NEW YORK — On a recent Sunday in April, state Sen. Gustavo Rivera and Democratic mayoral nominee Christine Quinn were standing in front of a Bronx bodega when they were approached by a father and his 10-year-old son.
The father, Javier Perez, knew the senator from his work in the neighborhood — and his son had even gone up to Albany to rally against school budget cuts. But Perez didn't know who Quinn was until Rivera told him.
"I want to introduce you to the next mayor," Rivera said to Perez in Spanish as the father then shook hands with Quinn, who was surrounded by her supporters carrying signs.
Perez praised Rivera's work in the Bronx and said he trusted the state senator's judgment. Seeing Quinn walk side-to-side with the Bronx leader convinced Perez that she would also look out for his and his family's needs.
"Very much so, of course." Perez said in Spanish. "She's a good candidate."
Quinn’s endorsement from Rivera was the opening salvo in what has become a string of endorsements from Latino politicians and community leaders north of the Harlem River. Last week, Herman Badillo, the first Puerto Rican to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives, endorsed former Comptroller Bill Thompson as the candidate to replace Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Public Advocate Bill de Blasio has the support of Bronx Assemblyman Luis Sepúlveda, and former Congressman Anthony Weiner wooed onlookers during this past weekend’s Puerto Rican Day Parade. In fact, all the candidates — Republican and Democratic — were out with flags and campaign signs down Fifth Avenue yesterday.
The city’s Latinos are an increasingly important voting bloc, accounting for almost 30 percent of registered voters. Mayoral candidates, and Democratic candidates vying for their party’s nomination in particular, know this — just as they know that they need the influence of political leaders in the Bronx to sway Latinos in their favor.
At least two candidates have already declared that the Latino vote is vital for their campaigns if they stand any chance of making it to City Hall. Democratic upstart Erick Salgado and independent candidate Adolfo Carrión are two Latino candidates who think they can break through to what may be their most natural base.
Their challenge is the same one that their fellow rivals face: how do they drive a divided Latino electorate to the primary, much less the general election without a clearly defined, signature issue the way immigration has been on the national level.
Without that singular issue, Latino leaders are divided on who they think can best address their community’s needs, making their endorsements all the more important as a means to turn out the vote.
"What you have now is a very disorganized, fragmented kind of political situation," Angelo Falcón of the National Institute for Latino Policy. "There seems to be no real coordination or strategic thinking about the role of the Latino vote."
A STILL-GROWING, DIVERSE BLOC
It's nearly impossible to separate the story of Latinos' political power from the Bronx's story. In 2010, the borough became the first to boast more than half of the population to identify as Latino or Hispanic.
The 2010 Census counted almost 1.4 million Bronxites. Of those, 740,000 are Latino — a 15 percent jump from just ten years earlier. Most of those residents — as well as registered voters — are Puerto Rican and Dominican, although of Central and Southern American immigrants are a growing percentage of the population.
On a national level, if talking heads and pollsters are to be believed, Latinos were integral to the 2012 election. Both the presidential campaigns vied desperately for votes from one of the fastest growing minority groups across the country.
The Republican Party's inability to attract what it argued was a natural political base fascinated pollsters and politicians alike. Ultimately, Latinos went for Obama. Exit polls from the Pew Research Center found that Latinos favored the Democrat over Republican challenger Mitt Romney, 71 to 27 percent.
But Latinos certainly didn't vote in numbers proportionate to their size.
Census figures show that while Latinos represent almost 11 percent of voters during the presidential election, only about half of the currently eligible 23.7 million Latinos turned out in 2012. Among the five boroughs, the Bronx had the second lowest turnout for the presidential election. Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens each brought out over 450,000 votes for Obama, compared to the Bronx's 339,211.
Last year, the city's Campaign Finance Board released a report evaluating data from the local Board of Elections and the Census that found turnout in the Bronx was lower than in Manhattan and Staten Island.
The report, titled "Who Votes? Voter Turnout in New York City," also reported that — unsurprisingly — areas across the city with larger numbers of naturalized citizens and low educational attainment showed up to the poll in lower numbers, as did voters younger than 30.
