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NYC Mayoral Candidates Learning Spanish

May 28, 2005
Copyright © 2005
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS. All rights reserved.

NEW YORK (AP) -- When you're running for mayor, it helps to be a smooth talker. And this year, candidates are having to work a little harder at it. The competition for New York's Latino voters is so fierce among Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the four Democrats vying to unseat him that most of the candidates are stammering to speak Spanish on the campaign trail, even though some had never spoken a word of it before. Only one grew up with the language.

''I'm not very good,'' admits Rep. Anthony Weiner. His last encounter with a Spanish textbook had been in junior high school, so he hired a tutor last year.

In this city with more than 2.1 million Hispanics -- about a quarter of the population -- multiple Spanish-language television stations and several Spanish daily newspapers, the candidates are struggling to explain themselves.

''You could always communicate nuances much better in a tongue you're comfortable in,'' says Weiner, 39. ''But for someone like me who probably will never be fluent in Spanish, it is to symbolically express respect for their culture and their language, and also to show that you're trying.''

Politicians at all levels are recognizing the power of the country's largest minority group.

Last year's Democratic presidential candidate, John Kerry, said he learned Spanish from audiotapes, and on Capitol Hill lawmakers gather weekly for language classes. Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper learned Spanish before he went into politics and ended up defeating his Hispanic opponent, City Auditor Don Mares.

In Los Angeles, a swell of Hispanic pride helped Antonio Villaraigosa win a decisive victory over incumbent James Hahn, and when he is sworn in July 1 he will become the city's first Hispanic mayor since 1872.

Bloomberg began taking Spanish lessons four years ago, during his first campaign for City Hall. The millionaire businessman was new to both politics and Spanish but was eager to learn, says his former teacher.

''Age has a lot to do with it; it's harder the older you are, but he was very good,'' said Juan Carlos Ayarza, who occasionally accompanied Bloomberg to campaign events such as the Puerto Rican Day parade or a Colombian festival.

Bloomberg, who works with a different tutor now, often sprinkles his speeches with Spanish phrases, although observers say he needs to work on his accent.

At a recent news conference, a reporter asked the mayor in Spanish how long he's been studying the language. Bloomberg tried his best, answering ''Una hora y media, cada dia,'' which translates to ''an hour and a half each day.''

City Council Speaker Gifford Miller, who also was a beginner when he began working with a Spanish tutor last year, likes to show off his language skills in song -- particularly the Puerto Rican national anthem, ''La Borinquena,'' which he belted out recently at a senior center.

When singing isn't appropriate, Miller prepares a few sentences in Spanish, but says he hasn't achieved his goal -- to understand and answer questions in Spanish.

''It's important to be able to communicate as best as possible, so I make an effort at it,'' says Miller, 35. ''I wish I spoke it better ... that's why I'm careful about what I say.''

The candidate with the bilingual edge is Fernando Ferrer, a former Bronx borough president who grew up speaking both Spanish and English.

At campaign events and news conferences, Ferrer frequently repeats his comments for the Spanish media. However, he says the language is ''part of who I am and it's a part of what this city is, so I don't brandish it as a political weapon.''

The fourth candidate challenging Bloomberg in the November election, C. Virginia Fields, 58, studied Spanish in high school and college but isn't comfortable speaking it on the campaign trail yet, said her spokesman, Nick Charles.

A Quinnipiac University poll this month showed Bloomberg suffers low approval ratings among Hispanic voters -- just 30 percent said they were impressed with the job he was doing, compared with 54 percent of whites.

The poll was conducted before Bloomberg released the first television advertisement of his campaign, which was targeted toward Hispanics. The ad features Bloomberg speaking entirely in Spanish.

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