An Espaillat campaign party (photo: Infinity Media IM/John R. Gagain Jr. @jgagain)
New York City, in all likelihood, won’t have a Dominican-American mayor after this year’s election. But that does not mean that the political power representing roughly 700,000 New Yorkers of Dominican heritage — about 30% of the city’s entire Hispanic population and just behind Puerto Ricans, who number around 730,000, according to American Community Survey figures — is not growing, the extension of a civic project that first took hold in the neighborhoods of Upper Manhattan and the South Bronx a few decades ago. The Dominican community has already chosen representatives at every level of government, and is itching to expand outside of its traditional geographic strongholds and use the lessons learned in political and civic organizing of every type to become an ever greater force in local politics.
“I think that there is a great crop of young leaders that are emerging now, and I think they want to take it to another level. And I'm really happy to see that,” said United States Representative Adriano Espaillat, a Dominican-born Democratic legislator whose ground-breaking 2016 election for the Upper Manhattan-based 13th New York Congressional District was widely seen as a referendum on the community’s voting power in a longtime African-American stronghold.
Like many immigrant populations across the United States over time, the Dominican community’s presence as a cultural and economic force preceded its rise as an electoral entity of major consequence in New York. The roots can trace back to the early 20th century; the Dominican population expanded significantly starting in the 1960s, as many fled the Trujillo regime, and experienced a political awakening in the ‘90s that has culminated in office-holders at every level of government. The reasons why, and what the future holds for a political engine reaching maturation, will have major implications for the civic life of New York through the 2021 city government elections and beyond.
The process of building out a domestic political identity and a machinery to power it always takes time, but some Dominicans feel that, paradoxically, the community’s culture of robust civic and political engagement actually delayed its integration into New York’s political frameworks. “There was probably a time when Dominicans didn't do much politics here, but were very much tied to whatever was happening home, and the dictatorship,” said Espaillat. “Not just for politics, but even the business community, many people have one foot here, one foot there.”
Espaillat, who sits on the powerful House appropriations committee, holds the distinction of being the most prominent Dominican elected official in New York and perhaps the country, illustrating both how far the community has come and the long process to get there: he started off sitting on a community board. There are now Dominicans at various levels of government. But with the massive overhaul of local representation happening through the 2021 elections, where all of city government is on the ballot from mayor through the borough presidents and City Council, there is both opportunity and risk for Dominicans in local elected office.
At the City Council, Dominican-born Ydanis Rodríguez represents Washington Heights, Inwood, and Marble Hill, and Antonio Reynoso, the son of Dominican parents, represents parts of Williamsburg, Bushwick, and Ridgewood and is running for Brooklyn Borough President. State Assemblymember Carmen De La Rosa was a District Leader before being elected to the Legislature in 2016, and is now running for the Council seat being vacated by the term-limited Rodríguez, who in recent years unsuccessfully sought higher office twice.
Rodríguez and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, who Rodríguez has endorsed in the mayoral race, have been pushing a municipal noncitizen voting measure that could hugely expand the Dominican community’s political influence if passed. In something of a fracture, Espaillat is one of Comptroller Scott Stringer’s highest-profile endorsers in the mayoral race. Stringer and De La Rosa have endorsed each other’s 2021 campaigns.
According to recent American Community Survey figures, around half-a-million Dominican-born people resided in New York State as of 2019, representing about a third of the total Dominican-American community nationwide. Estimates by Dominicanos USA, a Bronx-based advocacy and voter engagement organization, point to Dominicans being about one-fifth the total share of the state’s Hispanic eligible voters.
They are concentrated in Upper Manhattan and the South Bronx, representing large portions of the 13th and 15th Congressional Districts, represented by Espaillat and Rep. Ritchie Torres, who is Afro-Latino of Puerto Rican descent. There are also significant pockets of Dominicans in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Bushwick and Sunset Park, and in areas of Queens around Corona and Woodside, though not in the dominant concentrations found in Upper Manhattan and the South Bronx. The community is not only large, but has grown exponentially in the last 20 years.
