Latinos and the Mayoralty: Who Will Be First?
To break the ethnic barrier in 2013 or beyond, a Latino candidate must confront barriers that doomed past pioneers, shifting demographics and an ideological minefield.
By Ed Morales November 2012 City Limits
On this gray September morning permeated by a somewhat cooler humid breeze that passes for fall these days, Bronx Borough President Rubén Diaz, Jr. is striding into the Forest Houses Community Center in the South Bronx, entourage in tow, adjusting cufflinks and discussing the Yankees. Waiting for him inside are a small group of neighborhood residents, community leaders, a few Hispanic clergy, and members of the Crows Motorcycle Club. Diaz, who grew up in the Soundview section of the Bronx and hung with peers from the Bronxdale Projects, once home to Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, steps assuredly into the circle that awaits him, looking like he is in his element.
“We all saw, the city saw, the nation saw, what happened to four-year-old little Lloyd,” he says solemnly, referring to the July shooting death of Lloyd Morgan ironically following a basketball tournament in Forest Houses in honor of a teenage girl who was murdered in 2010. “Many of us were there at the funeral of little Lloyd in Harlem. But we come back here today, perhaps not with a lot of fanfare, to say that over the last three years my office has been doing the Peace in our Streets Initiative, and we’re going to start it again right here, where we need healing and prayer.”
Diaz Jr was at the Forest Houses to resume “Operation Gun Stop,” a drive he has been engaged in since he was elected as beep in 2009 to urge residents of high- violence areas to give the police department tips that will lead to the seizure of illegal guns and, by extension, make the neighborhood safer. The information, which can be phoned in with guarantees of anonymity, can earn residents a $1,000 reward if an arrest is made in connection with the tip.
The Operation Gun Stop program, in the absence of increased cameras for surveillance of project playgrounds, is one of Diaz’s favorites. Despite being the son of City Councilman Reverend Ruben Diaz Sr., who among other decidedly conservative positions is strongly for Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly’s Stop and Frisk program, Ruben Jr. has long been concerned with both the destruction gun violence brings to communities like this, and the damage indiscriminate racial profiling can bring. After all, he began his political life as an organizer for the family of Amadou Diallo, famously gunned down when NYPD officers mistook his wallet for a gun.
Playing the streetwise Bronx politico, Diaz Jr tries to balance the need for law enforcement with the skepticism of people aggrieved by the way it is sometimes carried out. “People ask me Ruben, isn’t this snitching? I don’t want to get involved with snitching,” he admitted. “It’s not snitching. Snitching is something that needs to be redefined. Snitching means that if I do something bad and I get caught, in order for me to get off the hook I tell the police so that they can get you. Snitching does not mean that if I’m a law-abiding citizen and if something bad happens to me or my community, if I know who the bad person is if I call on that person. That should not be snitching. That is called being a good community resident and making sure that the community is safe.”
Diaz Jr. is supremely confident in the connection he’s making. “I think we’re all in agreement on that point,” he says, as the circle, led by Bishop Angelo Rosario of the Bronx Clergy Task Force applauds loudly. The gathering is about to break into small groups and fan out into the buildings surrounding the community center, and Diaz Jr. is all smiles. He is heading to make the rounds of project hallways that smell strongly of rice and beans, sancocho, perníl asado, and the doors that open for him as he knocks politely, patiently, will be opening for a familiar face.
Who will it be?
“You can’t make that stuff up,” says Fernando Ferrer, speaking of Diaz Jr. later during an interview in his office at the government relations firm Mercury Public Affairs, where he is co-chairman, years removed from his three attempts to become New York’s first Latino mayor. “You can’t fake it. I’ve seen people try … I’ve seen Puerto Ricans try. When you come from the hood, you’re either comfortable there or not. And people can smell it a mile away.”
While most of the people I spoke to feel Diaz has a long way to go if he hopes to gain citywide office—he has hinted at running for either public advocate or comptroller in 2013—he is generally viewed as a candidate with a future. He has even been mentioned as a possibility for mayor, perhaps the Latino most likely to break the barrier that Ferrer failed to surmount by tens of thousands of votes, and tens of millions of dollars of campaign funds short of in 2005.
Just two months after Diaz held court in the Forest Houses, his predecessor in borough hall, Adolfo Carrión, announced that he was likely to run for mayor—though the lifelong Democrat and former Obama administration member plans to run as a Republican. Carrión’s party-switch gambit has generated instant buzz, introducing a new element into a campaign season already jolted by the impact of Hurricane Sandy.
Whether or not Carrión’s bid gains traction, whenever (if ever) Diaz throws his hat in the mayoral ring, their potential, or lack of it, frames a question: Why hasn’t New York ever elected a Latino mayor? The question reverberates hauntingly, sadly for Latinos of my generation, who lived through the emergence of two Bronx borough presidents, Herman Badillo and Ferrer, and a concomitant population explosion that in the late 1990s caused demographers to proclaim Latinos as the country’s largest minority. The community now numbers over 2.3 million, or 29 percent of the total population, an ever-growing percentage. If Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez could find a home on the tip of everyone’s tongue, it should be inevitable for that kind of star power to translate into political power. Shouldn’t it?
For Latinos, who began coming to New York in significant numbers in the late 19th century on the eve of the Spanish-American War when intellectuals from Caribbean islands like Puerto Rico and Cuba came here to devise strategies for what would come after Spain was defeated (the current flags of both islands were designed in New York), ethnic succession once held promise. Latinos secured jobs in the garment district and moved into many of the neighborhoods that in the past had housed immigrants who rose from the working class to garner increased power in the political apparatus that ran New York. I still remember that in one of my old grade school report cards, back when ethnic succession was still a working assumption, my Irish-American teacher commenting that I could become mayor of New York if I wanted to.
Identity vs. impact
Today, Latinos have attained a share of political power, with two of the city’s 13 seats in Congress, one of the five borough presidencies, 11 City Council members, and a number of state assembly and senate seats. But what many observers agree on is that despite the ever-expanding number of Latino electeds in the city, we seem further and further away from the possibility of a Latino mayor. “We have a good number of elected officials but the illusion of empowerment is rapidly dying,” says Angelo Falcón, founder and president of the National Institute of Latino Policy.
Many observers agree that these Latino electoral gains have not been matched by a broader measure of real-world success for their people. Latinos in New York still suffer from the highest poverty rate of any large group, still represent a disproportionate share of those arrested and incarcerated, still graduate from high school and pass tests in elementary school at a lower rate. Perhaps most important, while there are signs of recent progress, Latino citizens have a history of low voter participation. There is a lot of talk of fragmentation of power, or lack of communication between leaders and an inability to develop a citywide agenda. Instead, there is a growing number of elected officials whose numbers do not add up to increased political power for the Latino community.
“I remember when we wanted to get more Latino cops but now the largest number of Latinos working for the city happen to be working for the police department,” says Falcón, “and what do we have, stop and frisk? So the idea that somehow having more Latinos in there to change the culture of the police department obviously didn’t happen.”
So, what difference would it make if there were a Latino mayor or not? Some of the benefit would have to do with direct political power, although as we have seen from Obama, a chief executive does not necessarily guarantee a strong commitment to the racial/ethnic group he/she comes from. But at least symbolically, there is a kind of empowerment that would come from a Latino mayor that would go far not only with Latino citizens from the poor to the privileged, a kind of social capital that would also mean a lot to a growing young Latino population.
Certainly the mayoral successes of African American figures like David Dinkins, Harold Washington (in Chicago) and Willie Brown (in San Francisco) at least temporarily uplifted their communities, and Barack Obama, even though he has carefully avoided being a “black” president, has also been a game-changer.
