The following is an edited transcript of “The Latino Vote and the 2005 Mayoral Election”, an event co-sponsored by the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and New School University’s Milano Graduate School. It was held on February 16, 2005.
GABE PRESSMAN: One advantage of being around for a long time is that you get some perspective about both life and politics. When I was growing up in the Bronx, Ed Flynn was the Democratic boss and the Irish still controlled politics in all five boroughs. There was a need, said all politicians - especially those in power - for a balanced ticket. And a balanced ticket meant that the three citywide offices, mayor, council presidents and comptroller, had to be three different groups. Usually the mayor was Irish, and the comptroller was Jewish, because Jews were supposed to be able to handle money, and the council president could be anything, but preferably Italian.
For decades, this Irish-Italian-Jewish ticket was they way New York worked. But in recent years, Italians and Jews have won the mayor’s job; the election of David Dinkins as mayor made it clear that the old rules no longer apply. As Latinos and blacks demand their place in the New York power struggle, times may be changing.
Of course there are subdivisions within each group: There are Caribbean blacks and Southern blacks, there are all kinds of ethnic divisions within the Latino culture, and there are more and more immigrants coming from places like Asia.
I don’t see all of this as a prologue to divisive political warfare. Rather I see it as part of a never-ending symphony of changes. New York is a wonderful city, and it’s a marvel that we go on and we change and different ethnic groups take command.
We’re going to hear tonight from people who are, I hope, experts about the Latino influence in New York politics, and whether there’s a real chance of Latino/Latina mayor this year. I’d like to introduce the panel and then start out with that question.
First, there’s Juan Gonzalez, a columnist for the New York Daily News. He has won many awards and is considered one of the most prominent of all Latino commentators in the New York area.
Alice Cardona is the Hispanic liaison of the office of Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan. She’s a trustee of the National Latina Caucus.
Angelo Falcon is a political scientist and president and founder of the Institute of Puerto Rican Policy.
Randy Quezada is the Civic and Electoral Participation Coordinator at the New York Immigration Coalition.
IS THERE A REAL CHANCE OF ELECTING A LATINO MAYOR IN 2005?
JUAN GONZALEZ:There most definitely is, and I think there was four years ago to some degree. Some would argue that the time wasn’t right for a Latino mayor, but it’s also a question of what are the policies of that particular person or anyone who is going to aspire for mayor in a city.
Four years ago Joel Siegel, the political reporter for the Daily News kept telling me: “Juan, Freddie isn’t even getting a high percent of the Latino vote. It doesn’t even seem like he’s getting much support in his own community; how does he expect to branch out into other areas.” I told him, “Joel, don’t pay attention to any of those polls. Most Latinos are not going to pay any attention to the race until a couple of weeks before the race happens. Then you’ll see an enormous shift right away.” It turns out that Fernando Ferrer got about 80 percent of the Latino vote in the primary.
The issue has always been how Latinos will turn out and vote. Over the last several elections, they have made up about 10 to 15 percent of the Democratic electorate. Last time around it was 25 percent.
To me, it’s all a question of paying attention to the changing nature of New York. If Latinos comprised 28 percent of the population in 2000, it definitely has to have passed 30 percent by now if not more. And it’s not only that, but because there are so many younger people who are turning 18 and being eligible to vote, there is huge growth potential in the Latino vote.
But that does not mean that all Latinos are going to vote for Latino candidates, or that the Latino candidate will do well among other groups, depending on who else is out there. It all depends on the policies that that person has adopted, the campaign that they run, the level of mobilization in Latino communities.
ANGELO FALCON: I think it’s important to say that what we’re talking about now is that we have a credible Latino candidate in Freddie Ferrer. Whether he’s going to win or not is another story. He’s got the name recognition, and that’s an important milestone for New York City. There’s this credible person who is getting support from a lot of different sectors. We didn’t have that before.
Ferrer has been talking about bringing back the whole issue of the two New Yorks. Let’s see how he does that. But as soon as anyone talks about linking it to anything racial he pulls back.
He’s also been talking about the plight of the middle class, fine tuning that message at the Drum Major Institute.
The Latino community should be asking tough questions like, “Who cares if he’s Latino? What does this person stand for?” We need to go beyond genetic politics.
If you look at the Quinnipiac poll Ferrer actually doesn’t do that well with Latinos. He gets 57 percent support in a match-up against Bloomberg, which is exactly the amount he gets from the black community. So I think the thing with Freddie in terms of energizing the base is that he may be falling into that Percy Sutton syndrome, where you had a black candidate, and the black community was not enthusiastic about him, and didn’t turn out in large numbers. Ferrer, right now, should be getting 80 or 90 percent in the polls from the Latino community, and he’s not doing that. So he has a long way to go, obviously. But it’s very early.
IS THERE A “LATINO VOTE”?
JUAN GONZALEZ: I think that there are two myths that need to be dispelled at the same time.
