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Black And Hispanic Acceptance Eludes Mayor, Despite His Efforts


February 5, 2004
Copyright ©2004 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved.

From the time he took office as a Republican mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg has made repeated and explicit efforts to reach out to black and Hispanic residents, from giving unvarnished apologies for police mistakes to speaking at Al Sharpton's headquarters on the observance of Martin Luther King's birthday.

Moreover, in a noticeable shift from his predecessor, he has made social issues like low-income housing a central goal of his administration, a policy that is likely to favor blacks and Hispanics.

Through it all, though, his approval ratings among black and Hispanic New Yorkers have been poor. The ratings began fairly strong, considering that he is a Republican, but they have slipped during his first two years in office.

Even this week, just days after his emotional and applauded appearance at a funeral for a 19-year-old black man who was the victim of a police shooting, his approval numbers have not risen above 35 percent among blacks or Hispanics – substantially below the approval rating he is given by white New Yorkers, which rose to 53 percent in the same poll.

The results among black residents are somewhat better than what Rudolph W. Giuliani saw at a similar point in his first term, but not much improved, especially considering what many regarded as the polarizing nature of Mr. Giuliani's policies and style. Among Hispanics, Mr. Bloomberg's rating is even lower than Mr. Giuliani's at this point.

An examination of polling data and interviews with residents and political experts suggest strongly that Mr. Bloomberg's problems are not rooted in classic party loyalty or in any fundamental suspicion that the mayor's policies or thinking is discriminatory. Instead, the disapproval is based much more on economics, specifically the belief that the billionaire Mr. Bloomberg somehow cannot relate to black and Hispanic residents' everyday lives.

Though whites have also indicated in polls and interviews that they resent the mayor for raising taxes, particularly the property tax, the issue has a particular resonance among middle-class blacks and Hispanics, many of whom are first-time homeowners or work in or own small businesses.

"What do I think of Bloomberg? Forget it," said Raymond Santos, a real estate businessman in the Bronx, when asked his views on the mayor. "The property tax thing was insane, completely insane, and even though we get this one-time rebate back, it showed he doesn't understand how tough it is out here. He should never have done it in the first place."

His comments were echoed in numerous interviews around the city. Leeanna Joseph, a waitress at Carmichaels diner in Queens, said that she found Mr. Bloomberg to be "someone who doesn't relate to the average person."

"I know he has a lot of money," she added, "and I think that he just doesn't understand the regular person."

Mr. Bloomberg's aides said the lackluster approval ratings and reaction to Mr. Bloomberg were a disappointment but not unsurmountable.

"We think that our job is to hammer away at the big problems and move the smaller ones off the table," said William T. Cunningham, the mayor's communications director. "And that's what we've been doing. Of course, we would like the numbers to be higher in every demographic group, but we're not here to achieve certain poll numbers in February of 2004. We're here to accomplish things for the city of New York."

Indeed, Mr. Bloomberg has said all along that polls matter little to him. But the issue of his standing among blacks and Hispanics goes beyond the numbers. Politically, it is no small hurdle to clear. His likely opponents when he seeks re-election in 2005 include at least three black candidates and one Hispanic candidate. The opinions of people like the Rev. Kirby Spivey 3rd, a youth minister at the Calvary Baptist Church in Jamaica, Queens – he feels the mayor "seems to be kind of in his own world" – will take on added weight.

"He spent so much money on his campaign that it seems he bought the mayoralty," Mr. Spivey said. "And he doesn't seem like he understands the common man and woman."

Opinions can change, particularly at a time when the economy is perking up, less drastic budget decisions are ahead and Mr. Bloomberg has at his disposal a vast income to bombard the airwaves with the accomplishments of his administration and good news from the Bloomberg years.

Mr. Bloomberg is already seeing some improvement among all New Yorkers. Poll results announced yesterday by Quinnipiac University show his approval rating by all New Yorkers has now split, with 44 percent approving and 45 percent disapproving. That is an improvement over the last several months and the highest overall rating the mayor has received since February 2003.

The poll, which was conducted from Jan. 25 through Monday, surveyed 1,176 New York City registered voters and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Broken down by race, the poll is less favorable and is consistent with other polls taken during Mr. Bloomberg's tenure. It found Mr. Bloomberg's favorability among black respondents was just 35 percent, and 34 percent among Hispanics.

Statistically, the poll is not an improvement among blacks and Hispanics over the previous Quinnipiac poll, in November, despite the mayor's announcement in the interim that he would offer $400 property tax rebates to homeowners, as well as his efforts in the wake of the Brooklyn shooting.