Today, New York Latinos can only look wistfully at LA’s Antonio Villaraigosa, and reflect on the intersection of historical failures and current challenges that have prevented the kind of political arrival that your community only achieves when the person in City Hall looks and talks like you.
For Latino Hopefuls, Lessons of Badillo and Ferrer Loom Large
The mayoral candidacies of Congressman Herman Badillo and Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer saw Latinos come close, but not close enough, to winning City Hall.
While the Latino population in New York has become greatly diversified over the last 20 years, the heart of Latino political power in the city remains tied to its still-dominant demographic group, Puerto Ricans. It can be said that Latinos first got on the political map during the rise to power In the 1930s and ‘40s of Italian-American U.S. Representative Vito Marcantonio, who, despite being a Republican, was a Communist and Socialist sympathizer. His constituency in East Harlem included many Puerto Rican migrants; he was perhaps the first politician to display and ability to rally their support and project their interests
Marcantonio’s decline in influence among both New Yorkers and Puerto Ricans had to do with the decline of leftist ideology during the Cold War, at least among elected officials. At the same time, some of the forces that made Puerto Ricans an emerging population—like the successful organization of tobacco workers and the need for cheap industrial labor—fell apart in the 1950s, when Puerto Rican workers became expendable. The public perception of Puerto Ricans was also soured by increasingly stereotyped depictions in the media and the emergence of street gangs. The community began to organize locally around leaders like Antonio Pantoja, founder of the Puerto Rican empowerment group Aspira, and then later radical political groups like the Young Lords, to assert their rights during the Civil Rights Era and the tumultuous 1960s.
When I was growing up in the Bronx, the first leader to step into this charged atmosphere and play a significant role in the world of electoral politics of the Puerto Rican community was Herman Badillo. First as borough president of the Bronx, where he was elected in 1965, and then as a four-term U.S. Representative, Badillo was in a sense ahead of his time, combining an unusually strong ability to communicate in relatively unaccented English and a medium-dark complexion that distinguished him from the lighter-skinned Puerto Rican elite. He was an authentic Everyman with a smooth air of sophistication that played well during the liberal John Lindsay era.
Trial and errors
His first attempt at running for mayor was in 1969 against the Republican Lindsay, when he declined a spot on the ticket of former Democratic Mayor Robert Wagner (attempting a comeback after four years in retirement) and decided to run himself, finishing a respectable third behind nominee Mario Procaccino and Wagner. He would run four more times, at one point giving up his House seat to become deputy mayor under Ed Koch after his unsuccessful run in 1977.
But it was his disastrous inability to come to terms with the African-American political power base in Harlem that marred his last viable run, in 1985. Badillo worked hard to earn the support of what was then called the Coalition for a Just New York, the Harlem power bloc, led by Borough President Percy Sutton. But his run was complicated by the candidacy of East Harlem Councilman Angelo Del Toro, who announced he wanted the City Council presidency. Not only was Del Toro associated with significant patronage scandals, but the African-American bloc did not want to endorse a Latino for both mayor and city council president. Instead, the group Badillo would derisively call the “Gang of Four” (referring to Sutton, Dinkins, Congressman Charles Rangel, and prominent attorney Basil Patterson (father of the recent governor) announced that it would give its endorsement to the undistinguished candidacy of Herman “Denny Farrell.
“In ’69 and ’73 he did very well in putting together a black-Latino coalition,” says Ferrer, acknowledging Badillo’s strong showing among black voters as well. “It was in ’77 where it began to fall apart and in ’85 the African-American community came up with their own candidates. I think the emergence of their own candidates sort of changed the variables.”
Badillo’s inability to play nice with the Harlem African-American club may have stemmed from the fact that his unpredictable early success had created credible candidacies for Latinos before African Americans did. Beyond that, his persona reflected a short-lived notion that Puerto Ricans were considered as candidates for ethnic succession—in other words, that like Irish and Italians before them, they were just the latest wave of “ethnic” candidates. This meant that as “Hispanics,” Puerto Ricans and other Latinos could find a place in the melting pot as hyphenated Americans with some ties to European ethnicity, in part because they were strongly Catholic (although Badillo himself was Baptist). But during the period of Badillo’s ascendancy, a new generation was creating a different idea about identity and politics.
“Badillo’s failure to establish a black and Latino coalition is part and parcel of his arrogance and lack of attention to why he had become a respected and noted political leader,” says LIU politics professor José Sánchez. “He simply assumed that it was because of his brilliance and his eloquence and his attention to detail, and so he didn’t pay enough attention to the fact that he was simply riding a wave.”
Sánchez suggested that Badillo’s early success put him out of touch with the nationalist movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s that were creating a new kind of minority politics. “Badillo failed to recognize his power wasn’t coming from the Democratic Party, it wasn’t coming from the white working class. It was coming from the emerging oppositional culture of Latinos and African-Americans, and that’s why he all of a sudden had a hearing among the political elites, why they wanted to entertain the possibility of him running for office, because they were afraid of this oppositional movement. So Badillo rode that wave and didn’t give enough credence or recognition to the fact that he was really riding a wave that wasn’t created by the political establishment.”
Badillo’s many failed runs for mayor seemed to reveal that despite his seemingly strong potential and presence, he never discovered how to capitalize on both his natural constituency and the political moment he found himself in. On the other hand, some feel he was sabotaged because despite efforts to mainstream himself, he was still viewed as an outsider.
“I think he’s the best candidate we’ve had in terms of credentials,” says Gerson Borrero, the long-time columnist for El Diario-La Prensa, New York’s most prominent Spanish-language daily. “I think he never got away from the fact that he was Puerto Rican, and I put that into the context of the allegedly inclusive Democratic Party, which practiced a blatant exclusion of Latinos. But he made headway.”
The next wave
Part of the new nationalist identity that Badillo rode was nurtured by an organization called Aspira, founded by a pioneering Puerto Rican educator and activist named Antonia Pantoja. Aspira was established to address high dropout rates and lack of educational achievement among Puerto Rican youth, and its stated goals were to encourage cultural self-awareness and critical thinking. Among the early student standouts in the New York chapter of Aspira was Fernando Ferrer, who, as a high school student, was vice president of the Aspira Clubs Federation. “I was very lucky to have been mentored by Toni,” says Ferrer.
Ferrer is emblematic of a generation of New York-born Puerto Ricans who came of age in the 1970s—his parents were working class, he was nurtured by Aspira during an era of national liberation movements, and he got a college education (at NYU). But unlike the more leftist activists of his generation, he became a classic machine politician in the Bronx, barely escaping being tainted by the Stanley Simon scandal in the 1980s to become a City Councilman and eventually borough president.
After an unblemished, if unspectacular run as Bronx borough president—critics contend that he was not so much responsible for a Bronx revival as its custodian—Ferrer then spent many years trying to re-forge the African American-Latino coalition that succeeded in electing David Dinkins mayor. He was hurt in 1997 by Dinkins’ endorsement of Ruth Messinger in that year’s primary race and dropped out soon thereafter, running instead for re-election to Bronx Borough Hall.
He came closest to being elected mayor in the tumultuous campaign of 2001. His Two Cities campaign made strong headway with New York voters, reflecting the under-acknowledged reality that working and middle class residents had not done as well under the ‘80s and ‘90s Wall Street boom as the white-collar finance world. Yet Ferrer felt as if many New Yorkers were not ready to hear the message.
“Mario Cuomo could talk about the Shining City on the Hill and two Americas, but when I said this about New York, people went bananas!” he laments. “It’s the same commentary, it’s about economic justice, and it was working and that’s what made people nervous.”
