dominicana was created to provide drug addiction treatment, child and day care services and youth development efforts.

But Alianza found it hard to get money from New York City and the state because, said Pérez, the group's executive director, much of the money had traditionally gone to established, predominantly "Anglo" community organizations.

In 1989, Lantigua and Pérez ramped up their political activism by backing the candidacy of David Dinkins, the Manhattan borough president seeking to become New York City's first black mayor. After Dinkins' election, Lantigua headed his transition team.

Soon, Alianza began winning more city grants, including $1 million for a drug treatment program for mothers. The Dinkins administration also chose Alianza as one of 10 organizations to operate citizenship classes, English courses and youth recreation programs in schools from the afternoon until 10 p.m.

"With Dinkins, we were allowed to compete on a level playing field," Pérez said.

Rudolph Giuliani's 1993 defeat of Dinkins, however, showed the downside of their overt political activism. Suspecting that Alianza and other social service groups had aided Dinkins' campaign, the Giuliani administration's Department of Investigation spent weeks poring over Alianza's books.

While no illegalities were found, Alianza's city grant support was slashed in half, hobbling its programs. The group slowly rebuilt its relationship with the city, aided by grants from Pataki. Alianza received $6.9 million last year from government support, underwriting 78 percent of Alianza's budget, according to the group's tax records.

But Alianza was not well known outside upper Manhattan until it became an outspoken advocate for the Dominicans whose relatives including, in some cases, entire families, were killed in November when American Airlines Flight 587 crashed in Queens on its way to Santo Domingo.

Lantigua and Pérez have demurred from seeking what Pérez calls "the incredible pull" of elective office. "I love politics, but the elected officials act not from a position of leadership, not from what needs to be done, but from a perspective of a need to be re-elected," Pérez said. "They're more into punishing any other sort of leadership that emerges, because they're so vulnerable."

"I have 300 employees," Pérez said. "There is not a single elected official who can say, 'I influenced 300 people.'"

Not surprisingly, such views grate office holders and their supporters. "When you live up there and you see these characters day after day, you're like, this is the leadership of the Dominican community?" said political consultant Luis Miranda Jr., a Puerto Rican who is Linares' campaign treasurer. "If Lantigua or Tallaj were to run tomorrow, they'll get 10 percent of the vote. The elected officials are the people who are tested day in and day out. They have a record you can look at.'"

But nonprofit leaders and elective officeholders are not the only routes Dominicans have taken to leadership. Consider Fernando Mateo, who built a carpet-laying business from scratch and then gained national renown for his creative efforts to stem crime.

In 1991, he started a trade school on Rikers Island for first-time nonviolent offenders. Two years later, he launched the Toys for Guns campaign, which provided a way for illegal gun owners to swap their weapons for toy store gift certificates without fear of arrest. In 1998, Mateo found his first more or less permanent advocacy perch as the unpaid president of the New York State Federation of Taxi Drivers, which was overwhelmed by a spate of murders of livery drivers.

Mateo emerged as not just creative but combative, using the threat of a mock funeral on City Hall's steps to wrangle $5 million from a resistant Giuliani administration for bulletproof partitions in cabs. Pataki proved more receptive, Mateo said, and helped the livery drivers' families secure money through the state's victims fund to pay for funerals and support children. The governor also signed into law harsher punishments for people convicted of killing livery cab drivers.

As Pataki's re-election campaign neared, Mateo volunteered to organize Gran Fiesta Pataki, a $500-a-head fund-raiser. On March 13, about 800 paying guests crammed into a Manhattan hotel ballroom and listened to three Dominican bands perform. Mateo said he is also helping raise money for John Faso, the GOP's candidate for state comptroller.

Other Dominican businessmen are also engaging in this avenue of political involvement. "We are coming into our own. We have actually grown in the political process," said Livio Sánchez, the owner of a Bronx construction company who organized a June fund-raiser for Pataki at his home in Westchester. "We are open to any political party, Democrat or Republican, as long as we get a piece of the pie. We are no longer the followers."

