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.

1969 Democratic Mayoral Primary:
Badillo's First Try

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."

1973 Democratic Mayoral Primary:
Badillo's Best Shot

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."

1973 Democratic Mayoral Runoff:
Hopes Dashed