All of this leaves the Dominican community in an interesting spot, having notched a series of victories and with the numbers to swing its weight in areas where it has not traditionally dominated, like the Northwest Bronx, where Dominican-born Mino Lora is running in a special election in City Council District 11 that concludes this week.
“Our numbers keep growing, and yet representation, and elected officials, is still too small,” Lora told Gotham Gazette. After the initial tally of votes in the 11th Council District special election, Lora was a distant second to Eric Dinowitz, the son of a prominent long-time Assemblymember in the area. She indicated on election night that she would challenge Dinowitz in the regularly-scheduled primary in June, where voter turnout will be much larger.
Meanwhile, Oswald Feliz, a Dominican-American tenant lawyer endored by Espaillat, Rodriguez, and De La Rosa, among others, is on the verge of victory in a special election in the Bronx's 15th City Council District, where a special election to replace Torres is also unfolding this month. Ballots will be tallied in the coming weeks under the new ranked-choice voting system, but Feliz was in strong shape after the initial count, perhaps setting the stage for additional Dominican wins in the coming months.
A number of other candidates with Dominican heritage are running for the many available Council seats, including Ángela Fernández, the former commissioner of the state Division of Human Rights, who is also running for Rodríguez’s seat. Manuel Silva, the Haitian-Dominican former chief of staff to former Council member (and now Queens Borough President) Donovan Richards, just ran unsuccessfully in a special election to replace Richards representing the neighborhoods of Far Rockaway, Edgemere, and Rosedale, among others. City Council Member Fernando Cabrera, who is of Dominican and Puerto Rican descent and who represents some of the same neighborhoods as Torres, is now running for Bronx borough president, as is Dominican immigrant Samuel Ravelo.
A fuller mobilization has the power to push forward the issues that the Dominican community has long held dear, particularly education reform that prioritizes dual-language and robust early education, support for small businesses, and the protection and expansion of affordable housing. The political future appears bright, if the extended Dominican community maintains its political focus, continues to run strong candidates, and strengthens coalition with other Latino groups.
The road to political influence had to run through not only the community’s own reservations about its place in the New York firmament but those imposed from outside. According to Dr. Ramona Hernández, director of the Dominican Studies Institute at CUNY’s City College, the perception of Dominicans as a sort-of transient group was a cyclical and self-reinforcing perception. “It's a popular thing among educators,” she said. “‘They send the kids back to the Dominican Republic in the summer, sometimes they don’t come back. And this is why the kid is behind.’ It's a very popular narrative, right? But that negates the actions, not just thinking, but actions that Dominicans took to establish themselves here.”
The civic organizing work began before the electoral victories, of course. “I came from a community where our church organized our community, where it founded what would be the structural organizations that were necessary for a community to survive in despair,” said Diana Reyna, who became the first female Dominican-American elected official in the state upon her election to the New York City Council in 2001 and went on to serve as a deputy borough president in Brooklyn.
Reyna pointed to a host of ground-up efforts to steady the Dominican neighborhoods of Upper Manhattan and the South Bronx in the aftermath of the crises of the late 1970s: community-run daycares and childcare; affordable housing and community development organizations “so that we could stabilize our buildings after they were burnt and abandoned”; care and hospice for HIV/AIDS patients; early immigration legal clinics and advocacy groups. All of this and more formed the precursor and engine for a new chapter of political victories. The spark that really set things in motion was the birth of second- and third-generation Dominican-Americans, who concretized the fact that Dominicans not only had to think about the possibility of return to the island but the kids that were very much going to grow up in New York.
Dr. Hernández traces the genesis of the community’s role as a direct political actor back to the 1991 election of Guillermo Linares to the City Council, where he became one of the first Dominicans in elected office in the country, representing the Inwood and Washington Heights neighborhoods now represented by Rodríguez and De La Rosa.
