I recently had an interesting conversation with a well-known Puerto Rican political consultant with the unlikely name of Joe Wiscovitch. He is a longtime observer of Latino politics in New York City, going way back to the sixties, and has been looking at it from a wide variety of lenses --- former cop, bank officer, public relations consultant, and others. He can be a bit verbose and loud at times (proving that he is, in fact, Puerto Rican), but his verbosity is grounded in a deep historical understanding of the Latino community and its politics.
Recent media coverage of Latino politics in New York has centered on divisions between Latino politicians and between blacks and Latinos, particularly in discussions of the upcoming Democratic primary races in late June over the seats of the iconic African-American Congressman, Charlie Rangel, of Harlem, and of the first Puerto Rican Congresswoman, Nydia Velazquez, of Brooklyn-Queens and Manhattan. There is a Dominican challenging Rangel, and Velazquez is being challenged by at least two other Puerto Ricans (both men).
But, taking a broader view, instead of divisiveness and fragmentation, Wiscovitch saw a new stage of development for Latino politics in the city. He saw a Latino political class coming into its own and a Latino population playing an increasingly bigger role in the city's politics. With a Presidential election right around the corner and a major Mayoral race scheduled for next year, this is good news for a Latino community of 2.3 million (28 percent of the population) that has felt so marginalized for so long from the city's political process.
The challenge of State Senator Adriano Espaillat to Congressman Rangel in the new 13th Congressional District covering upper Manhattan and part of the west Bronx has received the most media coverage and speculation. Will this create Black-Latino tensions? Are the Dominicans overreaching politically at this point? Will this reveal divisions between Puerto Ricans and Dominicans in this new district that includes El Barrio (East Harlem) in Manhattan? Is the Dominican community divided over the Dominican candidate (Rangel's campaign manager is a highly regarded Dominican leader. Will Charlie Rangel now start referring to himself as Carlos Rahng-hell (his father is Puerto Rican)?
Provocative questions, to be sure, but, after all, this is New York and these issues are, well, old news. The fact is that the 600,000 or so Dominicans in this city have reached a level of political development that they can now mount a credible and threatening campaign against a four-decade old incumbent in the Congress. Their ultimately unsuccessful effort this year to create a Dominican Congressional district spanning Manhattan, the Bronx and Queens was, on the other hand, an extremely successful public relations campaign that effectivelymade the case to the public and paved the way for Espaillat to announce for this seat. Will he be victorious? No one will really know until after June 26th, but that fact that he is credible candidate is not in doubt and that the Dominican community has an absolute right to demand fair representation is as New York as the bagel. Dominican politics in this city have definitely come of age as it did for Italians, Blacks, Jews and other ethnic groups at different points in the city's history.
Moving south a bit, Nydia Velazquez (the first Puerto Rican woman to be elected to the US Congress, and one of two incumbent Latino Congresspersons in the city) is being challenged in a June primary by, at this point, two Puerto Rican men and a white guy who speaks Chinese. Back when she was first elected in 1992, she was up against an incumbent and powerful Congressman, Stephen J. Solarz; three other Puerto Ricans -- Elizabeth Colon, Ruben Franco, and Rafael Mendez - and one Asian, Alfred S. Lui. Although it appears that Velazquez will be reelected this year, this definitely will be one of the toughest primary challenges she has had in her 20-year stint in the Congress. However, while in 1992 the issue was whether a Latino would represent the newly-drawn 55 percent "Latino district," in 2012 there is no doubt that a Puerto Rican will continue to represent this district, which is now only 43 percent Latino.
The other NYC Puerto Rican Congressman, the Bronx's 68-year old José Serrano, who was first elected in 1990, is in a politically safe district (which is now over 65 percent Latino). He is expected to be readily reelected this year. This means that with a New York State Congressional delegation shrunken by two seats as a result of reapportionment, the two (or maybe three) Latino Congresspersons will have more clout within that delegation. The two current Puerto Rican Congresspersons, if reelected, will also have greater seniority within the Congress, making them ranking members of committees or, if the Democrats become the majority again, major players in terms of committee chair opportunities.
Because much of the discussion on the Congressional redistricting for Latinos has centered on the ultimately failed attempt to create a so-called Dominican district covering Manhattan, the Bronx and Queens, the fact that there are now four Congressional districts where Latinos are the largest group over only three before this redistricting, is another gain for Latinos.
There hasn't been much attention to the Queens-Bronx district currently represented by the Queens Democratic Party chair, Joseph Crowley, which is now 48 percent Latino. While the new northern Manhattan-Bronx district seems to be in play for a Latino challenger, the Crowley district is not but will be in the future and Latinos are now a bigger factor in Crowley's political calculations. This means that Latinos are major forces in four Congressional districts today rather than just in two before this redistricting.
Additional evidence of Latino political progress is in the Bronx. The Bronx Borough President is Puerto Rican, Ruben Diaz Jr., whose political profile has been on the rise. Although the Puerto Rican hold on the leadership of the Bronx County Democratic committee has slipped away, the Bronx Latino elected officials remain a major influence over the party in that county that has the largest number of Latino electeds in the city. There are also past Bronx Borough Presidents, Fernando Ferrer and Adolfo Carrion, whose potential as citywide political players is evident as they continue to position themselves in various ways and issues affecting the city and have achieved a certain level of name recognition among New Yorkers in general.