A race reshaped
While his economic critique made some editorial boards nervous, his hard-won endorsement from Rev. Al Sharpton was used to alienate white voters. Yet he was ahead in the polls when the 9-11 attacks canceled the original primary, then won the rescheduled primary—but only with 36 percent of the vote, less than the 40 percent required to forestall a runoff with Public Advocate Mark Green. In the brief run-off campaign came an infamous New York Post cartoon depicting Ferrer kissing Sharpton’s backside and a swirl of questionable race-baiting.
“Somebody will tell me you know if it weren’t for September 11th you would have been mayor,” says Ferrer. In his book Contentious City, John Mollenkopf makes the argument that Green leveraged the shift in voter attitudes following the 9-11 attacks in his favor. While the Two Cities argument had given Ferrer a 36,000 vote lead over Green in the re-scheduled primary, Green not only questioned Ferrer’s ability to “rebuild the city” in the wake of the attacks, but came down on the side of Mayor Giuliani’s request to extend his term by 90 days.
“I said no to Giuliani, knowing it would cost me and open me up to attack,” says Ferrer. “I just couldn’t do it. Those are gut check moments.”
But race loomed very large in Green’s ultimate defeat of Ferrer in the runoff by a mere 16,000 votes. “Minority candidates will not win if non-Hispanic white voters feel those candidates will be representing non-white people,” says Hunter College Politics professor Carlos Vargas. “In Los Angeles, Villaraigosa was able to go beyond that, but so far no one in New York has.”
Green then failed in the general election against the deep-pocketed beneficiary of the restoration of Giuliani’s image, Michael Bloomberg. According to Mollenkopf, “Bloomberg’s areas of support coincided with those that had provided the votes for Green to beat Ferrer in the runoff primary. Clearly, many ‘Giuliani Democrats’ had voted first to help Green thwart Ferrer and then to help Bloomberg defeat Green.”
Long odds and shortcomings
Four years later, Ferrer again triumphed in the Democratic primary, this time narrowly achieving the 40 percent necessary to avoid a runoff. But there was little feeling of triumph as the general election loomed. Bloomberg was far ahead in the polls and had unlimited cash on hand. Outspent 8 to 1, mocked by the tabloids and abandoned by some Democrats who endorsed the powerful incumbent, Ferrer lost in the general election by a quarter of a million votes.
Ferrer’s achievement of winning the nomination in 2005 should not be diminished, but it should be seen in the context of a political world where incumbents are seen as increasingly difficult to defeat and candidates from the opposing party often wait until term limits oust an incumbent to mount a serious run—in a way Ferrer served as a sacrificial lamb in 2005, a chance for relative unknowns like Gifford Miller and Anthony Weiner to learn some citywide campaign chops.
But Bloomberg wasn’t Ferrer’s only problem. Although he emerged on the public scene during a nationalist era, he was often perceived as being a machine politician who failed to take strong stands. Ferrer has often hedged his bets on the issues and his own identity. On gay rights he has both heartened and upset activists with seemingly contradictory stances. He went back and forth over the death penalty; he got arrested to protest the 1999 Amadou Diallo shooting but in 2005 told a police union audience that he didn’t think the killing was a crime.
Echoing Badillo’s chameleon strategy of pronouncing his name Ba-dillo (to rhyme with “pillow” rather than “Rio”) to make himself sound Italian, Ferrer was known to switch his name from Fernando to Freddy depending on the ethnicity of the crowd he was speaking to. His identity as a light-skinned Hispanic who emphasized his Catholic background played well in a Bronx with a substantial white ethnic population. In fact his adoption of the Two Cities campaign was seen as an unexpectedly strident move, albeit one that worked well for him until the political climate changed after 9-11. He returned to those themes at the end of the 2005 race—too late to make significant noise.
Moisés Pérez, a Dominican leader in the city who managed Rangel’s re-election campaign this summer, alludes to Ferrer’s incompleteness as a candidate when he muses about what it would take for someone to break through the barrier Freddy could not. “When we get a Latino candidate who is able to articulate a vision for the city of New York that is compelling enough to draw in all the critical players in the Latino community,” says Pérez, “then we’ll see a Latino mayor.”
Demographic Changes Shape Latino Aspirations
In the third installment of our series on Latino political engagement in New York, we look at the shifting influences of the city’s Puerto Rican, Dominican and Mexican groups.
Since the defeat of Fernando Ferrer in 2005, where he won the Democratic nomination convincingly (something Herman Badillo had never done) yet suffered a devastating loss to the incumbent Bloomberg, New York’s Latino political apparatus has been unable to identify a credible candidate for mayor, or even citywide office.
Much of this can be attributed to a few factors: a shift in the city’s demographics that have gradually eroded the power of Puerto Ricans, long the city’s dominant Latino group; a decline of the Bronx Democratic machine (meaning there are no Latino county leaders at this time); and the subsequent consolidation of power by Latino politicians to hold onto local offices and bases of support rather than developing broader appeal.
Since 2000, the percentage of Puerto Ricans in New York vis a vis the rest of the Latino groups has dropped considerably, even though they are still the largest group. Puerto Ricans dropped by 11.2 percent to a total population of 723,631, while Dominicans jumped 8.2 percent to 576,701 and the Mexican population increased 73.7 percent to 319,263.
The shifts partly reflect Puerto Ricans leaving the city either for local suburban areas or Central Florida or returning to Puerto Rico. In a way the recent history of New York’s Puerto Ricans is a varied saga of relatively isolated instances of upward mobility and periods of failure to succeed in the rapidly changing city economy, which since the 1970s has moved away from the industrial base that originally attracted Puerto Rican migration to a service- and finance-sector dominated economy.
A growing group, with big challenges
Dominicans, whose original migratory surge was fueled by political instability in the Dominican Republic, have had more success in reaching middle-class status in fewer generations—one little known reality about the Dominican influx is that its members were generally of a somewhat higher class and skill background than the Puerto Ricans of the Great Migration. While that meant more political assets for the Dominicans, they also face unique challenges. An obvious one is that unlike Puerto Ricans they don’t arrive as citizens. Another is skin color: Some Dominicans bear the complex burden of a darker hue, while others who are lighter have had a history of “passing” as Puerto Ricans to tap into that community’s network of jobs and services, which erodes Dominican identity.
Dominican players on New York’s political scene have also been perceived as being only interested in promoting special interests relating to their home country, notes City College sociology professor Silvio Tores-Saillant. He speaks of the suspicion placed on Dominicans for being “too Dominican” and the sometimes harmful phenomenon of bending over backwards to prove ethnic impartiality in a way that winds up hurting the community. In order to appear like someone who is not biased toward one’s own “minority” group, politicians, and sometimes even journalists, neglect their roots needlessly.
Despite those obstacles, a moment of political maturity seems to be approaching for New York’s Dominicans. Just this summer, a major flare-up involving perhaps the city’s most prominent Dominican politician, State Senator Adriano Espaillat, cast an entirely new light on the phenomenon and potential of Dominican political power in New York.
Espaillat’s bold decision to challenge U.S. Representative Charles Rangel for his seat this summer was not entirely an act of madness; in fact Rangel campaign manager Moisés Pérez called some of the factors that led him to run a “perfect storm.” Espaillat had been campaigning for several months to create a Dominican-friendly congressional seat, there was momentum from a recent election in the Dominican Republic—which always serves to encourage local civic participation among New York City Dominicans— and there was the fallout leftover from the scandals and House Ethics Committee “admonishment” Rangel endured in 2010.
