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Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

A White City Council

(August '01) For all the talk of the spectacular diversity in the hundreds of citizen-candidates this year, the truth is that there will be little change in the complexion of city government. White New Yorkers will dominate the "new" City Council, just as they dominated the old.

In the current City Council, 28 members are white. The results of this year's elections will show one or two Asians replacing white incumbents -- the first Asian-Americans to win city-wide elective office. A Latino may replace an African-American. But, when all the levers are pulled, the City Council will still probably have about 26 white members, or more than 50 percent.

How can this be so in a city that is now only 35 percent white?

If represented in proportion to their numbers in the population, there would be 18 council members who are white (there are 28), 14 who are Latino (there are currently nine), 13 who are African-American (there are currently 14), and five who are Asian (there are currently none).

Of course, Council members run in specific districts, not in the city as a whole. But looking at the majority ethnic groups district by district, there would be even fewer Council members who are white, if voters chose exclusively by the race of the candidate. (African Americans would have 11 seats, Latinos 11, Asians none). In the 12 districts where no single group has a majority, two districts have over 40 percent Asian, six have over 40 percent white, and two other districts have white residents slightly outnumbering Latinos.

In two districts where Latinos outnumber whites, District 7 in Manhattan and District 26 in Queens, a white could win anyway.

How can white candidates get elected while being in the minority? The simple is answer: Because whites pull others into a coalition. At the same time, the groups of color do not necessarily coalesce. Ferrer based his mayoral campaign on an alliance of African Americans and Latinos. This has yet to pay off.

Two districts in Queens, expected to result in change are instructive. In District 20 John Liu, the front-runner, lost to Julia Harrison last time. She is the Council member from Flushing famous for saying about Asians: "They have come here to colonize us." She is term limited. Liu reached out to many of the white residents of the district. He received the endorsement of the Queens organization, as well as many unions. He has raised the most money of any council candidate in the city, who is receiving matching funds. To try to win he has gone well beyond his own Asian groups.

In District 21, which is 67 percent Latino, Hiram Monseratte appears to be the front- runner. If successful, he will replace Helen Marshall, an African American, who is term limited and running for Borough President. Some of Monseratte's opponents say that since he is a Puerto Rican, he cannot adequately represent the district that has a large numbers of Latino immigrants. Monseratte, like Liu, has been focusing his appeal on district issues. He has garnered union and other support, and his coalition goes beyond being Latino or Puerto Rican.

Demography may not be political destiny, but it certainly helps shape it. In districts with large majorities of specific groups, those members usually win. Where there are significant numbers of several groups, the ability to form coalitions beyond race and ethnicity becomes important. This gives whites advantages beyond their numbers. Whites are often part of the existing power structure. It is easier for them to bring in members of new groups, than it is for members of the new groups to align with one another and oust the whites. The new City Council may look much like the old. Yet, the coalitions upon which it will be based include many of the newest New Yorkers. It will be up to the new council to serve their needs.

Andrew A. Beveridge has taught sociology at Queens College since 1981, done demographic analyses for the New York Times since 1993, and provides expert testimony on a range of cases, including housing discrimination. The opinions expressed are his alone.

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