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Hispanics flex political muscle

 

By Magdalene Perez

Special to amNewYork

October 10, 2007

 

New York politicians may want to practice their Spanish. With 2.2 million Hispanics in the city and counting, Latino voters are increasingly exerting their influence over city politics.

 

The signs are everywhere, political observers say, from a record number of Latinos on the City Council to speculation that Puerto Rican Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion Jr. will run for mayor in 2009.

 

"You see Latino organizations and community leaders focused on issues and asking the candidates to respond to those issues," said Lillian Rodriguez Lopez, president of the Hispanic Federation, a group that advocates for Latino voters in New York and New Jersey.

 

To be sure, Hispanics politicians have long been in the city's ranks -- Herman Badillo has repeatedly run for mayor and Fernando Ferrer was the Democratic party's nominee for that office in 2005 -- but observers say their numbers have swelled in recent years. This surge, coupled with growing waves of new migration from Mexicans and other groups, could set the stage for a golden age of Hispanic political power.

 

Priority number one for Hispanic voters is public education, according to a 2005 Hispanic Federation survey. Latino New Yorkers want smaller class sizes, and increased access to preschool and after-school classes.

 

Equally important to Latino voters are employment and affordable housing. When union organizer Melissa Mark Viverito was elected to represent the largely Latino East Harlem and South Bronx, she wanted to know how new development would affect longtime residents.

 

"The question is, 'How do I make those opportunities available to my constituents?'" Viverito said. "How many jobs am I going to get out of this? How much housing is going to be available to them?"

 

Yet even while Hispanic voters may agree on the issues, they can hardly be lumped into one indistinct group. To better understand the Latino vote, it helps to look at some of the most important political trends among Hispanic New Yorkers today: the long-entrenched influence of Puerto Ricans, a fresh injection of Dominican representatives, and a new crop of Mexican and other Latino immigrants who are turning out to register to vote.

 

Puerto Rican Power

 

Puerto Rican influence on city politics has been felt at least since the first wave of immigrants came in the 1950s and 1960s. Today, that influence still resonates in networks that have produced some of the city's most powerful Latino politicians such as Carrion and Ferrer.

 

In the Bronx, political seats have been passed through the generations from mother to daughter and father to son, as was the case when Joel Rivera became the youngest member ever elected to the City Council in 2001, following in the footsteps of his father Jose Rivera, now a state assembly member.

 

"I do think there's a generational shift," said John Mollenkopf, a political science professor and director of the City University of New York center of Urban Research, "But there's still a lot of Puerto Rican political leaders."

 

Growing Dominican influence

 

Long one of the city's largest Hispanic groups, Dominicans have only recently begun to assert the political influence to match their numbers. But during the past several years the pace of Dominicans entering city politics has quickened. Since 2001, voters elected two Dominican representatives to the City Council, Diana Reyna in Brooklyn and Miguel Martinez in Washington Heights, and Dominican state assembly member, Jose Peralta, the first Latino elected to the state assembly in Queens county.

 

"Those are impressive gains over the last four or five years given New York City politics," said Lillian Rodriguez Lopez, president of the Hispanic Federation.

 

Even beyond electoral seats, Dominicans are exercising changes on the policy level through appoints to city commissions. In 2004 Mayor Michael Bloomberg appointed Guillermo Linares as commissioner of the office of Immigrant Affairs. The appointment was symbolic as well as practical, as Linares had become the first Dominican to hold public office in the United States a decade before.

 

Mexicans and other new immigrants

 

In East Harlem, Jackson Heights and other parts of the city, it's easy to find a restaurant with owners from El Salvador, an immigration services center run by Ecuadorians, or a neighborhood association formed by Mexicans.

 

Those signs and others testify to the growing diversity of the Hispanic population in New York, once clearly dominated by Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and Colombians.

 

But while the number of Mexican, Central and South American immigrants is growing rapidly, it may take time feel the full political impact of these new groups, observers said.

 

"It takes people a while to learn about American politics and engage in it," said Mollenkopf. "It takes people on average eight or nine years to become a citizen."

 

Even so, with immigration politics dominating the national stage year after year, new efforts to encourage citizenship and voter registration are gaining momentum, according to Rodriguez Lopez of the Hispanic Federation.

 

"You have an estimated 800,000 permanent residents who are eligible to become citizens in the five boroughs," said Lopez, citing a figure that includes Hispanics as well as other immigrant groups.

 

"That's a significant number of people who could really turn an election."

 

New York City Population by Ethnicity

34% White: 2,746,422

28% Hispanic: 2,221,906

24% Black: 1,893,988

12% Asian: 916,367

2% Other: 177,440

Source: 2005 U.S. census estimate

 

Top issues among Hispanic New Yorkers

1.) Public Education

2) Affordable Housing

3) Job Creation

4) Crime Reduction

5) Health Care

Source: Hispanic Federation survey, 2005

 

From the 2006 American Community Survey (U.S. Census estimate)

Mexican

260,622

 

Puerto Rican

770,123

 

Cuban

41,133

 

Other Hispanic or Latino

1,195,949

 

Copyright 2007, AM New York