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New York Politics

It is said that in a democracy numbers can be translated into power. The popular vote can make a difference in the way decisions are made and resources allocated. However, in the case of Latinos, growing numbers have not meant automatic and direct participation in decision making at city or state levels. Political involvement in their country of origin rather than in local or national politics in the United States has been the dominant pattern for first-generation migrants from all Latin American countries, be they from Dominican Republic, Colombia, or Mexico. The desire of Puerto Ricans and Cubans to resolve the colonial question consumed their political energies during the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth. Even after Puerto Ricans were granted U.S. citizenship, which

made them eligible to vote, their participation had a slow start. Voter registration was a daunting procedure that included an English literacy test administered by intimidating personnel. In addition, given the control of the political machinery by Euro-Americans, they restricted budding Latino politicians to the role of brokers intermediaries between the Irish and Italian politicians, on one side, and the Latino electorate, on the other. It was in the 1930s, after the precipitous decline in migration from southern and eastern Europe, that Puerto Ricans began to show significantly at the polls not only because they were courted by Democrats and Republicans in need of votes, but also because they were attracted to appealing populist politicians, such as Fiorello LaGuardia and Vito Marcantonio, who could deliver them concrete benefits regarding housing, employment, social assistance, and advocacy in the face of abusive authorities and racist attacks. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and East Harlem Representative Vito Marcantonio were both Italian migrants who, as lawyers and politicians, supported many pro-immigrant measures and had close relations with the Puerto Rican and Latino communities.

For the most part, Puerto Ricans sided with the Democratic Party from the beginning and, except for a few occasions, they have kept their allegiance to the Democrats. Since 1932 on average 70 percent of the Latino vote has gone to the Democrats. The drawback of this position is that in a state heavily Democratic such as New York, the Latino vote has been taken for granted in presidential elections. Traditionally, the Democrats have been the party that aided migrants in their process of incorporation to life in New York City since the early nineteenth century. Democrats created a paternalistic system whereby they provided favors in exchange for votes. By working with leaders from all ethnic groups, Democratic politicians used power and money to solve many of the problems of those who could vote for them. District, city, and state bosses developed clienteles for mutual benefit. The city’s patronage system was undermined by the federal government during the Great Depression as federal agencies and programs were created to address many of the problems that had been tackled previously by local authorities. However, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt came up with the New Deal and established agencies such as Public Works Administration, Works Progress Administration, and Civil Conservation Corps to create jobs, Puerto Ricans’ alliance with the Democrats was strengthened.

With the advent of the civil rights movement and reforms such as the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which tore down the most blatant barriers erected to impede black and Latino suffrage, an increasing number of grassroots activists, most of them Puerto Ricans, began to run for political office. With the support of the Democratic electoral machinery, candidates began to be fielded for political office in areas with a heavy Puerto Rican presence. The political reforms and demographic changes in the city, after the flight of the white middle and upper classes

to the suburbs, helped to make possible the election in 1965 of Herman Badillo as president of the Bronx Borough, and five years later as the first Puerto Rican member of the U.S. House of Representatives. The considerable advantage granted to Puerto Ricans by their U.S. citizenship has made them the single largest-voting bloc among New York State Latinos. In Brooklyn, where Caribbean migrants also concentrated, Panamanians rose to political leadership in the 1970s and 1980s. State Senator Waldaba Stewart and State Assemblyman Edward Griffin are but two examples.

The rate at which other Latinos acquire U.S. citizenship varies from group to group, with South Americans and Dominicans outpacing the rest. The fear generated by real or perceived threats stemming from federal legislation to reduce benefits to noncitizens as well as rabid anti-immigrant campaigns have pushed Latinos to apply for U.S. naturalization at a faster pace in recent years. Though progress as regards naturalization has been made, there is still room for improvement. Consider, for example, that the potential number of Latino voters in New York State was diminished in the 2004 presidential election because 300,000 of them, who qualified for naturalization, had not applied. What promises to be a significant factor in enlarging the pool of Latino voters and candidates is the expanding percentage of U.S.-born Latinos reaching adulthood. As a second, and even third, generation of Latinos becomes politically active on account of their stakes in this country, they will be making more of a difference in the political landscape of the city and state. Perhaps the Dominican case is the best harbinger of such a future.

The intentional redrawing of electoral districts to increase the chances of representation of minority populations early in the 1990s benefited Latinos. In areas of high Latino population density such as northern Manhattan, Dominicans got the opportunity to elect for the first time politicians from among their own. Using networks of community organizations and labor-intensive, door-to-door campaigning, Adriano Espaillat became an assemblyman for District 72, and Guillermo Linares, a councilman for District 10.

With the rapid growth in the number of Latino migrants, the larger numbers of U.S.-born Latinos, the increased rates of naturalization, and the recurrent campaigns to register eligible voters, the political outlook has improved for Latinos. To the original elected officials, others have been added in the early 2000s. Currently, there are two Dominicans in the New York City Council, Diana Reyna from Brooklyn and Miguel Martinez from Washington Heights. The number of Puerto Rican politicians such as Margarita Lopez, from the Lower East Side, and Joel Rivera, from the Bronx has also increased. Nevertheless, no Latino politician has won a citywide or statewide elected office yet. Since the 1990s some well-known Latino leaders, such as Herman Badillo and Fernando Ferrer, have run for mayor of New York City, but both failed to be elected.

Unfortunately, Latinos have higher representation in the state prison population than in the state’s political bodies. As of 2000, Latinos composed 27 percent of the state’s prison population. In contrast, by 2005 there were 26 Latino elected officials in the state, equivalent to 8 percent of all legislators. All Latino elected officials represented parts of New York City such as Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx.22 A major obstacle for Latino candidates to win elections involving representation beyond the barrios is that they have not been able to build viable alliances with non-Latino communities or enough credibility to neutralize racial prejudice.

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