"What motivated the Latinos on a national level was a fear of the Republican party," Falcón said. "Here in New York, I'm not sure that there's going to be any major motivator."
However, Juan Cartagena, president of LatinoJustice PRLDEF seems the glimmer of a motivating issue.
"This is the first time that I can remember when police strategies are front and center of an election," he said. Cartagena specified that while NYPD's relationship with minority communities has often come up during elections, an "endemic and systemic practice" like stop-and-frisk has not.
In May, a Quinnipiac poll showed that 58 percent of Latinos asked disapprove of the controversial police tactic, compared to 38 who support it. Still, 54 percent of Latino respondents said that they approve of Mayor Bloomberg’s job as mayor.
Still, Cartagena argued that policing might become a galvanizing wild-card issue for undecided Latinos.
A NUMBERS GAME
The goal, as it is with any endorsement, is to draw the endorser's base into the political campaign, in which case early polling shows Quinn with a decent lead among Latino voters.
A separate Quinnipiac poll that reported a high number of undecided registered Democrats also revealed that that 25 percent of the Latino respondents said that they would vote for Quinn. A subsequent Marist College poll gave her a 35 percent favorability rating with Latinos.
After Sen. Rivera announced his endorsement for Quinn, the Council speaker told the Gotham Gazette that she recognized the Latino electorate's political heft. Quinn added that her campaign sees a great deal of diversity from within the community that calls for aggressive outreach.
"We're trying to spend as much time as we can in those communities," Quinn said, and that she understands the responsibility of making an impression on her political endorsers' constituents.
But endorsements don’t always play out in the poll. Former Congressman Anthony Weiner is rated by Latinos as their second pick in Quinnipiac’s poll, and has no formal endorsements — Latino or otherwise.
Qunnipiac also reported that it's not much better for Carrión. The only major poll that has measured Carrión's chances, it said that less than 6 percent of respondents would definitely vote for the Independence candidate, compared to the 60 percent said that they were unlikely to or would definitely not vote for him.
Soon after, Salgado was identified recently by a Marist College poll as least-known candidate with three out of five respondents either not knowing him or being unable to rate him.
The Republican ticket doesn't fare much better with Latinos. Only 10 percent of respondents said that they would vote for Lhota over any Democratic candidate.
And while Latinos have a historical inclination towards the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party's loyalty to them is less clear. Falcon argued that Democrats are taking Latino voters for granted.
"Look at Carrión — he has to run as an independent, and Salgado's not really a serious Democratic Party candidate," said Angelo Falcón of the National Institute for Latino Policy.
"I think that's a reflection of the irony that Latinos have been the most loyal to the Democratic Party, but the Democratic Party has not been responsive to the Latino community."
HISTORY REPEATING ITSELF?
Diversity of opinion is a hallmark in any political race, but Falcón said that the city's Latino leadership is more diffuse — even fractured — on its mayoral preferences now than it has been in previous races.
Falcón said that one would think the political leaders would see the value in combining their political clout, not unlike they have in the past. Falcón referred to Latino voters' relative cohesiveness on display during Fernando Ferrer's 2001 failed mayoral campaign.
Ferrer went from Bronx borough president to the first leading Latino mayoral candidate in 2001. Ferrer, who is of Puerto Rican descent, beat out most of his fellow challengers in the Democratic primary to in the unsuccessful bid to replace then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
Ferrer declined to be interviewed for this story due to his current position as acting MTA chief after Republican candidate Lhota entered the race.
A 2001 report from the Center for Urban Research at the City University of New York revealed that Latino neighborhoods in the Bronx and parts of northern Manhattan not only went heavily for Ferrer in the Democratic primary, but also turned out in higher numbers.
It wasn't enough. Ferrer ultimately lost the ticket to Mark Green, who then eventually lost to then-Republican candidate Michael Bloomberg by two percentage points.
When Ferrer ran again in 2005, he secured the Democratic ballot line in the general election after Anthony Weiner dropped out of the primary. Despite massive institutional support, Ferrer lost again to Bloomberg.
