Not Quite Post-Racial, New York Politics Is Still Tribal

Friday, September 13, 2013


In the Democratic primary race for mayor, Bill De Blasio won over more black voters than the black candidate, Bill Thompson, and more gay and lesbian voters than Christine Quinn, who is a lesbian. Are these signs of a post-racial, post-identity New York?

Hardly, says Ali Najmi, who argues that "local politics in New York City is more tribal than Kansas."

Najmi, the political action director of the Alliance of South Asian American Labor, worked on the campaign of Reshma Saujani, an Indian-American who lost her bid to become the next Public Advocate. Najmi said tribalism is part of the reason why no one of Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi descent has been elected to the city council, or any other public office here.

"You've had [South Asian] state legislators elected [in] places like Kansas in districts that are 99% white," he said, "yet you can't get someone in New York City."

On the other hand, Carlos Menchaca is set to became the first Mexican American in the city council, having just won the district that includes Sunset Park, an area of Brooklyn that's seen a major demographic shift. A former Puerto Rican stronghold, it's now mainly Mexican.

"We are looking at a pretty momentous occasion there," said Ben Max, editor of Decide NYC. "Not only for him being the first Mexican-American city council member, but also the fact that he took out an incumbent, which is rare."

The incumbent in this case, Sara Gonzalez, is Puerto Rican. Dick Dadey of Citizens Union said that Menchaca's victory showed that politicians can rely solely upon their ethnic base in order to get elected. As for South Asians, who haven't cracked that ceiling, Dadey said redistricting hurt them in areas of Queens where they might have otherwise stood a chance. They're pretty new at this game, he said.

"It's still a relatively new community of political novices that have not yet figured out all the components to achieve political representation," said Dadey.

He noted that it took 20 years after the Stonewall Riots occurred in 1969 before a gay or lesbian candidate in New York won public office: Deborah Glick in 1990, followed by Tom Duane in 1991.


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Comments [10]

Sara from Brooklyn

See Sara Gonzalez satire on twitter to get a picture of her and how she is perceived

Sep. 16 2013 04:22 PM

Robert makes all good points about the non-existent media coverage of the Public Advocate's contest, which HAS become a launching pad for the next mayoralty contest.
How many voters know the Public Advocate is the successor in the event the mayor is not able to perform the job?

To the voters' credit, about 150,000 fewer voters pulled any lever for PA than they did for a mayoral candidate. Squadron and James had institutional GOTV advantages in an already low voter participation primary for PA.

Reshma Saujani sent me multiple mailers, which first made me wonder how her campaign found me, but she did make me think about my vote for PA with such a crowded field.

I hope Ms. Saujani recognizes the importance of the runoff for Public Advocate on October 1, because it is actually a runoff between two wings of the Democratic Party. A deBlasio/James ticket is really the Working Families Party ticket. I used to be a supporter, and still respect their economic issues.

But, NYC needs governance, not ideology.

With WFP gaining seven City Council seats, all the more reason to pay attention to the Public Advocate contest.

btw, there are plenty of Irish-Americans who still live and vote in NYC. Quinn's Council District includes He##'s Kitchen. The oldest Democratic Club there endorsed Bill Thompson.

Sep. 15 2013 08:20 PM
Manohar from Manhattan

Ali Najmi forgot Occam's razor - when there are multiple explanations, the simpler one must be preferred. In this instance - the simpler question is who is Reshma Suajani and why should anyone vote for her? An unknown candidate with a non-existent record loses - that's tribalism at work? The New York Times too invoked "tribalism" to explain Quinn's loss - partly because she is Irish, it said, and there were no Irish left in New York, nor did she have a base amongst Jews or blacks. The paper of the establishment chose to ignore the simpler, and likely explanation - that New Yorkers did not like her record on issues that mattered to them. I'm not quite sure what "post racial" is, but in a city that stopped and frisked over half a million of its residents, most of them black or latino, De Blasio rocketed in the polls the day after hr aired the Dante ad. To me that says De Blasio signaled Quinn's slogan of "hope and change" more effectively than she herself could or did. Is that tribalism at work?

Sep. 15 2013 12:21 AM
Sarru from Brooklyn

NYC is an immigrant city and therefore inherently tribal. Talk of race is too simple for NYC, because it only breaks us up into 3 or 4 categories, when in fact there are many, many, many ethnic groups in the city (what is, over 250 languages spoken in homes across the city? To me, that suggests 250 different races, at least). This is nothing new, been that way for the past 150+ years in NY. The ethnic groups change, but the process remains the same. It often takes a base of support from the candidate's ethnic community to get them elected, especially in the case of ethnic groups that are new to the city. The Kansas comparison doesn't work, because there's no ethnicity in Kansas. It's all pretty white and black out there, very little complexity.

Sep. 13 2013 06:33 PM
brian_in_brooklyn from Brooklyn

Ms. Najmi, your candidate lost because she was the candidate of the Wall Street 1% in an election year when the city's working classes are finally starting to fight back. Class war is not new--the rich have been fighting it since Reagan fired striking air traffic controllers some 32 years ago.

Sep. 13 2013 10:36 AM

Re: Carlos Menchaca. The interview on the Brian Lehrer Show indicated that Mr. Menchaca's victory was not based on ethnicity alone. Mr. Max, who is quoted above, said that Sara Gonzalez, the incumbent, was not as involved with her district as she should have been after Sandy.

Sep. 13 2013 10:35 AM
Mary Conway-Spiegel

On Education ONLY.

Gay and lesbian couples have children who attend public schools. Blacks and Latinos have children who attend public schools. Single mothers and fathers have children who attend public schools. We are not POST anything...all cross sections of all types of folks have spent over a decade being ignored and once anyone of the above has a child/is a matter how "lousy," poor, homeless or disenfranchised and they are infantilized by decision makers for over a decade -- enough is enough.

And I haven't even mentioned: income inequality, housing, stop and frisk, over development, hospitals...

Sep. 13 2013 09:37 AM
Robert from Manhattan

As best I could tell based on mailings that came to my home, she campaigned to women only. Whether that was gender pride or lack of money to mail to all, I don't know. But that was an instant turnoff with at least one other apparently worthy candidate in the race.

Also, this race was for the make-work job for politicians known as "Public Advocate," which was created to give Mark Green a taxpayer-subsidized platform with which to run for mayor, and with which Bill de Blasio is now doing so. Perversely, this person is heartbeat away from being mayor, but really. Do people pay attention to this office and the people campaigning for it?????????

Sep. 13 2013 09:18 AM
CK from Yorktown

Edith: I agree, not just in this race but in others, like the mayoral ballots. Isn't it possible that people just didn't like the candidates vs. a question of race? Too easy to make statements about race, gender etc. as the answer. Maybe it makes it easier for the losing candidate to pin the blame on those things.

Sep. 13 2013 08:23 AM

I think that the assumption that Carlos Menchaca won simply because he's Mexican is overly simplistic and just plain wrong. He aggressively campaigned in Red Hook and Sunset Park (Sara Gonzalez coasted) and Sara was hurt by an increasing reputation that she is, well, ineffectual and lazy. If you dig into the numbers, I'm sure it will show that she was trounced in Red Hook, which she avoided during Hurricane Sandy.

Sep. 13 2013 08:15 AM

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