Mateo has already moved beyond New York State politics. He is about to launch a group called the National Hispanic Republican Forum, which will bring together GOP senators, mayors and other elected Republicans from around the country to talk about Latino topics. He is also starting up a nonprofit civil rights organization, Hispanics Across America, to fill what he sees as a void in studies about Latino culture, medical issues and the like.

Politics in Washington Heights are changing as well. This year, with Linares' candidacy, the neighborhood has a chance to elect the first Dominican to the State Senate, after lawmakers in Albany created a new district that takes into account their extensive population.

Linares' bid, however, has been far from unifying, because to win he must first defeat Sen. Eric Schneiderman, a Democrat whom the Republican leaders of the Senate lumped into the new 31st Senate District when they drew the boundaries to include the Upper West Side blocks where Schneiderman lives. Few people in Albany think that was an accident; Republican senators openly loathe Schneiderman for his obstructionist tactics and for aggressively assisting challengers to sitting GOP senators' re-elections two years ago.

The primary has not just divided prominent Dominicans, but also split the city's Democratic leadership, with many fearing the campaign will be a replay of last year's acrimonious, racially charged mayoral primary. Earlier this year, an editorial in the Manhattan Times, which was founded by Luis Miranda, faulted Schneiderman for making "racist comments" when he insinuated that Linares' campaign was working in tandem with the GOP to get rid of him.

Linares insists that Washington Heights would best be served by someone from the neighborhood, and notes a decade of success on the City Council, where he opened new schools to relieve overcrowding and helped arrange for the first police precinct in the area. Linares has been endorsed by Dinkins, former mayoral candidate Fernando Ferrer and Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The unusual scenario of the Republican mayor interjecting in a Democratic primary has inflamed accusations of a tacit GOP-Linares alliance.

A number of noted Dominicans are supporting Schneiderman because of his progressive record on issues such as the minimum wage, which they say is more important than Linares' heritage. "It is an insult, it's racism to come to me and say I have to vote for someone because they are Latino," Lantigua said.

Roberto Lizardo, a school board president and past candidate, complains: "They want to be Democrats but also want to play under the table to work for Pataki or Bloomberg." Miranda says such grievances have "nothing to do with principle" but are motivated out of pique from failed office seekers.

The one thing shared by the prominent Dominicans, whether they are Democrat, Republican, elected or not, is an acknowledgment that all these power struggles have not benefited Washington Heights.

"If we were all united as one, if we didn't have so many things dividing us, if Adriano Espaillat, if Lantigua, if Moises, if Linares - including myself - would all come together for one agenda, it would be wonderful," Mateo said. "But unfortunately there are so many different agendas that it keeps us weak. And people play us that way."

Hispanics Making Their Mark Upstate

Andrew Metz.

August 27, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Newsday. All rights reserved. 

Last of three parts

Rochester - So much in this faded industrial city speaks of the past, of the glory days when the now graying edifices of Main Street were brimming with business and Eastman Kodak, which was founded here, could always be counted on for a job.

But on a hot August night, in the heart of a downtown usually empty come dark, the future is erupting.

Horns and drums and voices, working up an intoxicating Latin beat, call kindred spirits to the city's outdoor plaza, where young men from La Avenida, the local barrio, sway and strut, beauty queens in pastel taffeta wave at adoring families and a stew of scents - frying dough, sizzling meat, tropical fruits - loads the air.

"What I see is Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Dominicans. You are my city," Gladys Santiago, a city councilwoman, said to the early crowd arriving for the raising of the Puerto Rican flag at the beginning of the community's annual festival. "We are all Latinos and we must be proud of what we have done in Rochester."

More than half a century after the first Hispanics arrived here, they are as much a part of Rochester as the industries that made it famous. In City Hall and the county legislature, the schools and the board of education, the police department and the courts, the Democratic Party and the GOP, they have assumed positions of power and made their city a bellwether for Latino potential elsewhere.

