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."
This is the fifth and final chapter in a series about Latino political aspiration in New York City. Click here to read part one.