Who speaks for New York City’s 2.1 million Latinos? That’s subject to a debate in the mayoral race, one that’s played out over the past few days on the steps of City Hall and up Fifth Avenue.
On Saturday, Manhattan Borough President Virginia Fields took to the steps of City Hall to unveil “Latinos con Fields,” a collection of supporters from around the city.
But that ethnic group, of course, is considered the heart of former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer’s support—support that, according to the New York Times at least, was on display during Sunday’s Puerto Rican Day parade. Freddy got big cheers, hugs and handshakes, while Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who made headlines for running his first campaign commercial on a Spanish-language channel, received a polite but more muted response.
Ferrer, however, cannot afford to allow Fields to eat into his base of support, especially in a four-candidate primary field in which Ferrer must nab 40 percent to avoid a costly runoff. As it is, Fields’s presence in the race has complicated Ferrer’s plans to reassemble the black-Hispanic coalition that propelled him to a near-win in 2001.
So on Monday, it was back to the steps of City Hall. There, Assemblymen Adriano Espaillat and Jose Peralta (along with Councilman Miguel Martinez, who didn’t attend) threw their support behind Ferrer. All three men gave policy reasons for supporting Ferrer: Martinez credited Ferrer for his plan to tax stock transfers to pay for the city’s share of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity court ruling on education funding. Espaillat, of Washington Heights, lauded the former Bronx Beep for “helping to rebuild the Bronx.” And Peralta cited Ferrer’s advocacy for immigrants—a key constituency in the assemblyman’s Jackson Heights-Corona district.
But the ethnic element was at center stage. “I’m calling upon all my fellow Dominicans and all my fellow Latinos and all my fellow New Yorkers to come out and support Fernando Ferrer,” Peralta said, saying “Ferrer” with a distinct accent that was a vast improvement on the “Fer-ARR” that Anglos sometimes call him on the campaign trail. “He’ll give us a place at the table. With Freddy Ferrer, working together, si, se puede—yes, we can.”
Asked about the appearance of dueling endorsements within the Latino community, Espaillat said, “I think every mayoral campaign recognizes the importance of the Dominican vote.” But, he continued, “The leadership—the elected leadership—of the Dominican community here today is endorsing Freddy Ferrer.”
There’s nothing new about ethnic appeals to New York City voters: Plenty of Irish and Italian officeholders of decades past won at the polls solely because of surnames. But for years the critique of Democrats has been that they play identity politics so well that it ends up hurting them when there’s a wider electorate to address. And amid the broader considerations of class, geography, religion, and even race (“Latino” is a non-racial designation), one wonders how effective an ethnic appeal can be.
The Voice asked Peralta if ethnic considerations actually influence people’s voting. “Partially, it’s ethnic ties, and the other half is educated voters,” he said. Is that a good thing? “I think it’s still in the process of getting everybody educated. Hopefully we’ll achieve a day when ethnic ties will not decide.” If and when that day comes, he said, is up to the leaders.