"We are to be addressed and every opportunity I get I let people know it," said Santiago, part of the fullest slate of elected Hispanics in the city's history - a councilwoman, county legislator, school board member and judge.

While Latinos living in upstate New York have yet to achieve the presence or prominence of their brethren in the New York City area, there are signs of influence and organization accompanying a population outpacing any other group in the state.

Even as many places in the economically anemic upstate region lost people during the past decade, the number of Hispanics has consistently risen - in small, rural communities and in the major centers - jumping almost 50 percent here in Monroe County, home to roughly 40,000 Latinos, the largest concentration upstate.

The overall population is still small, generally less than 5 percent of the total, a few thousand in most counties. But the experience of Rochester, and more modest inroads from Buffalo to the Capital District, suggest it is only a matter of time before social and political changes are more widely felt.

"All of America is destined to be influenced by the growth of the Hispanic population and upstate is like much of the Midwest and the South in this respect, in that it is behind the curve ... but the impact is going to come," said John Logan, director of the Lewis Mumford Center for Comparative Urban and Regional Research at SUNY Albany, which has been studying the Hispanic population using census data.

In Rochester, the state's third largest city with 219,000 people, Hispanics now make up about 13 percent of the population - a distinctly smaller segment than non-Hispanic blacks, at almost 40 percent, but more than the 8-percent share they had a decade ago. Their profile in the private and public sectors is high, but they are not a majority in any voting district and are hobbled by upstate economic realities, high crime rates and lackluster electoral participation.

Like many Latinos elsewhere, they typically live in enclaves, where at least a quarter of the residents are below the poverty line, according to the Mumford Center's analysis of census data. Overall, more than half of the Latino population here makes less than $30,000 a year, a figure consistent with cities such as Buffalo and Syracuse.

Yet, by dint of determination, individual ambition and savvy alliances, many have stepped over these barriers.

"A lot of us were able to develop the political process to our advantage," said Jose Cruz, a Monroe County legislator, standing under a tent at the Puerto Rican festival with a cadre of prominent Hispanics: an assistant attorney general; a young Democratic Party leader; a cardiologist; and a trendsetter of the Latino political establishment, Nancy Padilla, former school board member, city councilwoman and mayoral candidate.

Last month Cruz was ousted as the legislature's Democratic minority leader, rankling fellow Latinos. But he has been more sanguine about the overthrow.

"There are a lot of communities that haven't even got one [legislator] in," he said. "It is all part of our development."

Indeed, as with Latinos downstate, coming of age has been accompanied by divisions and questions about ethnic loyalty and political sway.

Latinos have traditionally aligned themselves with the Democratic Party, but there are an increasing number of them entertaining the advances of the Republican camp. Last year, the party here ran Luis Perez, a pastor, for mayor against the popular Democratic incumbent, William Johnson, an African-American, who had solid Hispanic support. Perez lost, but his candidacy energized the GOP in the overwhelmingly Democratic city. He is now the city party leader and active on the county level, where Republicans control the legislature.

"We've not yet discovered the power of our numbers," said Perez, who encouraged two other Hispanic Republicans to run in the 2001 city and county elections. "This is the next step."

Mostly Puerto Rican men and their families began arriving in earnest in Rochester in the 1950s, and right away, the pioneers plunged into politics and established service and advocacy groups that continue to be pillars.

Early on, Rochester was also an important civil rights battleground. In 1965, a young woman named Maria Lopez was barred from registering to vote in Monroe County because she couldn't read or write English to the satisfaction of election supervisors. Lopez, who was educated in Puerto Rico, took her case to court and ultimately helped overturn a provision in the state constitution requiring citizens to be proficient in English to vote.

"We have really been a model of grassroots development and mobilization," said Padilla, the former Democratic city councilwoman. Her father was among the trailblazers and a founder of the Hispanic Republican committee in the 1960s.

Now the director of the Puerto Rican Youth Development and Resource Center, she made history herself in 1981, when she was the first Latino elected to the school board and later the city council.

Since then, there have always been Hispanics in local government.

