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

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.