Although Espaillat lost, the race was extremely tight, with indecision about the results lasting for several days and even prompting accusations of corrupt—or at least inefficient—behavior by the Board of Elections. Espaillat’s total came within 1,000 votes of Rangel’s. It was an important moment for Espaillat and the Dominican community, since the tally in some ways indicated a unified effort by the community to elect one of its own to nationwide office.
There was of course, some political fallout. Some observers felt Espaillat’s efforts had resulted in the creation of a rift between Dominicans and the Puerto Rican community, most of which apparently voted for Rangel in the East Harlem Puerto Rican base (an irony, considering long-voiced concerns by Puerto Ricans from the neighborhood that Rangel had been neglecting them in favor of Central Harlem’s African-American powers). Another negative byproduct of Espaillat’s candidacy was that he seemed to some to have engaged in a form of nationalism that disregarded the varied constituencies that still predominate in Upper Manhattan. Espaillat prioritized a bid as the first Dominican congressman, which Pérez felt was short-sighted.
“If the Dominican electorate does not embrace a broader agenda with African Americans and Puerto Ricans in particular, and an emerging Latino electorate as well that includes smaller pockets of other Latinos, and a growing pocket of Mexicans, it has no future, period,” says Pérez.
In September, when he was forced to run against fellow Dominican Guillermo Linares to retain his State Senate seat, Espaillat reached further into his nationalist strategy by suddenly expanding it to calls for pro-Latino solidarity when attacking his opponent. In one highly publicized incident, the Espaillat campaign circulated a flyer that accused Linares of being a “traitor to Latinos” for endorsing Rangel. The flyer, which most agreed was unnecessarily divisive, made little sense in a world where Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and other Latinos vote according to more than just nationality.
Ruben Diaz Jr, who endorsed Rangel, took issue with the tactic. “I don’t think there should be any room in politics for that type of literature. I supported Espaillat when he ran for borough president of Manhattan. There was a Puerto Rican named Margarita López who ran, but I supported Adriano. Would Adriano supporters call me a traitor for not supporting the Puerto Rican vs. the Dominican? Adriano supported Gustavo Rivera here in the Bronx for the State Senate, and Gustavo supported Adriano. Gustavo was being challenged by a Dominican, Manny Tavarez. Does that make Adriano now a traitor to his community when he went with the Puerto Rican versus the Dominican?”
A dispersed demographic
Meanwhile, Mexicans in New York, unlike in much of the rest of the country, have consistently been a minority among the general Latino population of the city. They are also distinct from the Mexican populations in other U.S. cities, like Houston and Los Angeles. The Mexican population of migrant workers is almost entirely from the southern city of Puebla (although there are growing numbers from the state of Michoacán, sometimes indigenous people who aren’t even fluent in Spanish, much less English).
In New York, Mexicans have settled In East Harlem, Sunset Park, various tracts of the Bronx and to a lesser extent in Queens. Many are undocumented, which lessens their political power in the short term, but a new generation of Mexicans born in New York City to migrant parents are beginning to grow into voting age.
“As far as the Mexicans in my district, in a generation we’re going to see this population explosion that has been happening in the last 10 to 15 years, [it] is going to lead to a whole host of people who are born citizens who will definitely enter into the political circles and will start being voting age and definitely have more of an impact on what’s happening,” says City Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito, an East Harlem legislator of Puerto Rican descent.
But even as it is augmented by rising voter numbers, New York Mexicans’ political clout could be undercut by resentment from other Latino groups. It’s not unusual to hear even well-meaning community workers or non-profit administrators in East Harlem claim that Mexicans are now the majority Latino population in the neighborhood, even though Census figures show this is far from the truth. A big reason for this perception is that Mexicans are highly visible on commercial strips in the neighborhood, particularly 116th Street, and seek housing in privately owned tenements, since their undocumented status excludes them from the vast array of housing projects in the neighborhood, whose residents are overwhelmingly African American and Puerto Rican.
As documented by anthropologist Arlene Dávila in her book Barrio Dreams, Mexicans in New York also sometimes have gained the dubious distinction of being agents of gentrification of neighborhoods like Spanish Harlem/El Barrio. Mexicans are perceived as less threatening to newer middle-class gentrifiers, and Mexican restaurants attract more white customers than the area’s traditional Caribbean “comidas criollas” restaurants. As Mexican businesses make an area “safe” for white customers, the neighborhood also becomes viable for more affluent residents.
Unfortunately, after becoming unwitting protagonists of the first wave of gentrification that has relentlessly displaced poor African American and Puerto Rican residents of the neighborhood, the second wave of professionals and middle-class artists and entrepreneurs have exposed Mexicans living in tenements to abuse from landlords who are now motivated to force them out.
According to Dávila, Mexicans tend to lack client-patron relationships with politicians and other community leaders that can lend political power to a constituency. However, Both Mark-Viverito and Bronx Assemblyman Gustavo Rivera, who is also of Puerto Rican descent, have been involved in efforts to secure decent living wages and combat abuse of non-unionized car wash workers in their respective districts.
But when it comes to asserting its own power, Mexican New York lacks infrastructure. One of the main Mexican small business organizations, CECOMEX, has lost a considerable amount of credibility since its leader, Juan Cáceres, was sentenced to seven years in prison last year for raping his daughter. Few other Mexican organizations offer much visibility or reach—so far, there is no Mexican equivalent to the Aspira that nurtured Freddy Ferrer.
Still, this year saw the opening of the CUNY Institute for Mexican Studies at Lehman College in the Bronx. Headed by Professor Alyshia Gálvez, the center will provide support for research and community advocacy as well as an undergraduate major and graduate certificate program in Mexican and Mexican American Studies. While Mexicans are not considered to have a “core community” like Puerto Ricans do in East Harlem and Dominicans do in Washington Heights, this new center in the Bronx can have a strong institutional influence in perhaps developing a sense of one in that borough.
Pedro Espada, Jr., left, and his son Pedro G. Espada were probably the least powerful of the clans that have operated in Bronx politics in recent years. After Gustavo Rivera, right, ousted the elder Espada from the state Senate and both Espadas were prosecuted, their clout vanished. The Diazes, Serranos, Arroyos and Riveras maintain a hold on multiple offices.
Beyond The Family: Latino Power at a Crossroads
For decades the hub of local Latino political power has been the Bronx, where a handful of powerful families play a huge role. Part four of our series looks at whether that’s a plus or a problem.
During the course of researching this article a political consultant took me aside during a dinner with one of his influential friends and asked me if I might consider running for a local office.
“You’ll win, we’ll make sure of it,” he said with absolute assurance. “You’d just have to give up your whole life as you know it.”
The assumption was that since I am a native Nuyorican, lived in a primarily Latino district, was reasonably articulate and had a grasp of the issues that confronted my potential constituents, plus the backing of influential party machinery, I had as good a chance as anybody to win. This demographic reality has resulted in the fact that there are now 33 Latino elected officials in New York City, and there’s no reason to think that the number will not continue to increase.
But that increase may come in the absence of—or even at the expense of—real power.
This summer Angelo Falcón, founder and president of the National Institute of Latino Policy and one of the chief gadflies on the New York Latino political scene, stirred up a major controversy when he released a missive entitled “A Boricua Game of Thrones?: A Critical Review of the Rise of Puerto Rican Families in New York City.” His analysis questions why despite Latinos’ growing numbers, the community’s political power and ability to influence policy (outside of the immigrants’ rights movement) are on the wane.
“You don’t get a real sense of unity and you don’t get a sense of anybody really rising to the level where they’re really respected politically,” said Falcón in an interview. He also addressed the perhaps disproportionate perception of Latino politicians as scandal-tainted. “And then in the backdrop you have crooks. Some folks think it’s just a matter of time where they all turn into crooks.”