One is the myth that all Latinos are the same. They’re not: there are divisions based on class, nationality, and, most importantly, whether they are U.S.-born or whether they are immigrants.
There are major differences between U.S.-born Latinos and immigrant Latinos in terms of attitudes toward abortion and divorce, with immigrant Latinos much less accepting of either than U.S.-born Latinos. This breaks across ethnic groups within Latino community. So what that means is that the U.S.-born Latinos are being acculturated to a certain degree to American views or different American views from those of their immigrant parents.
While immigrant Latinos are more conservative than the U.S.-born Latinos on social issues they are more progressive on international issues, on the war, on U.S. policy abroad. Why? Because they have come from countries that have suffered from U.S. policy, and so they have a different attitude toward the U.S. role in the world.
For instance, the Pew Hispanic Center just did a very interesting poll that shows that immigrant Latinos are more opposed to the Iraq war than U.S.-born Latinos. With the lone exception of the Puerto Rican community - the Puerto Rican community is the most anti-Iraq war of any group. I think that has to do with the military in Puerto Rico and Vieques
There are also varieties based on class or nationality within the groups, so it’s a complex group. It doesn’t make for an easy read.
The other myth that needs to be dispelled is that there is not a Latino vote. All Latinos are united in that they don’t like to be disrespected; they don’t like their language to be unappreciated; they don’t like it when politicians don’t pay attention to their needs. So on those bigger issues of how they’re treated as Latinos within the U.S., they can suddenly all get fiercely nationalistic no matter from what nationality or group they’re from. And you saw that in the switch from Ferrer in the Democratic primary to Bloomberg in the general election. They were rejecting Mark Green because of that feeling of disrespect, of mistreatment of Ferrer.
GABE PRESSMAN:They didn’t like the way Freddy Ferrer was treated by Mark Green. What’s your reaction to all this, Mr. Quezada?
RANDY QUEZADA: I felt slighted in 2001, and I actually did vote for Bloomberg although I am a registered Democrat, and I voted Democrat since I was 18. But [the fact that Latinos will stick together if they feel they are being disrespected] is really right on.
ALICE CARDONA: Another thing that nobody is looking at is the immigrant power that’s coming. People in our boroughs are registering new citizens. And we don’t know which way they’re going to fly.
ANGELO FALCON:The Latino electorate is changing. Everyone assumes it’s Puerto Ricans and it’s not immigrants, but that’s not true. There’s a Dominican population that is immigrant. It’s growing in numbers. I think that either at this point or pretty soon, they’re going to overtake Puerto Ricans as the biggest Latino group in the city, as Puerto Ricans begin to move out of the city.
In the Puerto Rican community there is a feeling that the community’s become invisible. Even though most of their elected officials are Latinos, there’s a feeling somehow that in terms of the popular community, in terms of the issues that are out there, those have become invisible, and it’s been creating competition where there isn’t really strong political competition between these communities
RANDY QUEZADA: There are distinct cultural and historic differences among Latinos. But I think it’s important to understand that there’s a distinction between an electorate and the people. I think as a people we’re very different: we have very distinct cultural backgrounds. But as an electorate, we live in the same places. My neighbors are Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and Mexicans and so on and so forth. We all have the same problems with the schools, with access to the hospital, and so on and so forth. So as an electorate, we’re going to need the same things.
Immigrants aren’t aggressively targeted by the traditional political order in the city, so registration rates are lacking. But one thing that we do know is that when immigrants are reached out to, and they are registered, they actually turn out in higher rates than native-born population. At the New York Immigration Coalition we’re doing a lot of work to get a lot of people registered, and to get a lot of people educated on the issues, so that when they just see a Spanish name, they don’t think, “Oh, I got to go vote for that.”
HOW DO LATINOS SEE THE WEST SIDE STADIUM?
JUAN GONZALEZ: The stadium is not one of those issues that is going to fire up the Latino community. It’s a development issue, and development issues only attract the political class and folks concerned with economic development, even though these issues are immensely important. I don’t think it’s a major issue except to the level that people understand the simple things. When you’re putting all this money into a stadium, you’re obviously not putting it into education.
RANDY QUEZADA: I agree. It’s not a sexy issue for people that are worried about “am I making enough money to support my family? Is the school my kid is going to falling apart? Why is it overcrowded?”
ANGELO FALCON: This issue will not resonate unless you link it to something else, like the fact that Bloomberg is this rich guy who’s doing all these inside favors for his rich friends and avoiding accountability to the public. Some of the Democrats are going to have to make the case that this is a billionaire who’s not accountable to people. He’s accountable to his class, and that’s going to be to the detriment of working people. I assume that some of them are going to try to make that argument. So the stadium is a good case.
WHAT ARE THE ISSUES THAT SPEAK TO THE LATINO COMMUNITY?