Ferrer's second loss, this time by almost 20 percentage points, has since been blamed on a number of factors, including headlines about police violence, Bloomberg's $78 million in campaign spending and a fractured Democratic party.
But in the face of those variables, the Bronx still had Ferrer's back. It was the only borough Ferrer won, almost 60 percent to Bloomberg's 40 percent. Citywide, eight in 10 Latino New Yorkers supported Ferrer, even if Latinos turned out in low numbers.
"Ferrer had the opportunity to play the role of a Latino pioneer," Falcón said, adding that legitimate Latino candidates since Ferrer have been few and far between. "Everybody seems to be all over the place and maybe they haven't developed the kind of machinery to be successful for running."
Even non-Latino candidates with strong campaign machinery struggle with Latino turnout. It was low for Ferrer in 2005, and again in 2009 when Bill Thompson ran as the Democratic candidate against Bloomberg's bid for a third term. Still, despite the close margin — Bloomberg's 50.7 percent to Thompson's 46.3 percent — Thompson did sweep the minority vote.
Bronx Borough President Rubén Díaz, Jr. stood with Thompson in 2009, and did so again this year, standing with the former comptroller in front of City Hall four months before the Democratic primary. Surrounded by Thompson's supporters, Díaz said it was important for Latino leaders to speak out early in the race.
"It's incumbent upon me and some of the elections in the Bronx to make sure that we have the Latino community vote in bigger numbers than ever," Díaz said.
When a Spanish-language reporter asked him why he wouldn't endorse either of the Latino candidates in the race, Díaz doubled down on his alliance with Thompson.
"The reality is that this is my candidate, and I'll support him without fear," he said in Spanish. "Especially when you're comparing him with other candidates who are Latino."
AN HEIR APPARENT
In many ways, Adolfo Carrión's career exemplifies the rise of a Latino politician in New York.
The Manhattan-born, Bronx-raised Carrión was brought up in an observant Protestant family. With a bachelor's degree from downtown Manhattan's King's College and a master's from Hunter College, Carrión focused his educational energies on urban city planning.
He eventually serving as a community board manager and one term on City Council before his eye turned to the Bronx borough presidency, taking over the seat from Ferrer.
After two terms in the office, Carrión left the Bronx for Washington D.C., presiding over the Office of Urban Affairs and later as a regional director for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Carrión remained a Democrat all throughout his time in the Bronx and Washington D.C. That changed when he announced his candidacy for mayor in 2012. Running on the Independence Party ticket, Carrión said he wants to be the city's first Latino mayor.
"My job between now and November is to convince my community that I want to be a mayor for all New Yorkers but, by God, I understand the historic opportunity we have," he said.
Carrión describes himself as a socially liberal yet fiscally conservative independent, which he figures falls in line with both many Latinos and New Yorkers at large.
It's not an unreasonable conclusion, given the last three terms of the candidate that bested Ferrer. Bloomberg, a former Democrat himself, aligned with the Republican Party in his first campaign. Bloomberg also handily defeated the first ever Latino Bronx borough president, Herman Badillo, for the GOP's nod in 2001.
Carrión — who has so-far raised about $1 million with about half still in the bank — breaks away from the mayor on a few issues, most notably stop-and-frisk. If elected mayor, he said that he'd tweak the controversial program. Otherwise, Carrión doesn't seem to mind comparisons to Bloomberg, especially if it indicates a streak of independence among Latinos.
"I think that they respect the fact that he calls it as he sees it," he said. "That's the genius that I see in the electorate. People have been voting out of their comfort zones for some time."
The ease with which voters are electing people outside of party loyalty, Carrión added, applies just as much to Latinos in 2013. His campaign knows it, and is trying to make the case that Latinos can jump to the Independence Party ballot line.
The Independence Party is a mainstay of New York City politics, helping a then-Republican-backed Bloomberg secure a second spot on the 2001 ballot. The city's rule on fusion voting lets candidates appear on the ballot more than once and still have the aggregate between lines go towards their total vote counts, which Carrión will also try to repeat.