"They gave us nothing for free," said Pedro Pedraza, 80, the first Latino Democratic committeeman from the Northeast barrio section of the city. Sitting around his kitchen table with his daughter, Gladys Pedraza-Burgos, a minority affairs counselor at the University of Rochester, he said, "We earned what we got, slowly but surely."

Among the younger generation and newer immigrants from places such as Cuba, Mexico and the Dominican Republic, there is some restlessness with the pace.

"A lot of this now is window dressing," said Hector Gonzalez, 33, who works in the city's human resour- ces department and was raised in the Bronx. "We are going to grow and people can't ignore that, but how are we going to use those emerging numbers? We are either going to use them or people are going to use us."

Still, few other places upstate have yet to engage in this kind of debate and introspection.

In counties close to New York City and through the mid-Hudson Valley, where the numbers are larger and the growth is more pronounced, there are Latino elected officials, vibrant organizations and visible cultural influence. In Buffalo, Hispanics have started their own party, though it is marginal. Syracuse voters have elected a city councilwoman and a school board member. And in Albany and Amsterdam, Latinos have run for office and are involved in business and community leadership.

Mostly though, the focus is still on day-to-day life.

"The priorities become, how do you survive, how do you live, not how can we organize to get one of our people on the school board or the city council," said Laudelina Martinez, who runs an art gallery in Troy.

Many Latinos in these upstate cities originally arrived for jobs in mills that were soon to shut down and ended up unemployed, needy and resented.

Schenectady Mayor Al Jurczinski said the Hispanic population in his city has not achieved a recognizable unity outside the churches and is still commonly perceived as being mired in drugs and crime.

"There have been some that have come up here that have had problems with the law," said Jurczinski, whose city is the center of a county that lost population in the census count, but had an 86- percent increase in Hispanics, from 2,489 to 4,639. "And unfortunately a lot of them have been painted with that brush citywide."

Ladan Alomar, the executive director of Centro Civico of Amsterdam, said many Latinos are still trying to overcome these stereotypes on top of fitting into a new community.

"It takes time for an immigrant to come to a new land, learn the language, feel at home, stabilize to a level of comfort to start saying, 'OK, now I can run for office,'" she said. "That is something that we've started seeing, but it has only started."

This hasn't stopped politicians from taking notice. Several upstate lawmakers said they routinely attend functions held by Hispanics and solicit their support. For political candidates in Rochester, courting Latinos has become routine.

This year, Perez escorted Assemb. Joseph Robach through the crowds at the Puerto Rican festival, helping the Democrat turned Republican in his bid for a State Senate seat that represents the city.

"Before you even get to politics, the Latino population in Rochester is an important one, growing both culturally and economically," Robach said. "They speak up and that is reflected politically."

Most Latinos here, however, are not inclined to interpret the respect they have earned for the clout they still seek.

"We've gotten pretty good at what we've done so far," said John Rodriguez, a leader of the Latino Advocacy Coalition, an organization attempting to plot the community's next stage. "But we have sort of plateaued at what we can do under the previous stage. Now it is all about the excitement of the possibilities."

There is pressure to move fast, but this may be the hardest part yet, with an emerging middle class, persistent social needs and a pulling at political allegiances.

"There will be divisiveness," said Rodriguez, over a meal of root vegetables and codfish at a popular Puerto Rican luncheonette. "We're not monolithic, but what we can agree on is that we want to be heard."

Nearby on Clinton Avenue, the inner city strip known as La Avenida, car windows are rolled down and radios blare, though not loud enough to drown out the horns and the shouts of "Domingo" directed at a portly man wiping his brow on a corner.

Domingo Martinez, 62, an elder statesman for the Latino community and host of the popular Spanish language radio show, Super Pegajosa, waves to the passing admirers and bemoans a shooting that has just taken place a few blocks away.

"When I first came here there was only one Latino grocery store," he said. "We're getting there. But we've got a long way to go and if we can't do it through the Democrats then we'll do it through the Republicans. It doesn't matter."

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