Interviewed after Mr. Bloomberg had visited the family of the dead man, Timothy Stansbury Jr., had spoken at his funeral and after Mr. Bloomberg's police commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly, had declared the shooting appeared to be unjustified – an unusual moment in the city's recent history – Henrietta Bishop still said she was dissatisfied with the Bloomberg Administration.

"It was good that he reached out for the family," said Ms. Bishop, who lives in Harlem and works with handicapped adults. "But don't just reach out for that particular family after the fact. I think it should be an ongoing thing." She said she didn't vote for him "and I definitely won't vote for him again. I wouldn't dare cast my vote for him."

(In contrast, the Quinnipiac poll indicated that Mr. Kelly continued to have high approval ratings among all New York City voters, including blacks and Hispanics.)

Pollsters and political scientists consider the Bloomberg findings somewhat confounding, especially considering that Mr. Bloomberg had stronger support among the city's Hispanic and black voters than is conventional for a Republican. In fact, he was elected with about 25 percent of the black vote, and Hispanic voters divided their votes almost evenly between Mr. Bloomberg and his Democratic rival, Mark Green.

But interviews and polls point to Mr. Bloomberg's economic policies as the source of his problems, as well as a visceral perception by blacks and Hispanics that he does not care about their daily struggles.

When asked in the most recent Quinnipiac poll whether the mayor "cares about the needs and problems of people like you," only 28 percent of black and 30 percent of Hispanic respondents said yes. That compared with 55 percent of white respondents.

"We're in hard times in the city, but it's compounded in communities of color that have yet to get their footing in education and health care," said City Councilwoman Yvette D. Clarke, who represents the Flatbush and Crown Heights sections of Brooklyn. "The property tax increase has had a devastating impact, the layoffs and so on. "

"His policies are not as in-your-face as those of the Giuliani administration, but the signal is still sent that you're an afterthought in the process or not a thought at all," Ms. Clarke said.

Even Mr. Cunningham, the mayor's communications director, acknowledged that there is an economic component to the disparity in the mayor's approval ratings.

"We had two difficult budget years with a lot of headlines and stories about how tough it would be and how we had to cut money," Mr. Cunningham said. "And the people who are most apt to be concerned about social programs provided by the city are working class and poor people, and that would track with census data with minority communities."

But, said Mr. Cunningham, the news is not all bad for Mr. Bloomberg.

"If you were to say that any Republican mayor other than John Lindsay had the support of more than a quarter of the minority voters, Republicans would be ecstatic," Mr. Cunningham said. "And Democrats would be worried. And the Democrats should be worried."

But, said some political strategists, so should Mr. Bloomberg. "Unlike when he first ran, he now has a record," said John H. Mollenkopf, director of urban research at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

Mr. Mollenkopf pointed out that Mr. Bloomberg won in the aftermath of an ethnically charged Democratic primary and runoff in 2001 that left many Hispanic voters, and some black ones, too, displeased with the ultimate Democratic nominee. That defection was coupled with strength among moderate-to-conservative white voters.

"And even though he was elected by an electoral coalition based in white neighborhoods, he has lost some of that Giuliani and Koch base of voters that he needs to get reelected," Mr. Mollenkopf said. "But on the other hand, there is a chance that there might be an ethnically charged, fractious Democratic primary. And that could enable the mayor to benefit from some of the same cleavages that were triggered in 2001."

So far, the people running or most likely to run against Mr. Bloomberg include Fernando Ferrer, the former Bronx borough president and the city's best-known Hispanic politician and Comptroller William C. Thompson Jr., Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields and City Councilman Charles Barron, all of whom are black.

Mr. Cunningham suggested that Mr. Bloomberg's potential opponents were galvanizing their supporters, which is hurting Mr. Bloomberg in the polls. He also said that a Republican running in the highly Democratic city is always at a disadvantage.

But some Democratic politicians said Mr. Bloomberg's problems were not party problems. "Of course, many Latinos and African Americans are first-time homeowners and they were angry about the property tax increase," said Assemblyman Ruben Diaz Jr., a Bronx Democrat. "But it's not just that and it's not just his policies, and it's not a party thing, either, because he got a significant amount of Latino votes, especially for a Republican.

"It's his attitude," Mr. Diaz said. "And it's the feeling that he doesn't really care about us. Many people feel that we don't have a seat at the table."

Marjorie Connelly and Oren Yaniv contributed reporting for this article.

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