ALICE CARDONA: I am convinced that we completely moved out of the area of job training, job preparedness, and the questions of looking at really new industries, and the question of the kids and how are we getting them money. In school, kids are taking all these tests so they can pass them, but they are not getting ready for life.
Let’s deal with the issue of gay marriages. It’s an American issue; and it’s only one issue. Because Freddy Ferrer comes out and says he’s for gay marriage doesn’t make it the issue for us. What about the rest of what’s going on in this city? What about the economy? What about the education? What about health? Our people are dying of AIDS, and nobody’s really taking that on as an issue.
RANDY QUEZADA: Education, jobs, healthcare. A lot of people work in places where they don’t have health insurance to begin with, and then they have to use emergency room healthcare, which is not preventive care. It’s not the kind of care that would be the most appropriate for them and their family.
Children are not getting the kind of education that’s going to prepare them for life. Their classrooms are overcrowded; there’s a constant need for new classrooms. There is a great need for resources so the parents can be more involved in the schools and be able to communicate with their teachers and their children because a lot times you have the experience like I have of growing up where I had to be the translator for my mother.
JUAN GONZALEZ: There was an August 2003 nationwide poll of Latinos on what’s the most important issue to you and your family. The top three issues were:
- 30 percent: jobs and the economy
- 12 percent: education
- 6 percent: immigration
Jobs and the economy was by far the biggest issue for Latinos nationwide because most Latinos are workers, and they are low-paid workers. The biggest thing that’s happened for Latinos in the last 10 years was the increase in the state minimum wage. That’s money in your pocket, something the government has done to help your situation.
I would say that in New York City, you also have a particular issue that has fallen off the chart for most of the people in the political class. What people have to pay for housing in this city is outrageous, especially if you are lower income. Public officials have stopped talking about it ever since Koch housing program a few years ago. That is something that is definitely affecting hundreds and thousands of Latinos. They are paying so much more money for housing now than they were before.
So the city’s focusing all this money on Manhattan development and not paying attention to the neighborhood commercial strips and centers except to build new big-box stores that are going drive all these small Dominican businesses out of business; I think the city is really hurting the Latino community.
Another issue is that as minority groups gain increasing power in municipal government, they find that this government has less power. Between 65 and 70 percent of New York City’s population is now African American, Latino or Asian. But political power is increasingly being removed from control of municipalities. The power is being stripped away by public authorities, by other off-the-book companies that are being established to siphon off public money from the regular budget that that mayor would control.
A savvy political leader has to wage a fight against suburban control, and domination and milking of the major cities. Major cities provide the jobs, the life and the culture, and everything else that the suburbs and the rural areas live off of. But then they’re being denied the proper resources to be able to function. Political leaders who are going to win the support of the population have to fight this New York City versus Albany fight, and versus the suburbs.
ANGELO FALCON:I think we have to talk about these issues very differently. And that is that the idea of “what is the most important issue” doesn’t really resonate with our community. The reality of our community is that all these issues are important in the way they interact. We have to be talking about how education impacts on people’s ability to get jobs. How the job market affects people’s health. These things are all interrelated.
Something that is really important in the Latino community is our nationalism and our identification as a people. How we’re treated. The whole notion of how we’re treated in different places, the feeling of alienation from the political process, and the feeling also that we’re not being represented well is a serious issue.
For example, in the last year of the Giuliani administration, Latinos made up 18 percent of the people who worked for the City of New York. The latest figures for the year 2003, we make 16 percent. Our numbers dropped in city employment. Nobody’s talking about that issue and what it means. No one is talking about our participation in government. I’m not talking about jobs in general. I’m talking about administrative management jobs in the city government.
So what happens when certain issues -- the level of racial residential segregation, and all the poverty and poor health and poor education - do not get discussed? Freddy Ferrer comes up with a broad thing of two cities and most of us say, “Yeah, that’s right. There’re actually more than two cities. There are a lot of inequities in the city.” What happens? Well, someone says, “You’re being racially divisive, drop the damn issue.” So the issues that are important to our community become issues that are not legitimate to talk about.
But as this society treats Latinos and immigrants worse and worse, it actually motivates people to turn out and vote. It happened in California with [anti-immigrant governor] Pete Wilson - he got Latinos to vote in higher levels than ever before in reaction to that. So it’s kind of a funny process, but politicians make calculations for future voters.
Right now one of the big things that’s really holding people back is delays in getting people naturalized. That’s costing the Latino community, people who should be eligible to vote because the bureaucracy is taking their time.
But immigration is not a very positive thing to talk about. People are trying to criminalize it; they’re trying to make a serious problem. [In New York it is not as tough as other places], but it’s a tough issue. Many people separate it into two issues. They say there is the issue of immigration, which is really a federal issue that has to be debated. Then there is the issue of immigrant rights for people that are here at the local level.
You have people who are hardworking people that are here already. Why do you want to treat those people badly and create problems for them? Most of us in the Latino community talk mostly about defending the rights of immigrants that are here.