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THE NEW YORK TIMES
In Politics, Ethnic Posturing Isn't Simple Anymore:
How To Appeal To Hispanic Voters When They Are Increasingly Diverse
by Adam Nagourney
October 31, 1999
Copyright © 1999 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All Rights Reserved.
It once seemed so easy. Toward the end of every mayoral campaign
in New York City, candidates would head to the Lower East Side
where, crowded in by cameras, they would eat a knish or a pastrami
sandwich and talk about how much they loved Israel. Or toward
the finish of a Presidential campaign, the candidates would turn
up in the Polish section of Chicago for some kielbasa, a pro-forma
denunciation of Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and more photographs.
This was ethnic politics in its most primal form, an unstated
calculation that the most elementary of gestures -- a visit, a
picture, a noncontroversial proclamation or two -- would produce
a payback in the form of the ''Jewish vote'' or the ''Polish vote.''
Those days are suddenly looking very far away. Ethnic politics,
which was never really as simple as some politicians believed,
has reached a level of complexity that is suddenly confounding
politicians across the nation. That has become especially apparent
these days in what is arguably the first cauldron of ethnic politics
in the United States -- New York -- with its race for the Senate
between Hillary Rodham Clinton, the First Lady, and Rudolph W.
Giuliani, the Mayor, a contest that seems to be providing an intricate
road map of where ethnic politics in America is heading.
Of course, winning the Jewish vote in New York was never just
a matter of eating a Kosher dill, just as capturing the Hispanic
vote in Texas or California required more than the ability to
spout a few lines in Spanish. But these days, candidates are forced
to take positions on all kinds of complicated issues, pitting
the perceived interests of one ethnic group against the sentiment
of the larger population, or dividing members of purportedly solid
constituencies by generation, ideology and economic class.
And these pressures are coming at a time when groups that once
existed at the margins of electoral politics -- most of all, Hispanic
voters, whose clout nearly rivals blacks in some parts of the
country -- have become powerful forces, large in number, knowledgeable
about issues and savvy in working the system. The idea of such
constituencies as single-minded voting blocs, concerned only with
parochial issues and subject to easy manipulation, is as much
of a relic as Tammany Hall.
''You can't do tokenism anymore,'' said Lynn Cutler, a long-time
Democratic operative who is now a White House adviser to Vice
President Al Gore. ''I think that maybe in all honesty the way
we did it in the past wasn't respectful. It was like, 'I checked
that box. I ate the knish.' There's less single-issue voting based
on ethnic differences.''
Representative Jose E. Serrano of the Bronx, the ranking Puerto
Rican member in the House, said: ''There was a time when all you
had to do was get up and say a few Spanish words or eat the right
Spanish food and you were an amigo. Now, the issues are much deeper.''
In this sophisticated, new environment, it is no longer enough
to take off, for example, on the three-I travel itinerary of Israel,
Italy and Ireland in preparation for a New York campaign. Not
long ago, Mr. Giuliani and Mrs. Clinton were forced to choose
between what the Defense Department described as the nation's
security over Puerto Rico and the concerns of local leaders about
the island's safety when the Pentagon said it wanted to continue
bombing practice there. (Mr. Giuliani and Mrs. Clinton chose Puerto
Similarly, Mrs. Clinton is now pressed to take a position on
an application before President Clinton to grant clemency to Jonathan
Jay Pollard, a former United States intelligence analyst serving
a life sentence for spying on the United States. Mr. Giuliani
has demanded that Mr. Clinton free Mr. Pollard.
The most unsettling episode, at least for Mrs. Clinton, came
over the summer after Mr. Clinton offered executive clemency to
16 jailed members of the F.A.L.N., a Puerto Rican separatist group
that has engaged in terrorism. When he first made the offer, she
tepidly endorsed it, and Republicans charged that the President
had acted to curry support for his wife with Hispanic voters.
As an uproar erupted, Mrs. Clinton withdrew her support for
clemency , and found herself besieged both by Puerto Rican leaders
on one side and Republican critics on the other. For Mrs. Clinton,
it was an unhappy introduction to New York ethnic politics.
What most mystified Mrs. Clinton's Puerto Rican supporters
was why she said anything at all. Once upon a time, it might have
made sense to reflexively adopt a position that many Republicans
-- as well as a few independent political commentators -- argued
was the obvious stance a Democratic candidate should take to capture
this important constituency.
In truth, Puerto Ricans living in the United States are divided
over whether the island should be independent. The F.A.L.N. has
not been in the news for years, and many young Puerto Rican Americans
know little about it. And even among those who know of the group,
and support its goal of Puerto Rican independence, there is no
evidence of widespread support for its tactics.
''It's complicated,'' said Joseph A. Wiscovitch, a political
consultant who has worked on Hispanic issues for Democratic and
Republican candidates, including Mr. Giuliani. ''Some Latinos
feel, why is all this energy being spent on F.A.L.N.? Why not
spend it on education. You're talking about the silent majority.''
Even Mr. Serrano said he believes there was not much electoral
benefit in his advocating clemency : ''I don't know if that will
get you a lot of votes.''
Fittingly, Hispanics have attracted the most attention of the
nation's politicians. This group of voters is at the leading edge
of the changing dynamics of ethnic politics, outpacing blacks
as a segment of the population, even if they remain, to date,
a smaller part of the electorate, because of citizenship requirements
and age, said John H. Mollenkopf, director of the Center for Urban
Research at the Graduate Center of the City University of New
York. Nationally, Hispanics made up 5 percent of the vote last
year, up from 3 percent in 1992. In New York City, they made up
20 percent of the vote in the 1997 mayoral race, compared to 13
percent in 1993.
But as a group, Hispanics are increasingly large and diverse,
in terms of country of origin, ideology and economic class. If
there ever was such a thing as a ''Hispanic vote,'' it doesn't
exist now. Hispanic voters, like many ethnic groups, are better
informed than before. There are Spanish-language television networks,
radio stations and newspapers. ''We now have 24 hours a day the
ability to get information in Spanish if we're not conversant
in English yet,'' Mr. Serrano said. ''There was a time that you
couldn't get to know the issues because no one was covering them
in the language that we knew.''
Generational differences in the views of ethnic groups are
also emerging. The single burning issue of one generation of immigrants,
which made them vulnerable to easy appeals by politicians, has
become merely one of many concerns for their American children
and grandchildren. In Florida, older Cuban-Americans are as passionate
in their opposition to Fidel Castro as ever; but that bitterness
has not necessarily passed down to the next generation.
It was once unthinkable for a candidate in New York to support
the creation of a Palestinian state, and Mrs. Clinton came under
much criticism when she did. But Ms. Cutler, who is Jewish, said
she has found that her own children, while extremely concerned
about Israel, are not at all perturbed by the notion of a Palestinian
state. ''It is subtle, but that is the difference,'' she said.
So how does a politician respond to this changing dynamic?
A clue can be found in the Presidential campaigns, where, not
surprisingly, it can be hard to pass a campaign day without hearing
an Anglo candidate speaking Spanish. At an appearance at a Hispanic
banquet in Washington the other day, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas,
who has considerable experience in appealing for the votes of
Mexican-Americans, boasted how he did not have to tailor his speech
for this audience, because they already shared his values. He
would not, he said, say anything special to appeal to Hispanics.
And then, without a skipping a beat, Mr. Bush recounted how he
can't go anywhere without someone asking him if he is going after
the Hispanic vote.
''Por su puesto!'' Bush said, using the Spanish for ''of course.''