Ethnicity
Ethnic Politics and the Changing Face of New York

by Andrew White

07 August 00

Roberto Ramirez, the most powerful political leader in one of New York's most ethnically diverse counties, does not believe in ethnic politics. At least, that's what he says.

"Where people are born is a factor to be celebrated, but it should not decide who runs for office," says Ramirez, who is both a state Assemblyman and the Chairman of the Bronx Democratic Party.

Some political observers, however, viewed as especially significant Ramirez's recent announcement that the Bronx County Democratic organization would abandon its support for six-term incumbent Congressman Eliot Engel's reelection bid, and would instead be backing Engel's challenger, state Senator Larry Seabrook. Engel is Jewish. Seabrook is black, with ties to the Rev. Al Sharpton's citywide political coalition.

Ramirez is hoping to build a Latino-black coalition in support of the mayoral bid of Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, according to some analyses. (See story by Phil Lentz)

But there are other factors involved. Ramirez' sudden shift in loyalties comes at a time when the city as a whole is experiencing two seismic phenomena simultaneously -- the wholesale sweeping away of current city officeholders, thanks to term limits, and the largest wave of immigration to New York City in a century. The two together are already starting to change the face of local politics.

NEW VACANCIES, NEW VOTERS

Because of recent laws that limit the terms of political office in New York City, the next couple of years will see the departure of an independent and powerful mayor, the election of a new Comptroller, of a new Public Advocate, of at least four new borough presidents, and the wholesale reconstruction of the City Council membership, with only 15 of the 51 able to run again next year.

"There is never again going to be such an opportunity as during the next two years to change the political landscape of New York City," says Ramirez.

Political organizers for municipal unions report that more than 180 men and women are already preparing to campaign for the three dozen vacant seats on the City Council in 2001. In some districts, as many as 11 potential contenders have put their names in circulation for a single slot. And the number of candidates is likely to increase: the primaries are more than a year away.

Dozens of these candidates are immigrants. The current pace of immigration matches that of the early 1900s, and the diversity of today's immigrants is unprecedented. More to the point, naturalization rates are surging: From 1990 to 1998, more than 739,000 immigrant residents of New York State became citizens (mostly from the city), most of them after 1995. Whites are now just one of a vast array of minorities in the city, comprising roughly 35 percent of the whole.

It is true that in most citywide races, white candidates are still the most likely victors, thanks to their more formidable organizations, and the greater likelihood of white people than black or Hispanic people to vote. One recent survey by Barnard Professor Lori Minnite found much lower rates of registration and voting among foreign-born citizens than among native-born Americans.

Even so, the demographic transformation is already having a powerful influence on politics in the Bronx. What's happening there reflects the swirl of fluid alliances and unpredictable maneuvering that may soon come to characterize much of city politics.

BRONX TURMOIL

In the Bronx today, no single racial or ethnic group can claim anything close to a majority. Whites have dropped from about one-third of the Bronx's population in 1980 to well below one-fifth today. The number of Puerto Ricans has also declined, and blacks account for a steady one-third of the total, much as they did 20 years ago.

But the Dominican, Ecuadoran and Mexican populations have exploded in recent years. Figures compiled by the Department of City Planning and the Bureau of the Census indicate that Dominicans are now roughly 15 percent of the borough's population. And they are becoming citizens at an accelerating pace.

This is the hidden context for the shift in endorsements for the local Congressional race, seen by some commentators as a misguided effort to unify African American and Latino electorates in preparation for next year's mayoral election. Critics like New York magazine's Michael Tomasky say such a racially oriented coalition is counterproductive because it alienates important constituencies (i.e. whites and, in particular, Jews).

New York politicians, though, have always depended on racial and ethnic voting blocks and alliances. In his book To Be Mayor of New York: Ethnic Politics in the City (Columbia University Press, 1993), Chris McNickle argues ethnicity has long been the most significant factor in determining how New Yorkers will vote, and in establishing electoral alliances. "No single [ethnic] group has ever dominated New York in sufficient numbers to control a citywide contest," McNickle writes. "Success has required coalitions."

Together, Jews and Puerto Ricans have held sway in the Bronx for 20 years (see Jack Newfield and Wayne Barrett's City for Sale: Ed Koch and the Betrayal of New York (Harper & Row, 1988) for a blow-by-blow account of this alliance in the late '70s and early '80s). But the borough's population has changed so radically that Ramirez can no longer rely on that old alliance to maintain power. He has no choice but to look for new allies.

Ramirez could also seek a coalition with the growing immigrant Dominican community in the Bronx, something the Bronx Democratic organization has so far avoided -- much to the anger of some Dominican political activists.

But like many new immigrant groups, the Dominican community is beset with internal conflicts that make such outside alliances problematic. New York City Dominican leaders have been tearing at one another's political organizations for years, divided in their loyalties to the first two elected Dominican officials in the nation, City Councilman Guillermo Linares and state Assemblyman Adriano Espaillat, both Democrats from Washington Heights. In repeated swipes, Linares and Espaillat have set their friends and allies against each other in races for nearly every seat in the neighborhood, from the school board and the party district leadership to the Council and the Assembly.

