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Will Latinos Lose the First Assembly Seat They Won 84 Years Ago? The Looming Battle in East Harlem

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Former Assemblymember Robert Rodriguez, middle (photo: @_rjayrodriguez)

How might Assemblymember Robert Rodriguez’s resignation lead to Puerto Ricans losing the seat for which they have fought so long? Let me explain.

Last week, as a who’s who of New York elected officials descended on the island of Puerto Rico, Governor Kathy Hochul was preparing her continued push to revamp state government, attempting along the way the diversification of the Empire State’s governmental representatives.

On Thursday, 1,600 miles away from New York and under the hot Caribbean sun in Borinquen, Hochul announced the appointment of Assemblymember Rodriguez of East Harlem to the position of Secretary of State. Rodriguez becomes the fifth consecutive Latino to be appointed to the position.

Rodriguez’s appointment will set off a royal rumble, with numerous individuals already declaring their intentions to succeed him in the Assembly. Rodriguez’s seat is one that has significant historical importance for Latino politics in New York.

It was in 1937 that the first Latino to win elected office in New York, the Puerto Rican Oscar Garcia Rivera, occupied this very seat in East Harlem. (East Harlem would come to be known as a place of firsts for Latino political representation. Tony Mendez would become the first Latino Democratic District Leader in 1957. And his daughter-in-law, Olga Mendez, would become the first Puerto Rican woman in the nation to win a seat in a state legislature.)

By the time Garcia Rivera was elected to the State Assembly, East Harlem had become the hub for new Puerto Rican migrants arriving in New York. To be sure, East Harlem was not the initial destination for the first major wave of Puerto Rican migrants. That distinction belonged to Brooklyn, with many Puerto Ricans arriving in Williamsburg and the Brooklyn Navy Yard as a result of the neighborhoods’ proximity to the New York City waterways. Puerto Ricans eventually made East Harlem their hub and in time it was first there that Latinos’ base of political operations and eventual electoral successes took place. The sheer number of Puerto Ricans that filled the streets of East Harlem led to its unofficial name change to “El Barrio,” as it continues to be known today.

Even before the election of Garcia Rivera, Puerto Ricans had become a sought-after voting bloc in East Harlem. Fiorello La Guardia, before his election to the mayoralty, represented East Harlem in Congress. His foresight and close observation of the demographic changes engulfing his neighborhood led La Guardia to foresee the powerful bloc Puerto Ricans would eventually become. His protégé and successor, Vito Marcantonio, also recognized the importance of the Puerto Rican presence and heavily courted their vote and support. Marcantonio became Boricuas’ darling for ensuring that proper constituent services (including hiring Puerto Rican, Spanish-speaking staff) be made available to the newcomers. He also championed Puerto Rican independence as East Harlem’s congressman.

By 1937, Puerto Ricans had become a powerful force in East Harlem, not only propelling Marcantonio to victory but electing one of their own—Garcia Rivera. The continued rise in the Puerto Rican population led other racial groups to fear they would lose political power. As a result of these other groups banding together, Garcia Rivera lost his position some years later.

Through the decades, gerrymandered districts largely prevented Puerto Ricans in East Harlem from winning significant elected offices. But then in 1962 (over twenty years after Garcia Rivera), the Puerto Rican Carlos Rios won the East Harlem Assembly seat, only to be outdone by reapportionment a few years later. It wasn’t until Angelo Del Toro won this seat in 1974 that Puerto Ricans cemented their hold on it and in East Harlem politics more broadly for decades to come. 

Del Toro proved to be a canny and successful Assemblyman, holding on to his seat for 20 years until his untimely death in 1994. In that time, he was appointed chair of the social services committee and then the education committee in the State Assembly. Del Toro was perhaps the first Latino to be appointed to prestigious chairmanships in the state legislature.

Just two years before Del Toro’s death, the ambitious, young attorney Nelson Denis attempted to dethrone the powerful Del Toro machine in East Harlem. Denis, with a young 34-year-old Mike Nieves as the consultant guiding the campaign, took on Del Toro and almost beat the 20-year incumbent in the 1994 primary. Del Toro’s death a year later spurred a special election, and Denis having been bounced off the ballot opened the path for another young East Harlem leader to win the seat. Francisco Diaz, Jr., who at the time served on the local community board, served for one year, until Denis defeated him in the 1996 Democratic primary.

Adam Clayton Powell, after having served in the City Council for some years, took on the now incumbent Nelson Denis four years later and went on to defeat him handily. Powell served as the East Harlem Assemblyman for 10 years. When he decided not to run for re-election in 2010, the path was open for Robert Rodriguez to win the coveted East Harlem seat. Rodriguez, whose father served in the City Council for a number of years, went into the race with name recognition and a record of community service, serving as chair of the local community board before his electoral victory. He has kept his seat for a decade and will leave office with an impressive record of legislative accomplishments.

With Rodriguez’s tenure, Puerto Ricans have held on to this Assembly seat for almost 50 consecutive years. So I return to my opening question: Could Rodriguez’s upcoming resignation lead to Puerto Ricans losing the seat for which they have fought so long?

Similar to the drastic demographic changes in East Harlem that Puerto Ricans initiated in the 1920s, one that saw a shift from a largely Italian-dominated community to a Puerto Rican one, a significant demographic reality seems to be engulfing East Harlem today. Like other Latino neighborhoods in the city, East Harlem is suffering from years of gentrification, which has caused the unfortunate displacement of many Puerto Rican families. To be sure, gentrification is not the only factor leading to a decrease in the Puerto Rican population in East Harlem, but it is a significant one.

These demographic changes now seem to be having an electoral consequence. Among all registered voters in East Harlem, whites are now just 3,000 shy of reaching the same voting bloc size as African-American voters. There are currently 20,006 registered white voters in El Barrio, almost a 50% increase within the last 15 years. Latinos, mostly Puerto Ricans, come in at 34,232. 

Perhaps more significant is the fact that white voters seem to be voting in greater numbers. For instance, the past June primary saw a whopping 1,000-vote increase from the previous primary in 2020 among white voters, with whites coming in just 300 votes shy of the total Latino vote in East Harlem. Truth be told, the apparent significance of this increase is as much a matter of low voter turnout among Latinos as it is the number of white voters in East Harlem. Nevertheless, the increase of white voters in East Harlem cannot be discounted when we consider the potential dynamics that may be at play in with Rodriguez out of the picture.

The Black vote in East Harlem has historically been a significant one. And Blacks continue to play an important part in East Harlem elections. The significant presence of Blacks in East Harlem has always had the potential of pitting one group against the other. Fortunately, Blacks and Latinos in East Harlem have, for the most part, managed to work together for decades, as can be seen by the alliances made through the leadership of officials like Charles Rangel, Keith Wright, Bill Perkins, and others. More recently, newer Black leaders in East Harlem, like local leader Nina Saxon, have intentionally built alliances between these communities.

Nevertheless, because of their sizable presence in East Harlem, Blacks can also play a role in Puerto Ricans losing this Assembly seat. Several African-Americans have already expressed interest in vying for the soon-to-be vacated seat.

Much is at stake for Puerto Ricans in East Harlem. Will more than a half century of Latino representational struggle soon come to a head in East Harlem? We shall know before long.

Eli Valentin is an adjunct lecturer at Union Theological Seminary. He writes regular columns for Gotham Gazette, largely focused on Latino politics in New York City, and is a frequent guest political analyst at Univision NY. On Twitter @EliValentinNY.

Eli Valentin is a political analyst and author of the forthcoming book, Reinhold Niebuhr: A Political Life. On Twitter @EliValentinNY.

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