Puerto Ricans Losing Ground in NYC’s New Ethnic Politics

New York’s Puerto Ricans used to be the eastern standard bearers of the nation’s Latino political struggles, led by a combination of radicals like The Young Lords and successful centrist politicians like Congressmen Herman Badillo and Bobby Garcia and Councilman Freddie Ferrer.

Their ascendancy fit well within NYC’s political history, which has a legacy of ethnic group participation going back to Boss Tweed’s control of Tammany Hall machine in the nineteenth century. The 1934 election of Fiorello Enrico La Guardia as Mayor signaled a change in that—he won not because he was Italian, but because of his status as a liberal Republican reformer. That change opened the door to ethnic voting created by the Voting Rights Act (VRA), with its creation of majority-minority legislative districts that perpetuate ethnic voting regardless of the preferences of the electorate. 

The transition from traditional to VRA-based ethnic politics has contributed to recasting the city’s governing elite in two key ways.  First, it has delegitimized city-wide elections in which there are no non-white candidates. The city’s racial and ethnic mix so permeates all aspects of urban culture that ethnic candidates expect to be nominated and win local races, even if these are limited to council posts.

Thus, although voters in specific districts vote ethnically, the city as a whole sees ethnic candidates as integral to the political landscape even though they are elected by particular nationality groups. 

Second, the elected officials represent new elements in the city’s mosaic. It includes the first Asian American elected to citywide office, as well as Dominican Councilmen and women.  Add to these the presence of Puerto Ricans, African Americans and Jews, and the richness of the city’s demography comes to life in the city’s official decision-making circles.

The gains of the post-VRA era have their price, however. From an ethnic perspective, it can be argued that they have contributed to the declining significance of Puerto Ricans in the city’s politics. By insuring the incorporation of all ethnics, the new political regime has not only delegitimized efforts by any one group to become dominant, but it has also preempted claims by any one group claiming that it is “their turn” to be elected.  Herman Badillo and “Freddie” Ferrer had the stature to claim such a mantle in an era when such claims could be voiced. 

Making the claim did not guarantee victory, however.  Badillo, the first Puerto Rican elected to Congress, sought but failed to be nominated for Mayor five times between 1969 and 1985.  Ferrer, Bronx borough president from 1987-2001, unsuccessfully sought the mayoralty in 1997, 2001 and 2005—when he was endorsed by Eliot Spitzer; Senators Charles Schumer, Hillary Rodham Clinton, John Edwards and Howard Dean; and Al Sharpton and former Mayor David Dinkins.

The likely long term consequence of the post-VRA transformation is the continued displacement of Puerto Ricans as major local political players.  New York is no longer a magnet for Puerto Rican migrants.  Not only has migration slowed, but those who come settle all along the East Coast, in Florida and elsewhere. Moreover, no Puerto Rican stands out as a likely candidate for Mayor or statewide office.  Thus, while they will continue to be elected to Congressional and other legislative seats, their status as the vanguard of East Coast Latinos is likely lost forever.

Rodolfo de la Garza, a Columbia University professor of Political Science, has studied immigration, political attitudes and voting for over 30 years. He directed the first national political survey of Latinos and has authored, co-authored and edited 18 books and more than 100 scholarly articles and reports on foreign policy, immigration and political attitudes and behavior.