In Queens, there is State Senator's José Peralta's intention to run for Queens Borough President running against Councilmembers Peter Vallone, Jr., an Italian-American, and Leroy Comrie, an African-American, who are rumored to run for the seat. Long underrepresented, the Queens Latino community, the largest group in the borough making up 29 percent of the county, now has representatives in the City Council, State Assembly and State Senate.
Two of the three are Dominican and the third is Ecuadoran, the first non-Puerto Rican and non-Dominican Latino to hold major political office in New York City. The political gains of Latinos in Queens, a county not protected during redistricting under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act in the city (the Bronx, Brooklyn and Manhattan are) have been impressive, although mostly overlooked. Peralta's run for Queens Borough President also represents an interesting and rapid progression from being State Assemblyman and State Senator.
In Manhattan, the Dominican community has established a foothold in northern Manhattan, with elected officials holding positions on the City Council, the State Assembly and Senate, and running a credible candidate for Congress. In East Harlem (El Barrio), despite population losses, Puerto Ricans retain elected office in the City Council, State Assembly and State Senate. Councilmember Melissa Mark Viverito has been on the rise in the City Council, being considered a leading candidate for Speaker and a leader in the Council's Progressive Caucus. In the Lower East Side, although Latinos are not a majority in the City Council district there, they are represented by an openly gay Puerto Rican woman, Rosie Mendez, in what has become de facto a gay Latino district since the 1991 redistricting.
In Brooklyn, although the Latin community is more dispersed, there are Latinos, mostly Latina women, holding elected posts in the City Council, State Assembly, State Senate and Congress. This is the borough that elected the first Dominican woman to the City Council, and has two Latina women in the City Council. State Senator Martin Malave Dilan has served as co-chair of the influential Legislative Task Force on Demographic Research and Reapportionment in the Senate. In the State Assembly, Felix Ortiz chairs the Puerto Rican/Latino Task Force that organizes the Somos El Futuro conferences and has made him a bit of a player in Albany, the state's capital.
Latino politics in Brooklyn has distinguished itself by developing a leadership that is independent from the Bronx Puerto Rican machine. The leading role of politicians like Velazquez, Felix Ortiz, Martin Malave Dilan and Italian-American Vito Lopez define much the good and the bad of Brooklyn Latino politics today.
The reach of Latinos into the fifth borough, Staten Island, is something that is hardly never discussed but is extremely interesting. An indication of where Latino politics in New York might be heading is that of Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis of Staten Island. All of the elected officials discussed above are Democrats, but Malliotakis is a Republican and identifies herself as a first Hispanic-American to win elective office to any district that encompasses Staten Island, being of both Greek and Cuban backgrounds.
The New York State Republican Party has recently started to focus on reaching out to the Latino community and has sponsored various conferences and events with that in mind. The other Latino Republican in the state legislature, Assemblyman Peter D. Lopez, who represents an upstate district, is also of Cuban background. This points not only greater diversity in political affiliation but also of national-origin diversity among Latino electeds to which we need to pay more attention. It is interesting that the Republican representatives at the state level are of a national-origin group that is one of the smallest among Latinos in the state.
Exercising Greater Power?
As Wiscovitch pointed out to me, Latinos appear to be in a strong position today in the city's politics. This includes being in a position to address the long-term problem of not being given the opportunity to run for citywide and statewide offices. Latino elected officials are now placed strategically to exercise greater political influence than ever before. If they act collectively, they can hold citywide, statewide and even the President more accountable, if they can get together to agree to a relevant Latino policy agenda to push. And from this batch of elected and other leaders, perhaps some may emerge as high profile leaders who can rally and represent the interests of Latinos in the city as a whole, answering the recurring question, "Where is the Latino Al Sharpton"?" The big question is whether they will act more collectively to do so.
That, Wiscovitch was not that sure about.
And, oh, by the way, Joe Wiscovitch is President of Wiscovitch Associates, Ltd. Established in 1988, it is a Hispanic-owned marketing and government relations firm with 20 years of experience in corporate marketing and political campaigns. Prior to establishing the agency, Wiscovitch served for 13 years, as VP of Marketing & Public Affairs of Banco de Ponce, at the time New York's largest Hispanic bank. During his long and storied career, Joe has been an advisor for President Clinton's re-election campaign and assisted him in his move to Harlem including structuring the 'Welcome to Harlem' ceremony. He also worked on Mayor Giuliani's 1997 re-election campaign, served as a senior political advisor to Carl McCall's election as NYS comptroller, and was a media advisor to Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Joe has also served as a senior public affairs consultant to Anheuser-Busch, Banco Popular and Pepsico for 15 years and is a board member of NYC's Economic Development Corporation and the New York City Latin Media and Entertainment Commission. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Given this vast experience, I thought it might be useful to share some of my discussion with him with you.
Angelo Falcón is President of the National Institute for Latino Policy (NiLP), for which he also edits The NiLP Network on Latino Issues. He can be reached at email@example.com.