“People were not believing in politics, because their poverty rates were exceedingly high, unemployment was extremely high, crime was extremely high in New York City,” Dr. Hernandez said. “It was a moment when people were not feeling too hopeful, and then Guillermo came along.”
Linares served nine years in the City Council, a stint as commissioner of Immigrant Affairs in the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and a couple of recent stints as a member of the State Assembly for the upper Manhattan-based 72nd district that De La Rosa now represents. Now president of the Higher Education Services Corporation, Linares declined to weigh in on the status of Dominican political power in New York, citing a current focus on student financial turmoil. His election served as an example that it could be done, and Dominicans have gone on to serve as district leaders, in the City Council, in both chambers of the state Legislature, and in Congress. To date, though, there has not been a city-wide or borough-wide Dominican elected official.
We are now again in a moment of crisis in the city, with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic having affected primarily communities of color and setting off new economic and fiscal crises. The vaccination effort has likewise already failed the hardest-hit communities, including heavily Dominican areas. The Trump presidency also posed an ever-present threat to immigrant communities in particular, who were the target of both punitive policy and hateful rhetoric. Just as crisis energized the community and focused its political output 30 years ago, it’s shaping up to be a catalyst today. The community has shown its organizing and civic energy again, establishing mutual aid and food distribution groups and driving some of the top 2010 and 2020 Census response rates in the city.
Dominicanos USA has seen increasing interest in its naturalization drives and resources. “For the last eight months we have had huge demand,” said Eddie Cuesta, DUSA’s executive director. “I'm talking about people that have lived in this country for 20, 30 years.”
Eliana Santos, New York organizer and program director for DUSA, said, “We asked why they want to become U.S. citizens. And one of the top answers is because they want to vote. We see that increase, especially in the last two years, as the November 2020 elections were approaching.” The organization has been not just helping people become citizens and register to vote, but also to navigate confusing electoral processes, such as how this year’s implementation of ranked-choice voting works and the fact that people need to be registered with a particular party to vote in the primary (which, given heavy voter enrollment imbalances almost everywhere in the city, means the Democratic primary is the key vote for the vast majority of New York City elections).
The mobilization is not only of voters, but candidates, including younger hopefuls looking to pick up the momentum from the first wave of Dominican elected officials. “One of the strong reasons I became a citizen was when Trump was elected, I felt for my safety, and my family's safety, I needed to take that leap,” said Lora, 40, a Dominican-born former nonprofit executive. While Trump led her to become a citizen, the coronavirus spurred her desire to run for office. “This summer, with the pandemic, neighbors asked me, would you do it?”
Many of the younger Dominican candidates and activists are in the somewhat delicate position of attempting to bridge the older generations of Dominican immigrants, who can be more socially conservative, and what Lora called “a more progressive wave with Antonio Reynoso and others that I that I hope to continue as a Working Families Party candidate of this generation of Dominican leadership.”
Said Reyna, “they have to stay connected to a greater gap between those that came here to this country — like my mom, who's in her eighties now — not forgetting that that's a generation that is still greatly involved…and the generation of my children, where they become the leaders that my children will look up to. That's a big band to cover.”
In the short-term, the community’s political objectives are squarely related to recovering and addressing the pandemic-response missteps of local and state leaders. “The pandemic revealed what we already knew, which is that there are these long-standing health disparities,” said Espaillat. “I think that health will take a more prominent place in the community debate. And I think that small businesses and economic development will also take a more prominent place.”
The economic angle is of particular salience to a population with very high rates of small business ownership. “People lost their jobs,” said Dominicanos USA’s Cuesta. “Dominicans are very strong as entrepreneurs, owning their own businesses, and many of these businesses are closed, they’re unable to open. We have a lot of Dominicans that are in the restaurant industry, they're hurting.”
In the longer-term, there are a number of issues that have become inextricably linked to Dominican political organizing, perhaps none more closely than education. “We had the worst education system growing up, and we have to challenge the government to do better. Issues like bilingual education became a form of doing better,” said Reyna.