Many forces, plus four amigos
In his essay Falcón touched on ideas raised by Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco’s book Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, which discusses the way marginalized communities are forced into “sacrifice zones” or “internal colonies.” José Sánchez described a parallel phenomenon in a recent article called “The Planned Shrinkage of Latino Political Power in New York City,” where he ties the depopulation of Latino communities to their loss of political heft.
There are many loosely related theories about the fragmentation of political power that are described in these essays: Outmigrating Puerto Rican and other Latino middle class constituents have been replaced by an un-rooted new group of constantly shifting populations. Community-based organization and the leftist activists who created them have become increasingly professionalized and out of touch with the community. The Latino political class has been marginalized by the liberal white establishment through its domination of the Democratic Party. Sánchez even argues that the replacement of working-class tenant renters by increasingly conservative homeowners in what were once simmering urban ghettoes has led to the suburbanization of Latino politicians’ political agendas.
All of these factors have been compounded, according to Falcón, by a long-standing cynicism about the Latino political class, one increasingly characterized by the spectacular rise and fall of what became known as “The Four Amigos.” In 2008, State Senators Pedro Espada, Jr., Hiram Monserrate, Ruben Diaz, Sr. and one non-Latino, Carl Krueger, engaged in a highly unusual political maneuver by refusing to back Senator Malcolm Smith for Senate majority leader right after their party won dominance after four decades of Republican control. Their stated reason was that Latino lawmakers needed a greater voice in government.
In a sense, Espada, Monserrate, and Diaz, Sr. were addressing long-held concerns that white liberal Democrats had taken Latinos for granted and had continuously marginalized them in the corridors of power. But the Four Amigos’ actions, carried out by a raucous social conservative and two relatively new electeds, created the worst fracture in black-Latino unity since perhaps the Harlem Democrats vs. Badillo scuffle, and the coup ended without any measurable positive effect.
Even worse, Monserrate and Kruger have both since been sentenced to prison, and Pedro Espada was convicted in a federal corruption trial over embezzlement of funds from a non-profit health corporation he administered. “What makes the group stand out,” writes Sánchez, “is not so much what they did before they came into office but rather their tenuous connection to the dominant Democratic Party in the city during their rise to and stay in office. Each was essentially marginal to the Democratic political apparatus. And though each was able to garner enough public support to get elected, the support did not come with any stable or organized community, labor, and party organization. Ultimately, this made them not only weak but also unaccountable to the public interest.”
Nor were Espada and Monserrate the only Latino leaders to allegedly run afoul of the law. Councilmember Maria del Carmen Arroyo of the Bronx was accused of illegally paying her husband from public campaign funds. Councilman Miguel Martinez went to prison for faking campaign spending records. State Senator Efrain Gonzalez—Espada’s predecessor—admitted to running a fake nonprofit.
Plenty of non-Latino politicians—Kruger, Councilman Larry Seabrook, Assemblyman William Boyland and others—have stood accused of corruption in recent years. The difference is their communities have already made it politically.
“I think Latino politicians do nothing different from the other politicians but I would say this: Maybe in rich white communities or middle-class communities the politicians can steal and rob and all that but in poorer communities we can’t afford that,” says Bronx lawyer Ramón Jiménez, a frequent candidate and a longtime critic of the Bronx machine. “We can’t afford to have representatives that steal, rob and take money that’s supposed to go to the community.”
What’s more, misdeeds by Latino politicians taint their brethren more directly through the family networks that dominate Latino politics, at least in the Bronx.
A family affair
There are four prominent “families” in the Bronx: the Serranos (José, U.S. Representative, and José Jr., State Senator); the Diazes (Ruben Sr., State Senator; Ruben Jr., Bronx beep), the Arroyos (Carmen, State Assemblywoman, and Maria del Carmen, City Council) and the Riveras (José, State Assembly; Joel, City Council and Naomi, who recently lost an Assembly re-election bid). Among other things, Falcón discloses that of the 16 Latino elected officials in the Bronx, nine are related—an astonishing 56 percent, belying comparisons with other political families in the U.S.
The central figure assailed in Falcón’s analysis is patriarch José Rivera. Having been in office since 1982, he has developed, according to Falcón “a strong patronage base, leading some to refer to it as his personal ‘employment agency.’ The tapping of his two children to represent overlapping areas of the Bronx would seem to be part of this effort.”
Falcón identifies Rivera as “the key figure in the family phenomenon” which was enabled by the term limits legislation of 2001. Forced to cede his City Council seat, Rivera put up his 22-year-old son Joel, who was still in college, to run for it. Joel Rivera defeated Bronx activist Edwin Ortiz in a special election, the Democratic primary, and the general election that year.
For his part, Rivera sent the following response to Falcón: “I didn’t make Joel and Naomi politicians, I only fathered them. It was Roberto Ramirez who asked Joel to run and it was Jeff Klein who asked Naomi to run. I was against it, but Jeff Klein said, ‘Why should a father deny a daughter the benefit from his work.’ True story. My friend Roberto Ramirez might also say to you that Joel became a politician after his father helped to make just about everyone in politics in The Bronx elected officials some 20 years in between. You just don’t want us to do what white people started on their way up in politics.”
Rivera’s reference to Roberto Ramirez is significant. A legendary kingmaker who enabled Rivera to serve as the chairman of the Bronx Democratic Committee between 2002 and 2008, Ramirez brought a Latino version of machine politics to the region, helping to both consolidate and define Latino political power in the city. But soon after getting Rivera elected Bronx boss in 2002, Ramirez went off to become a founding partner in the lobbying and PR firm MirRam Group with former Hispanic Federation head Luis Miranda.
Ramirez, like many political power brokers, is admired for amassing influence, but not particularly understood as someone who set agendas or pushed through a vision that would unite Latinos for any reason other than to consolidate that power. His move to create MiRam with Miranda is seen as a natural progression toward cashing in on that power and influence, and being the go-to consultancy for pols looking to attract Latino voters, like 2009’s mayoral runner-up, Bill Thompson.
“Roberto Ramirez was a transitional figure generationally,” says Hunter College professor Carlos Vargas. “He was between the pioneer generation and the Nuyorican generation. What happened when he stepped out? There was really nobody from the second generation to take over. So it went back to the pioneer generation, dominated by José Rivera, with a lot of influence by Carmen Arroyo. There was still this feeling about going back to traditional politics then of ethnic succession, that says ‘We have this amount of power, we’re going to squeeze it for as much as we want.’ ”
Again, the complaint that elected officials are merely engaged in activities to consolidate their power bases and continuously ensure their re-election is repeated among many advocates seeking better political outcomes for the Latino community. Jiménez, who ran for state senator in the Bronx as far back as 1978, says it’s a process of slow but inevitable estrangement between politico and the community.
“When José Rivera started, before he was an assemblyman, he worked for the gypsy cab drivers, also [advocated for] construction [jobs] through United Tremont Trades (an organization he founded) trying to get jobs for blacks and Latinos. He was involved in the Charlotte Street stuff when Jimmy Carter wasn’t around,” says Jiménez. “He would always be around demonstrations and pickets and when he got elected to office slowly but surely he began to focus on getting jobs for his families and friends, trying to control the whole agenda and Ramirez handed the ball over to him.”
Rivera’s critics cite his relationship with lawyer Stanley Schlein as evidence of the assemblyman’s links—despite his fondness for baseball cap and jeans over suit and tie—to the establishment. Schlein, once a lawyer for Stanley Friedman, a former Bronx Democratic leader who got into a monster scandal of his own during the Koch administration that in effect opened the door for Ferrer’s rise to power, was one of the authors of the community benefits agreement for the new Yankee Stadium that has alienated so many local activists and may have tainted potential mayoral candidate Adolfo Carrión.