Earlier this year, Carrión tried to get the support from GOP county leaders that he would have needed to get a ballot line, being that he's not a registered Republican. He failed to do so, but he's taken it in stride and said he's focused his energies on turning out Latinos to the polls.
The move didn’t settle well with many of his fellow colleagues, including two his borough presidency predecessors Badillo and Diaz. And the candidate’s campaign has also been marred by accusations of unethical, pay-for-play behavior during his time as borough president, charges that Carrión has denied as "pure fabrication."
Carrión is only looking forward.
"In 2009, we had a turnout of less than 30 percent," Carrión said as he did the math. "So total voters were about 1.78 million. Of that, 16 percent were Hispanic. So we're punching below our weight right now."
Carrión continued to add up his prospects, saying that he's banking on 125,000 votes from independents and about 75 percent of the Latino vote to take the mayor's race. To that end, his campaign has made some effort to reach out specifically to Latinos. The same week that Carrión spent an extended weekend in Puerto Rico meeting with local leaders, he released his first campaign web ad.
Titled "Waking the Sleeping Giant," the minute-long ad cuts between stock video and clips of Carrión on the campaign. Releasing both an English and Spanish version, the videos have been watched more than 9,000 times.
"People always ask me what will it mean to be New York's first Latino mayor," Carrión reads in a voice-over. "My response is always the same: If I'm elected mayor it means we have awakened the sleeping giant — hemos despertado al gigante dormido."
But observers say Carrión hasn’t been able to stir much of anything. Cartagena noted that Carrión has so far acted like a non-entity in the race.
"He'll only start taking votes if he becomes more physical in the race," Cartagena said. "The sooner he does it, the better for him."
The fact that Erick Salgado, who Cartagena predicts will play little to no role in the election, seems to be getting just as much if not more media attention than Carrión should worry the former borough president.
"That speaks more about Carrión's campaign than about Salgado," he said.
MINISTER FOR MAYOR
Erick Salgado has never served in political office, and he thinks it's his ace-in-the-hole.
Salgado often makes it a point to declare himself as the only candidate who isn't a career politician. A reverend by trade, he lives with his wife and children in Staten Island and operates two primarily Latino churches in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. That said, he's also still a Bronxite.
Born in the borough to Puerto Rican parents, Salgado's family moved back to the Caribbean when he began to suffer from asthma as a child. He returned to the city in his late teens, focusing his studies on theological work. Salgado eventually opened the doors to two Latino churches in Brooklyn, and has taken his messaging to the airwaves, eventually purchasing a radio frequency for his ministry.
If Carrión is a social liberal and fiscal conservative, Salgado is in some ways his ideological opposite.
Despite a few odd answers to questions about what he would do on certain issues as mayor, such as increasing access to firearms for women as a way to decrease domestic violence, Salgado has come out in favor of hiring more police, providing undocumented immigrants with a municipal ID card and increasing financial support for programs that help immigrants, who he often calls the city's "most vulnerable."
During his debut appearance on a televised mayoral forum on NY1, Salgado also floated the idea of Rudy Giuliani as his potential police commissioner. The only Latino on stage at the time, he also told the audience about how he was randomly stopped — but not frisked — a few weeks before.
"Nothing good comes from stop-and-frisk when you're Latino," Salgado said in Spanish before the live audience laughed when moderator Errol Louis offered him sympathy.
Those laughs don't faze Salgado. He takes the laughs about his thick accent and unconventional politics as a Democratic candidate in stride, perfectly aware that some people aren't taking his campaign seriously.
"When we finish up fixing the city," he said in Spanish during a recent fundraiser in the Bronx, "they are going to love my accent."
However, one of his platform issues seems to have caught the attention of at least one rival.
When Bill de Blasio pushed the idea of a municipal ID card in a mid-May Daily News editorial, Salgado sent out a press release thanking his rivals for backing his idea, even if they didn’t give him credit, before questioning their motives.
