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A Puerto Rican Icon Loses Sight of Her People

By Howard Jordan

January 7, 2003
Copyright © 2003 Newsday, Inc.. All rights reserved. 

When State Sen. Olga Mendez announced last month she was switching her party affiliation from Democratic to Republican, the move sent ripples through the Puerto Rican political establishment.

Ardent Democratic leaders cavalierly dismissed the senator's defection as "good riddance" to a Democratic turncoat who had endorsed Republicans Rudolph Giuliani, Michael Bloomberg and George Pataki. To the Republicans, it was another win, allowing Republicans to control 38 out of 62 Senate seats.

What does the senator's defection mean for the Latino community?

As the first Puerto Rican woman elected to the State Legislature, Mendez is a pioneer. For 30 years, she has represented East Harlem, once viewed as the Mecca of the Puerto Rican community. Mendez is also correct in her denunciation of the Democratic Party for having taken Latinos for granted. Republican Gov. George Pataki recognized the importance of Latinos politically when he ran a Puerto Rican woman for attorney general and embraced issues important to this community such as the growing protests over naval bombing in Vieques. Altogether, he garnered 38 percent of the Latino vote.

Having given the senator her props, let me now turn to her decision. The 76-year-old senator has demonstrated that not only have her years in office diminished her eyesight, they have also affected her insight. She now argues that Democrats can no longer represent the interests of Latinos, blacks and others.

Please, senator, spare me. Can los Republicanos? This is the party that is on the precipice of launching America into a war where countless Latinos will die on the front lines. It is the Republican Party that has denied Americans basic medical coverage resulting in Latinos having the highest rates of diabetes, hypertension and breast cancer (a disease the senator herself successfully survived). And let's not forget that this party, as embodied by the Republican governor and the mayor, is prepared to close a budget gap on the backs of Latino and African-American municipal workers, particularly those in the Transportation Workers Union.

While I attribute the senator's change to her lack of vision, detractors offer compelling evidence to indicate that this was a blatant act of self-dealing. State Sen. David Paterson, the new Democratic minority leader, said he would strip all colleagues who supported Republicans.

Mendez stood to loose her leadership position and a $16,500 stipend. All of the sudden the senator says, "I know when I'm not wanted." Some speculate that she will retire in two years or be named to a post in the Pataki administration.

During Mark Green's mayoral campaign, the same day the state senator crossed party lines to declare Michael Bloomberg as "truly qualified to run our city," it was later reported that the Bloomberg campaign paid $40,000 to the senator's political club.

Equally troubling has been the response of the Puerto Rican officialdom to the senator's defection. The same political goombahs such as Bronx County Chairman Robert Ramirez and former chairman José Rivera, Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrión and the former borough president Fernando Ferrer were quick to note that "tenemos que respetar su decision" (we have to respect her decision).

Wait a minute. Aren't these the same guys who attacked state Sen. Pedro Espada and called him "treasonous" for only threatening to switch his Democratic Party affiliation? (He lost his seat to Republicrat Ruben Diaz.) Espada never even switched; Mendez did. But then again, Mendez's novo-Republican credentials will give her entree to Pataki and Bloomberg.

Most Latinos are not wedded to party identification and will continue to vote for Democrats with occasional excursions into the Republican camp based on given political personalities. Olga Mendez lost a golden opportunity. With an African-American minority leader like David Paterson and state chairman Denny Farrell, she could have helped to build the coveted real Black-Latino coalition within the Democratic Party.

Blessed is the leader who seeks the best for those she serves. It is time for Republican Mendez to be retired from office by a true Democrat. Mendez, a Puerto Rican icon, has betrayed her party and the genuine interest of su pueblo (her people) when she switched parties. She sacrificed a lifetime of commitment to the Puerto Rican community on the altar of questionable gain or political profit.

At the twilight of her political career, it is a tragic and bitterly disappointing legacy to a Puertorriquena that has given us so much.

Howard Jordan is a political columnist for Hoy, a Spanish language city daily, and host of "Urban Affairs," a program on WBAI-FM.AP File Photo

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