Carrión was earlier considered a promising potential Democratic Latino candidate for mayor, but when he left office in 2009 to run the Obama administration’s new White House Office of Urban Affairs and then serve as regional HUD director, he all but faded from view. Although regarded highly by many as intelligent and personable, he has been accused by activists of selling out the interests of the Bronx in the Yankee Stadium deal.
Last year he was fined $10,000 by the City’s Conflicts of Interest Board for hiring an architect to design the porch for his home on City Island. The same architect was involved in a Bronx development, called Boricua Village, which required Carrión’s approval.
It’s pretty clear to everyone outside of the families’ sphere of influence that surrendering to machine politics—even though there’s not much of a machine left, just a fragmented array of “families”—only reproduces a model that Latinos, as a community, cannot tolerate. “Take U.S. Representative José Serrano,” says Borrero. “You can’t just put your son in for State Senate. There’s not concern for building leaders for the future.”
It’s also out of touch with the reality that ethnic politics has changed. Ironically enough, the problem with the Family Politics of the Bronx is that it has no children. It doesn’t produce the kind of new hopefuls likely to win something meaningful in today’s city.
Protesters at an October hearing on proposed changes to City Council districts voice their concerns over redrawn lines for the East Harlem district represented by Melissa Mark-Viverito. A revised proposal is now under consideration.
Navigating NYC’s New Identity Politics
Anyone hoping to become the city’s first Latino mayor will have no choice but to forge a coalition with other communities. The key decision will be what kind of identity to build common cause around.
The journey of Puerto Ricans—from migrants who arrived at the beginning of the city’s industrial decline to participants in the new ethnic awareness resulting from the national liberation movements of the ’60s and ’70s—defined the trajectory the “pioneer” Latino generation and its immediate successors. Demographic changes hinted that the time for a Latino mayor should have arrived in the late ’90s, after the precedent set by Mayor David Dinkins for blacks, and coinciding with the revelation that Latinos would become the city’s and the country’s largest non-white minority.
But then the neoliberal rhetoric that has permeated not only our government and schools but also corporate and non-profit workplaces shifted our political discourse toward a merger of business and political goals that de-emphasize nationalism and ethnicity, even ideology. This general tendency was crystallized at the climax of the 2001 campaign, in the wake of the 9-11 attacks, when Ferrer’s Two Cities campaign was seen as irrelevant or even in bad taste amid a perceived need for the city to “come together” in a way that eliminated—or, rather, overlooked—group interests and loyalties.
However, despite the emergence of a political language that devalues ethnic labels, ethnic politics is alive and well in New York. Theorists like Matt Barreto, author of Ethnic Cues: The Role of Shared Ethnicity in Latino Political Participation, point out that Latinos’ conception of “shared ethnicity”—based on a shared language, common immigrant experience, general reaction to discrimination and other factors—can strongly influence their voting behavior. So strong is one particular “cue” Barreto highlights—the Spanish surname–that much of the Latino political world of Brooklyn was shaken to the core when State Assemblyman Vito Lopez, who is really an ethnic Italian with one grandparent of Spanish descent, was caught up in a massive sexual harassment scandal this summer. Barreto suggests the perceived low rate of Latino political participation is not as low compared with other groups when there is the presence of viable Latino candidates.
So, in some senses, ethnic politics or Latino candidacies are not important in the same way they were during the height of what one could call the ethnic succession era; in others ways, they are as important as ever. What has changed is that now, many candidates strategically maintain a sense of ethnic or national identity while engaging in the creation of new political coalitions, some of which are based on race and ethnicity, but others on different shadings of class, ideology, gender and even sexual preference.
In general, a new narrative is forming in the New York Latino political community. It suggests that Puerto Rican-based identity politics, while still important, is diminishing in importance, and that machine-based or family-centric models of power are at least imperfect, if not destructive to community interest. It sees a newer group of second- or third-generation immigrants—highly educated, somewhat technocratic elected officials—emerging because of their willingness to engage a broader sector of voters.
“There is a young crop of professional, talented, politically astute and overall competent Latino elected officials who are making their mark in the legislature and in their communities who I think have a lot of potential for the future, such as Robert Rodriguez, Gustavo Rivera, [Queens Assemblyman] Francisco Moya, and [Bronx Assemblyman] Marcos Crespo,” says Eddie Batista, a consultant with MirRam Group, who has worked with Bill Thompson and Adriano Espaillat. “At the City Council we have very impressive women in Melissa Mark-Viverito, Julissa Ferreras, Rosie Mendez, again, representing different communities, but they have been true to their roots and communities and I think are very impressive in both their work and the potential of their future.”
The new Latino politician is acutely aware of demographic shifts in the Latino population that require him or her to work with different Latino groups, such as the considerable populations of Dominicans and Mexicans in Rivera’s district in the Bronx, for instance, or Mark-Viverito’s balancing act between blacks, Latinos and the influx of urban professionals in her Uptown Manhattan district—or even Ruben Diaz, Jr., who has built a strong political base in the Latino-dominated Bronx.
“Obviously you can’t do it as Latinos alone, you need to cross over to other communities,” says Diaz. “You have to have coalition building with the black community, progressive whites, the Jewish community and all of the new communities that are really making a mark in New York City. You look at the Asian community, they’ve really stepped it up and have proven to be a voting bloc in areas of Manhattan. In areas of Queens, you have many Asians. The Indian community: You have West Indians out in Brooklyn. So you have to be able to connect.”
Diaz Jr. is technically part of one of the families Angelo Fálcon identified in his critique of clan-based Bronx politics, but there is an important distinction in his case. First, he was actually elected to the City Council several years before his father, already a powerful political power broker because of his organization of Latino clergy, was elected to the State Senate. So Diaz Jr. is not as obviously a recipient of favoritism from an already-elected father. Secondly, Diaz Sr. has made so many outrageous remarks against gay marriage and homosexuality in general (he once commented that the Gay Olympics should not be held in New York City because of the danger of an HIV outbreak) that Diaz Jr. has had to put in a fair amount of work in distinguishing his position on these issues from his father’s.
The new crop of Latino electeds all seem to agree on the paramount importance of maintaining a strong black-Latino alliance. Robert J. Rodriguez, state assemblyman from East Harlem and himself the son of former City Councilman Robert Rodriguez, believes that the alliance is “mythic,” but “we’re probably closer to one that really works well than we were 20 or 30 years ago.”
State Senator Gustavo Rivera, once a graduate student in politics at CUNY, sees the necessity for the black-Latino coalition in terms of shared space. “We share the same geography, we share the same demographics, therefore we face the same issues,” says Rivera. “We face the same joblessness issues, are faced with high crime rates in certain neighborhoods. We face housing shortages. These are issues that I think cover all of us.” He points to the push for a higher minimum wage: “That is what impacts working people regardless of what ethnicity they are.”
Drawing battle lines
In early October, Mark-Viverito found herself in a battle over proposed new lines for her City Council district. Originally the redistricting commission, which had only one Latino member, redrew her district, which had previously encompassed parts of Manhattan Valley and the Upper West Side, to extend further into the Bronx, while cutting out the landmark site of La Marqueta, an iconic marketplace along upper Park Avenue that has great symbolic value for New York Puerto Ricans.
In the latest redrawing of the lines, announced earlier this month, La Marqueta was re-inserted to Mark-Viverito’s district, perhaps as the result of pressure from her constituents at hearings.