"As elected officials they had the opportunity to introduce legislation that would create these cards long before campaign season," he wrote. "Could this just be a tactic to get the Hispanic vote?"
As far as his own targeting of the Hispanic vote, Salgado is bucking the conventional wisdom. Salgado refused to believe that Latinos are as liberal as the recent polls paint them to be. He thinks that the Latino community is as traditional as some Republican pundits allege, and that a less intrusive government combined with the preservation of family is just what New York City needs.
His opposition to abortion rights and gay marriage, though, has helped him find his base. When introducing the candidate to a crowd of Latino ministers at a campaign event, Sen. Rubén Díaz, Sr. — Salgado’s most ardent political ally — made it clear why they should donate to the campaign.
"He is only one who will bring Christianity to City Hall," Díaz shouted over applause as the candidate walked through the crowd. Díaz went on to tell the crowd that the Latino voters were key to Salgado's campaign, but that a growing coalition of conservative voters behind Salgado was already in the works.
In addition to help from Díaz's faith-based machine, Salgado has a fan in fellow Bensonhurst radio host Gregory Davidzon. Widely regarded in political circles as a leading voice for South Brooklyn's Russian and Jewish communities, Davidzon has praised Salgado's faith-driven initiatives on air, helping connect the candidate to the borough's Orthodox and religious leaders.
The candidate has channeled more than $50,000 in campaign funds to Davidzon and his radio station for advertising, office space and campaign consultations. Overall, Salgado’s latest campaign filing show that he managed to raise more than $200,000, but has an outstanding balance of almost $35,000.
Salgado’s conservative credentials resurfaced again during a mayoral forum hosted by the Flatbush Jewish Community Coalition in early June. The candidate defended the Orthodox community from government intervention on religious practices.
"They are marching here every year in the New York gay pride parade, they're marching over here, trying to band together," Salgado said tangentially, but to the crowd's applause.
When deBlasio — a favorite among progressive circles — said that he would defend both LGBT and Orthodox communities, a handful of Orthodox audience members responded by chanting "shame."
Even so, Salgado said that his conservative beliefs don't make him any less of a candidate for the Democratic ticket.
"I'm a Democrat," Salgado said, "and I'm still standing for most of what Democrats stand for."
The Latino electorate can be as ideological diverse any other, but both Carrión and Salgado admit that any likelihood of either of them becoming mayor hinges on Latino voters turning out the vote. And it might be for naught if the last three elections since are any indication.
New Census figures revealed in May that fewer Latinos actually voted in 2012 than in the last presidential election. While Obama did win with the wide margin of Latino votes, the Census attributed a spike in registration to expected population growth.
Getting them out to vote may mean connecting with Latinos on the issues. And, for the most part, the issues that matter to them are what matter to just about everyone else.
Back on West Fordham Road, Billy Gonzalez stood in front of his deli store's counter. Gonzalez said that whoever replaces Mayor Bloomberg needs to focus on bringing jobs to the neighborhood.
After operating the deli for 15 years, Gonzalez said that he's seen neighbors who used to come as regular customers ask for food. While Gonzalez said that he does what he can for those who ask, he wants to see them do the same thing: "help the people."
As a small business owner, he said he's not worried about things like paid sick leave or the city's Health Department overreaching with its policies. Gonzalez said that one thing above all else can help fellow New Yorkers get ahead.
"Education is the number one thing in life," Gonzalez said. "I have six kids, and they're all in public school."
Marisol Ventura has lived in New York since 1985. Having gone through bout of unemployment and homelessness, recently finding a room in an apartment off of Creston Avenue and a factory job to help pay her $450 in monthly rent.
"I wish I had money only so that I don't have to ask for it from the city," Ventura said, before asking that the city prioritize help for the poorest New Yorkers.
"And my struggle isn't just mine,” she said. “Others are in much worse shape.”
She emphasized the need for affordable housing and well-paying jobs that help people get off social programs, and how the challenges in front of the Latino community aren’t so different from anybody else.
"The Hispanic family is the same as the American family," Ventura said.