Come to think of it, the idea’s not that far-fetched—Willie Colón, salsa legend, bandleader, trombonist, composer, political gadfly, and . . . the next United States senator from New York.
Don’t laugh. Colón got more than a respectable 38 percent of the vote in the 17th Congressional District primary in 1994 against incumbent Bronx Democrat Eliot Engel. And Engel had a 12-year political head start in the state assembly before running for Congress.
But Colón, with support from hospital workers and black political leaders, including Al Sharpton, raised more than a few eyebrows with his numbers. Dark rumblings about a successful coalition-building effort began to spread. A ballot problem kept Colón from joining the final battle in the general election, so we’ll never know how that would have played out. But his ’94 congressional run certainly threw a start into Engel and snickering Democratic Party regulars. After that loss, a chastened but not crestfallen Colón conceded he’d learned an important lesson: less emotion, more professionalism next time.
Now Colón’s back. And he’s personally and publicly ticked about the rush by the same party regulars to rubber-stamp “the carpet-bagger,” Hillary Rodham Clinton, for U.S. Senate. Sounds like “El Malo” (Bad Boy) of old, leading with a right to the jaw. He’s not pulling punches, and he takes Mrs. Clinton to task for waffling on the U.S. Navy’s continued presence in Vieques and the Puerto Rican political prisoner clemency issue, and more.
“You know, as a New Yorker and as a Democrat,” Colón said in a recent interview from Mexico City, “I’m insulted that this seat is being turned over to a carpetbagger and put up to the highest bidder—without even a primary! Are we just going to let Hillary Clinton be anointed?
“Look, there’s lots of people out there and lots of talent,” says Colón. “Why should we just lay down? No. We won’t be taken for granted. I’m going to make a serious run, grassroots campaign on the issues. We need to air out our issues and give people a reason to come to the polls. The polls I’ve seen,” says Colón, “indicate that people want another choice, a third candidate, in this thing.” And if you still don’t get the idea he’s serious about running this year, his Web site—www.williecolon.com—makes it plain. It also lays out a few barbs about the Latino community being played for chumps.
Colón’s floated the idea of running for over a year, to friends and potential supporters, but now the kid who used to shine shoes on the corner of 138th Street and St. Ann’s Avenue in the Bronx says he’s prepared to expend time, energy, and treasure to do something about it.
In fact, he’s announced the formation of an exploratory committee, and he’s talking to “his people.” He’s already gone public with the plan to form an exploratory committee on the progressive airways of Pacifica’s WBAI-FM and at the more old-guard Hispanic AM outlet Radio WADO.
Is it an 11th-hour venture? Surely. A precipitous, wild-eyed gambit? Perhaps, to the smart set. A quixotic misadventure? Who can say? But Willie Colón sounds serious and sounds like he’s ready to roll up his sleeves, press the flesh, work the train stations, and hit the streets.
It’s a similar work ethic and common-touch appeal that have taken him from shoe shine gigs in Mott Haven as a boy to Latin music icon with 10 gold albums, 11 Grammy nominations, and major shows all over the world. Not bad for a high school dropout. Who knows how far Willie Colón can really go with that kind of moxie and “mucho corazón“?
Consider this: In the one corner of the Empire State where William Anthony Colón would presumably do some damage in a bilingual primary street fight this summer, New York City, Hispanics comprise a population of more than 2 million. Of that number, 1.2 million are eligible voters, with Democrats making up 450,000 of the total.
That’s nearly a quarter of the Democratic voter whole, many of whom just might take a shine to an attractive, charismatic political insurgent and native son who speaks the language and champions an inclusive grassroots message that speaks—no, sings—to long-neglected minority issues.
In boxing parlance that’s a puncher’s chance. Sí. ¿No? Ask Angel Rodriguez, another hard-nosed realist up from the jagged streets of Brooklyn, who almost had his political dreams pricked by Democratic Party regulars. Rodriguez now represents Brooklyn’s 38th Councilmanic District, which includes the tough southwest river wards of neighborhoods like Red Hook. Would he advise Colón to pack it in?
“No, I would be the last guy to tell Willie Colón not to run,” said Rodriguez from his Brooklyn office last week. “I had lots of guys telling me that when I was thinking about running for Council. And I’m certainly not half as well-known as Willie Colón!
“And I’m sitting there saying to myself, ‘But I know I’d be a quality candidate and represent this constituency well.’ So I’m not going to say that to Willie, even though I’m supporting Hillary Clinton this year. I know he’s trying to get a message out and that’s good. And he’s right: We shouldn’t be taken for granted. He may well help to sharpen some of these issues for the Latino community.”
Bronx Democratic state senator Efrain Gonzalez, whose district takes in the West Bronx, is also a dyed-in-the-wool realist.
“Look,” said Gonzalez in a telephone interview from New York last week, “in a statewide race, Willie doesn’t stand much of a chance, between you and me.” A friend of Colón’s who has committed to support Mrs. Clinton, Gonzalez says, “I’m all in favor of more Latinos running for office and becoming part of the political process.” But he notes that it’s already late, and since Clinton likely has the state Democratic delegates locked up, Colón would have to organize an intensive petition drive statewide just to get on the ballot. That, plus raise lots of money. No small task, concedes Gonzalez.
For his part, Willie Colón remains as pass-ionate as ever about his chances. “I believe I can get people motivated. I’m going to be like a pest. I’m going to get momentum. And even if I lose,” he says, “it will teach the party a lesson. They can’t take us for granted anymore. The party’s got to listen to the people.”
Moxie and mucho corazón.