Everyone Gotham Gazette spoke with for this article brought up a solid dual-language education as an abiding, fundamental, and non-negotiable tenet of the community. Reyna emphasized that there’s even a distinction between merely bilingual, where Spanish may be an afterthought, versus full dual-language, which is “a classroom with an English certified teacher and a Spanish certified teacher.”
“In my district, over 22% of students are multilingual learners…and there's about 2% of seats and classrooms in this district that are dual language classrooms, which is not enough,” said Lora. Espaillat recalled that, during the ‘80s, “at one point, we were bussing about 5,000 kids outside of the district, because there weren't enough schools and the schools were very overcrowded.”
Looking forward, one of the most salient questions is the extent to which the Dominican political machine will mature into a force wholly of its own, apart from other Latino structures or in conjunction with them but finding additional success across more geographic boundaries. Much of the early community organizing in the ‘80s and ‘90s, not to mention the media and political campaign cultures, saw utility in treating Latino groups as monolithic and working as a unit. To an extent, Dominican political figures view this favorably, and are adamant that the way to build towards shared goals is through a unified front of Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, and other large and small Latino populations. “Division doesn't get you anything at the end of the day. We all are struggling for the same things: better housing, better jobs, better health programs,” said Cuesta.
Still, each community has its own identities and issues of political interest, and once the constituencies get large enough, the coalitions can get unwieldy. “One of the things that harms us is that we are from different countries, and how do we gravitate to one leader? Of a country that is not our origin? So who's our Al Sharpton? Who's our Jesse Jackson?” said Reyna, who believes this turns Dominicans into sort-of swing voters within the Latino population writ large.
The most visible Latino official initially running for this year’s race to be the next mayor of New York City, Bronx Borough President Rubén Díaz, Jr., who is of Puerto Rican descent, dropped out of the race early last year. Others still in the Democratic race are Dianne Morales, a nonprofit executive and former public school teacher with Puerto Rican parents, and Mexican-American City Council Member Carlos Menchaca of Brooklyn by way of Texas. The only notable Dominican candidate is Fernando Mateo, a Republican businessperson and taxi and bodega advocate who appears to be a top contender for the GOP mayoral nomination. He has received support from the Manhattan, Bronx, and Queens Republican Party establishments and, though a Trump supporter, calls himself an “urban Republican” who is focused on education, small businesses, and economic opportunity.
Dr. Hernández believes that competition will increase both among different generations of Dominicans and Dominican-Americans and among Dominicans and other Latino populations. Political power is something “second-generation Dominicans will grab because they think that they are better equipped to do the job,” she said. “What will happen in the future is Adriano [Espaillat] will have other people running for his seat that are not necessarily ‘americanos.’ That's just part of politics growing.”
The community that Dominicans have been most closely associated with and which is closest in raw number is the Puerto Rican one, which has as storied of a political legacy. In one conceivable scenario, it could represent the greatest challenger to Dominican political power; in the more likely one, the groups will continue to work symbiotically, a legacy that goes back decades. “Puerto Ricans were right behind in helping Guillermo [Linares] get elected,” said Dr. Hernández.
Ultimately, New York Dominicans’ political trajectory will have resonance well beyond the five boroughs, as it often acts as a model for Dominicans elsewhere. Espaillat believes that the community’s blend of characteristics — small-business entrepreneurship, a focus on economic justice, community organizing expertise, among others — can enable Dominican candidates to win not just in Dominican districts, but anywhere, in “Peekskill, New York, or in places out in the New England states, Florida, Pennsylvania,” referencing Peekskill Mayor André Rainey and legislators like Pennsylvania’s Rep. Danilo Burgos.
Reyna recalled that, before the political mobilizations in the ‘80s, “you were a resident. You had no stake in the system. You appreciated everything this country had to offer, but you minded your business, you put your head down and you keep on walking. Those days are long gone.”
Note: this story has been updated with information about the two Bronx special elections.