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."