But Mark-Viverito was still not happy with the new lines. “This has a strong potential impact on communities and diluting their representation because you’re dividing communities of interest while the charter clearly requires that you do everything you can to leave them intact,” says Mark-Viverito.
On the surface the redistricting proposal would seem to give the City Councilwoman a chance to extend her influence in the Bronx, a long-standing Latino power base, but it impacts her negatively in two ways. First, she has invested a great deal of time and effort working with white liberal and Dominican constituents on the West Side, and if that sector is cut out, it will represent a lot of wasted effort.
Secondly, while the Bronx areas she is extending into are majority Latino, the proposal allots 50 percent of the total district to the Bronx, exposing Mark-Viverito to not only what’s left of the machine politics there, but potential challengers from that machine.
The redistricting process, says Falcón, is more than a drawing of lines: it also “creates a political framework on how the vote in the next election cycle is going to be organized. The challengers will depend on the configuration of the district.”
“What I’m most shocked by is the inattention by Latino leaders in this process,” he adds, noting that Ydanis Rodriguez’s Upper Manhattan district is being divided on north/south rather than east/west lines, which could affect Rodriguez’s Dominican base, while Maria del Carmen Arroyo might be concerned about Mark-Viverito’s incursion into her Bronx district.
While there has been a fairly visible push by the legal advocacy group Latino Justice (formerly the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, which won a landmark consent decree establishing the right to bilingual education back in the 1970s) to reject the new lines, beyond that and Mark-Viverito’s protest, there hasn’t been much objection heard. “A lot of electeds prefer to wait and individually negotiate their districts with Sheldon Silver in Albany,” says Falcón. “But there’s a lack of community participation, and in effect, democratic practice in this process.”
Shifting populations, shifting alliances
The redrawing of district lines, however, creates the potential for alliances between Latinos and other ethnic groups that could have long-term effects on each community’s ability to project political power. Debate over redistricting in the Lower East Side, for instance, could center on whether Latinos want a redrawn district that includes their more natural class and ethnic allies, Asian-Americans (whose strongest candidate, John Liu, has mounted one of the most impressive “people-of-color” crossover constituencies of the last 10 years). Or would it make more sense to continue the alliance achieved through leaders like City Councilwoman Rosie Mendez with Christine Quinn’s West Village/Chelsea district?
In fact, it is the battle over who will replace Quinn as City Council speaker that might reveal some of the motivations behind the changes sought for Mark-Viverito’s district. She intends to seek the gavel after the 2013 race. But the 27-member Black, Latino and Asian caucus has been split between supporting Harlem City Councilwoman Inez Dickens or Mark-Viverito. One theory voiced by observers is that Dickens has the tacit approval of Quinn in influencing the changes in Mark-Viverito’s district. If true, this might reflect the slow loss of influence of the black base in Central Harlem, and attempts to stabilize it. If so, could this signal another rebirth of tensions between blacks and Latinos, this time fighting over diminishing turf uptown?
Gentrification and displacement are fueling this brewing rivalry. Harlem has been gentrified from its Morningside Heights boundary eastward, and the core of the black population has been pushed toward Fifth and Madison avenues, the area abutting La Marqueta that has been cut out of Mark-Viverito’s district. Meanwhile, East Harlem itself has been steadily gentrified over the last 10 years, giving Mark-Viverito a natural opportunity to create a Latino-white liberal coalition candidacy that puts her more in line with figures like Mendez, whose Lower East Side District so successfully merges Latino and white progressive voting blocs that its last three Council reps have been openly gay Puerto Ricans.
The contrast between Mark-Viverito, who prides herself on progressive issues like participatory budgeting and her own anti-gentrification task force, and Ruben Diaz Jr., who focuses on crime and attracting jobs and investment to the Bronx, is not always that clear cut. Both have strongly objected to the indiscriminate use of stop-and-frisk tactics and support minimum wage reform.
But they represent two different models for “shared identity” among the Latino electorate that correspond to America’s racial binary. Mark-Viverito, who moves easily between Spanish-speaking cultural celebrations and Upper West Side social events, is more visibly associated with pols like Christine Quinn and Scott Stringer, whereas Diaz feels most comfortable working in the outer-borough scene, speaking in the cadence of the first hip-hop generation of the Bronx that he belonged to. Even his choice of where to meet for our interview, Jimmy’s Café on Story Avenue in the Soundview area, reflected his core identity: a light-skinned Afro-Latino who easily shifts from street slang to occasional Spanglish, wondering how to get more Latino celebrities to gravitate towards his cause and raise the level of his coffers.
“If Ruben is smart he’ll figure out a way to tap into his father’s Pentecostal network. [Then] he would have the inside track to mobilize enough Latinos to make for a viable citywide candidacy,” says Professor José Sánchez. Certainly in the Operation Gun Stop activity I attended at the Forest Houses there was strong evidence of clergy involvement. The activity began and ended with prayer and at times fiery speeches from protestant clergy who raised the idea of taking guns off the street as part of an eternal holy cause, part of God’s work to be done on the humble streets of the Bronx. Yet Diaz uses tact when referring to religion, subsuming it as part of a morality that is necessary for Latinos to succeed and ultimately “give back” to their communities.
For now, Diaz Jr says he has no plans for a mayoral run, although at the time he expressed an interest in perhaps running for Public Advocate, and articulated a conciliatory vision for what he’d do with the office. “I would say that public advocates have tended to have an adversarial relationship with the mayor,” he said. “I don’t think it should be the nature of the position. I think that there is room for the public advocate to look at corporate American and how they’re treating the consumer of New York City and highlight that. There is room to have a discussion with the next administration about what can be done better with city agencies and not necessarily do that in a public adversarial way. What I would do differently is try to work more closely with the next mayor, highlighting issues, announce reform, how you would do things differently, more efficiently and effectively and not have such a cantankerous relationship.”
Such a stance, a puzzler for those who remember Mark Green but not all that different from Betsy Gotbaum’s position, may be designed to deflect speculation that he plans to reproduce his father’s cantankerous misadventures, or even that he is the scary “other” that white voters feared from Ferrer. More likely it’s Diaz Jr’s default operational mode, one designed to allow a diverse constituency into his modified urban church of conciliatory agendas.
“Ruben has plenty of cards in this game, and most of all, he’s very patient,” one observer told me.
A cause fades, a candidate emerges
When no serious Latino candidate for mayor was on the 2013 radar screen and before a certain tropical system stuck the city, there was a feeling among Democrats that the wedge issues used by Republicans to win previous mayoral elections—high crime rates and the need for a businessman to run the city—were losing relevance.
Many suggested that Ferrer’s Two Cities campaign, with slight modifications to blunt accusations of divisiveness, could be a winning strategy in 2013. The morning I interviewed Rivera there was a cover story in the Daily News describing the substantial income gap between newer and older residents of Brooklyn, as the emergence of neighborhoods like Park Slope and Williamsburg and the new Barclays Center are prompting some to speculate that it has surpassed Manhattan in chic value.
“Democrats, liberals and progressives and we Latinos as well, we have to fight against the idea that the way to rescue the economy is to cut taxes on the wealthy and that the fault for these economic calamities [is on] working people,” insisted Rivera. “There’s a whole change of narrative that we have to be very forceful and unafraid to put out there. … What Freddy was doing back then was talking about the growing inequality of New York City, which is still true to this day.”