INTERNAL DIVISION

Every ethnic and racial group has class differences, ideological divides, conflicts between community organizations or labor unions, any of which can drive a wedge through the middle of a potential block of voters. And politicians tend to have large personal egos, so even candidates with similar backgrounds, ideas, ethnicity and race can end up running against one another and splitting the vote.

In other parts of the immigrant city, aspiring politicians are pitting themselves against one another, both within their own ethnic communities and without. In Flushing, a handful of Chinese and Korean leaders have indicated their intention to run against each other for a City Council seat currently held by a white candidate. Another white may win again, thanks to a split Asian vote.

In 1998, Brooklyn Assemblywoman Rhoda Jacobs needed a total of only 3,376 votes to win her Flatbush district in the Democratic primary. One of her two opponents, Samuel Nicolas, was a Haitian-American cousin of Abner Louima running in a district with a vast Haitian and Caribbean community. He mounted a strong challenge---but another Caribbean-American candidate pulled enough votes to split the opposition and leave Nicolas running a distant second.

In Jackson Heights, activists attempting to avoid the pitfalls of division are struggling. A nascent political club, La Gran Alianza de Queens, has built a coalition of Latin community leaders that includes Dominicans, Ecuadorians and Colombians, and the group is backing candidates from each ethnic group in different races. Yet in the forthcoming September 12 Democratic primary for Jackson Heights' seat in the state Assembly, a Colombian and a Dominican are vying with each other to oust the 24-year incumbent, Assemblyman Ivan Lafayette, who is white. If past experience holds true, the challengers will split the opposition vote, and the incumbent will win easily.

"It's going to be very difficult to pull this off if they both stay in the race," says Fernando Fernandez, president of La Gran Alianza, which supports the Dominican candidate, Genaro Herrara.

The Queens County Democratic organization has never backed a Latino candidate for any elected office, he adds. As in the Bronx, this may reflect a desire to stand clear of the fray of immigrant community conflicts. That could take a while.

THE COMING RECONSTRUCTION

All this conflict leaves local party organizations coping with the volatility of a changing electorate--but with little incentive to reach out to immigrant leaders who don't yet represent formidable, disciplined voting blocks.

"The saying is, 'Politicians do not fear immigrants because immigrants do not vote, and they are not organized,'" says Brooklyn Assemblyman Vito Lopez of Bushwick. Lopez, who is white, is himself an exception to that political rule: he has organized local blacks, Puerto Ricans and Central Americans into his neighborhood political machine. He is now working to elect a Dominican as district leader.

The politics of the future in New York City will be multi-racial like never before, and party machines will eventually be organizing new alliances or they will die.

"We'll see a much more fluid electorate in coming years," says Democratic Party political pollster Craig Charney. "We'll see varying alliances, all sorts of alignments, all of them short-term and tactical rather than long-term."

The full electoral impact of immigration and naturalization is still years away. But eventually, it will not simply be destabilizing, as it is now in the Bronx. It will be a reconstruction as complete as when the Irish, Jews and Italians took over politics from the old Protestant establishment.

The longer an immigrant lives in this country, the more likely she is to participate in the political process. And as the second generation of the current wave grows up, its influence will increase in magnitude. How could it not? Dominicans accounted for one of every 11 births in the city in 1996. Mexicans were one of every 20. Chinese and Jamaicans were not far behind. And every one of those children is a citizen.

Other Resources:
Historian Mike Davis recently published an evocative essay on the ethnic and political transformation of American cities---most notably L.A. The book, Magical Urbanism: Latinos Reinvent the U.S. City, includes a valuable synthesis of information on the Latinisation and Caribbeanisation of New York City.

Michael Jones-Correa discusses the history of ethnic politics and party organizations in New York City, especially in regards to Latin voters, in a recent essay. It is titled "Resistance from Outside: Machine Politics and the (Non) Incorporation of Immigrants," and is included in his book, Between Two Nations: The Political Predicament of Latinos in New York City.

The Center for Urban Research at CUNY Graduate Center is undertaking a vast survey of the city's second-generation immigrants, as well as ethnographic research of several ethnic communities. Early results about voting behavior and political participation are already emerging, though they haven't yet been published.

The historic factionalism of the city's Democratic Party organizations -- and the ethnic battles and alliances within them -- are aptly described in CUNY Professor John Mollenkopf's excellent book, A Phoenix in the Ashes: the Rise and Fall of the Koch Coalition in New York City Politics.

The New York Immigration Coalition (212 627-2227) is leading a campaign to "recruit 200,000 naturalized citizens and their eligible family members to vote" in the fall elections. The coalition also has extensive material on immigration and naturalization, including fact sheets with important statistics.

Unfortunately, the Department of City Planning doesn't publish its research on the Web. But the department's reports, "The Newest New Yorkers 1990-1994" and "The Newest New Yorkers 1995-1996" are the best summaries of federal immigration data available.

The Demographics Topics Page of Gotham Gazette also includes many other essential links for immigration and demographic data.

Andrew White is Director of the Center for NYC Affairs at the Milano Graduate School of Management and Urban Policy, New School University.

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