But then came Sandy. The storm’s direct impact, and the signal it sent about the city’s vulnerability to the sea, appear to have changed the policy conversation as the 2013 campaign prepares to open—just as 9/11 altered the political compass during the 2001 race. Calls for sea defenses, questions about the wisdom of building anew on the waterfront, Monday-morning quarterbacking about the relief effort and the enormous price-tag of the recovery program and new infrastructure may sabotage the re-emergence of the income inequality debate that the city’s leading Latino pols are perhaps most fluent in.
Ironically, however, as that “Latino issue” was pushed into the background, a Latino candidate elbowed his way into the headlines: Adolfo Carrión announcing his “likely” candidacy for mayor—and as a Republican. In a New York Post op-ed outlining the rationale for his possible candidacy, Carrión overtly tried to seize the mantle of non-ideological manager on which Bloomberg ran in 2001. “Our city needs a mayor who is free from special interests and committed to making the tough decisions around education reform and economic development that will continue progress made under Mayor Bloomberg,” he wrote, stressing that the impact of Sandy required a candidate like him, much like Bloomberg’s first campaign argued a post-9/11 New York needed the billionaire businessman at the helm.
Carrión’s switch to the GOP could address a frequent complaint of Latinos in politics, who lament the fact that the mainstream of the Democratic party takes them for granted as voters while failing to seriously tackle their issues. Carrión’s pre-candidacy, however, debuted to mix reviews. Brooklyn GOP chair Craig Eaton said he found the former Bronx beep “to be a very credible candidate and somewhat of a gamechanger.”
But when Carrión’s spokesman said the campaign would forego public financing because he “thinks it’s atrocious that candidates for citywide office would siphon taxpayer money away from taxpayer needs,” campaign finance advocates—anxious to repair the viability of the public financing system after three waves of carpet-bombing by the self-financed mayor—were unimpressed. Common Cause/NY Executive Director Susan Lerner said if Carrión “decides to allow big special interests to fund any campaign he runs instead of the voters, pretending that doing so will somehow benefit New Yorkers is both an insult to democracy and a brutish attempt to score political points off of a natural disaster.”
A late November poll had Carrión losing to an unnamed Democrat 62 percent to 11 percent. But it’s early, and Carrión could still catch fire. He may attract national funding as a test-run for a Republican Latino candidate in the solidly liberal northeast. It’s easy to forget that, early in the 2001 campaign, a certain billionaire Republican seemed like a long-shot for City Hall.
But most observers agree that that it may take years before we know whether Diaz, Mark-Viverito, Rivera or any of the current, promising crop of Latino pols have what it takes to break the barrier and win City Hall. “Right now there’s just a lot of wild West shootouts with no clear emerging leader,” says Borrero.
Many observers I spoke with said the first Latino mayor of New York is not even a known quantity at the moment, perhaps even presently a senior in high school, maybe even someone of mixed ancestry with a Latino surname. But there’s one fledgling group that hopes to take matters into their own hands.
In a partnership with CUNY and other educational institutions in the Albany and Philadelphia, Jaime Estades, an East Harlem activist, has founded the Latino Leadership Institute (LLI), a kind of academy for young people to develop skills for running for office and increase Latino participation in the political process. Inspired by the work of the late Richie Perez, an ex-Young Lord and mentor to many current activists and some elected officials, the LLI offers training seminars on all parts of the process.
“The institute came out of the frustrations we have with the electoral leadership of the Latino community,” says Estades. “We established the institute to teach leaders in our community … the nuts and bolts of how to put together political campaigns.” The courses, taught by veterans of the political process, like advisers and lawyers, cover how to gather petitions, follow campaign finance laws, mount field operations, use new technology, and, of course, raise money. “We teach how to deal with a reporter, for instance,” Estades laughs. “We put them in front of a camera and they can play back the tape and see themselves and engage in self-critique.”
When I ask Estades about the students, he is quick to point out that most of them are from a variety of Latino ethnic backgrounds—Dominican, Colombian, Ecuadorean and more—even though most of the organizers and instructors of the Institute are Puerto Rican. “At the end of the day we need a leadership engaged with the poor and working class,” says Estades. “We can’t guarantee we’ll have progressive candidates, because we’re non-partisan. We just help people work toward their political ambitions in a way that establishes a direct link with the voters.”
For Estades, the LLI has an essential philosophical purpose to restore democracy to the democratic process. “We are trying to teach young people the best way to become and remain independent as a candidate,” he says. “If they get elected by the machinery, they become slaves of the machinery. We help them avoid that by teaching them to become effective candidates independent of machinery.”
Sidebar: Fresh Direct Deal Divides Rising Stars
For all the hope and fear that identity politics can foster, there are plenty of examples of practical politics or ideological differences trumping cultural identity. The debate over the controversial Fresh Direct deal is one such instance.
The best intentions of even a new, younger and perhaps more concerned group of Latino politicians can still put them at odds with some elements in the community. A case in point is the recent controversy over the proposed relocation of grocery home delivery giant Fresh Direct from its current location in Long Island City to an area along the southern coast of the Bronx, affecting residents of Mott Haven. Interestingly, three prominent young Latino leaders—Ruben Diaz Jr., Melissa Mark-Viverito, and Gustavo Rivera—all weighed in on the issue, though not all on the same side.
In June South Bronx residents, community groups, and New York Lawyers for the Public Interest filed a suit that charges the city and Fresh Direct did not prepare an environmental impact study nor conduct sufficient community outreach before reaching a deal with the city, which granted $130 million in subsidies to the project. The community group South Bronx Unite claims that many of the 1,000 jobs promised in the deal will pay a substandard $8.75 an hour for work that would involve spending several hours in a freezer. They say Fresh Direct has a questionable track record with workers, and that hundreds of delivery trucks will flood the streets of Mott Haven, exacerbating probably the most Puerto Rican-specific issue there is in New York: the asthma rate among young children.
Diaz Jr., who stood up to Bloomberg on an unpopular plan to convert the Kingsbridge Armory into a Related Company windfall of a shopping mall, stands with him on the importance of the Bronx retaining the Fresh Direct deal. “Fresh Direct already employs about 400 Bronxites. If they had gone to New Jersey maybe those Bronxites wouldn’t be able to commute to New Jersey,” says Diaz. “We would have lost those jobs, let alone the other 1,800 jobs of people who live in New York City. “ Diaz also dismissed concerns about truck traffic, saying Fresh Direct planned on employing a sizable number of electric trucks.
Even Rivera, who had made a strong point about being an advocate for fair wage structure, ceded to Diaz’s agenda. “Speaking with Rubén, since he’s the one who’s in the middle of all this, he kind of walked me through some of the challenges that they had to deal with,” says Rivera. “Is it a perfect deal? No, but I think overall I feel it’s going to be a positive for the Bronx.”
“We can now get Fresh Direct here at our office!” chimed in Rivera’s media coordinator, referring to the perk offered by the company, extending deliveries to the Bronx in a city where delivering to the Bronx is unheard of.
But some residents aren’t as excited.
“Local pols really think they are doing the best for us around here; some are actually being helpful, some are plainly misguided; but asking a community to accept environmental hazards–a huge fuel station, around 1,000 extra truck trips per day around our streets, the permanent blocking of our waterfront—in exchange for jobs is a classic example of environmental racism,” says Monxo López, a South Bronx Unite member and Mott Haven resident.
City Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito, known for bold stands and a contentious manner, took the counter-argument from activist groups to heart. “I think there’s a problem there in terms of transparency,” she says. She has concerns about whether the proposed new Fresh Direct site, which was leased by the state to the city, can be used legally for a private commercial purpose. “There’s all these questions about the lease, the arrangement, the use of the land so we want to understand, this doesn’t make sense, it doesn’t seem like this is supposed to be the way it is bearing out. So until we get clarification, I’m not supporting it.”