A Latino Political Machine Dawns In Harlem. (Well, Not Yet. Soon. Maybe)

Had he won the Democratic primary for New York's 13th Congressional District, Adriano Espaillat would have been the first Dominican-born member of Congress. i i

Had he won the Democratic primary for New York's 13th Congressional District, Adriano Espaillat would have been the first Dominican-born member of Congress. Seth Wenig/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Seth Wenig/AP
Had he won the Democratic primary for New York's 13th Congressional District, Adriano Espaillat would have been the first Dominican-born member of Congress.

Had he won the Democratic primary for New York's 13th Congressional District, Adriano Espaillat would have been the first Dominican-born member of Congress.

Seth Wenig/AP

People have been waiting for Latinos to supplant blacks at the top of Upper Manhattan's political structure for some time. They're still waiting.

Back in 2012, Adriano Espaillat, the state senator who represents much of the West Side of Manhattan — including the heavily Dominican neighborhood of Washington Heights — took on Charles Rangel, the grizzled, 20-term congressman who co-founded the Congressional Black Caucus, for the Democratic primary in New York's 13th District.

That heated — and at times ugly — race was supposed to mark a changing of the guard uptown, which had long been dominated by a powerful black political machine based in Harlem. David Dinkins, the city's former mayor, was a key part of that machine. Basil Paterson, a powerful state lawmaker and deputy mayor who died in April — and whose son would become New York's first black governor — was also part of it. And of course, there was Rangel, the dean of New York's congressional delegation, who was once chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee in Washington.

But the demographic tide had been changing. Like a lot of neighborhoods in the city, Harlem was undergoing steady, dramatic gentrification. And the 13th District had been majority Latino since 2000. Then it was remapped again to include even more of Washington Heights. Coupled with Rangel's age — he was 82 — and his congressional censure for ethics violations, the environment was a "perfect storm" for a challenge to Rangel, one of his aides conceded.

In the end, though, Espaillat fell just short of upending Rangel, losing by less than 3 percent in the primary. And while it was suggested that the fight for the seat would engender a whole lot of rancor between black and Latino politicians, not a whole lot surfaced. It was a low-turnout affair that seemed to command more attention in the press than it did in the district.

Espaillat's latest bid for Rangel's seat came up short again, with the Associated Press calling the race for Rangel on Wednesday. Two runs, twice thwarted. It seems the impending ascendance of a Latino (read: Dominican) political machine in the district will have to wait at least a little while longer.

"I don't think it will mean much in terms of policy issues, because New York is so Democratic that there isn't that much different between Rangel and Espaillat," Angelo Falcon, the head of the National Institute of Latino Policy, told me Tuesday from New York. But Falcon said it's hard to overstate just what it would have meant for Dominican-American politics had Espaillat won. More than 4 in 10 of all Dominican-Americans live in New York City. As the first Dominican-born member of Congress, he would have been, in effect, the most powerful Dominican politician in the United States.

"That [lawmaker] would become very important to the diaspora at large," he said. It would be similar, Falcon said, to the way that the two Puerto Rican members of Congress advocate for and work with officials from Puerto Rico, which has a congressional delegate but no voting power. "He's going to basically represent all Dominicans in the United States and in the Dominican Republic."

In New York, Puerto Ricans have long been the predominant Latino group, and unlike folks from other Latino groups, all Puerto Ricans are American citizens. That means they've been the locus of the city's Latino political power. The road to power for Dominicans in the city, many of whom are immigrants without voting rights, has been much trickier, writes Ed Morales at City Limits:

"Dominicans, whose original migratory surge was fueled by political instability in the Dominican Republic, have had more success in reaching middle-class status in fewer generations—one little known reality about the Dominican influx is that its members were generally of a somewhat higher class and skill background than the Puerto Ricans of the Great Migration. While that meant more political assets for the Dominicans, they also face unique challenges. An obvious one is that unlike Puerto Ricans they don't arrive as citizens. Another is skin color: Some Dominicans bear the complex burden of a darker hue, while others who are lighter have had a history of 'passing' as Puerto Ricans to tap into that community's network of jobs and services, which erodes Dominican identity."

But while Puerto Ricans are still the largest Latino group in New York City, they're declining as a percentage of Latinos in the city as many move to the suburbs or to Puerto Rico. All the while, the city's Dominican population continues to grow.

Still, Falcon says that Puerto Ricans continue to make up a sizable chunk of Latinos in Espaillat's district. "About a quarter or a third of the Latino vote [in the district] could be Puerto Rican, and last time they supported Rangel," Falcon said on Tuesday ahead of the primary. "If he can't turn that around, Espaillat could lose just because he couldn't win Puerto Ricans."

Espaillat's loss could have serious ramifications for other Latino politicians in New York, like Melissa Mark-Viverito, the City Council speaker. Mark-Viverito represents the mostly Latino East Harlem neighborhood, and she has backed Rangel in the past. But this time, she threw her support behind Espaillat. "If she came out publicly for Espaillat and El Barrio comes out for Rangel, it could be a big problem for her," Falcon said.

There doesn't seem to be much rancor on the ground, though. And in his victory speech last night, Rangel spoke a few works in janky Spanish to the crowd. (The bit at the beginning is indecipherable on the video, but he says something like, Tengo mucho exito. Estoy muy contento esta noche. Mucha gracias amigo todos.)

Rangel is himself half-Latino, but his Puerto Rican father left when he was very young and thus, he said, he "never really enjoyed any of the cultural riches of a Puerto Rican background." (All together now: Racial identity is very complicated.)

"To a lot of people, it was interesting that Rangel's victory party [was held] in Taino Towers in East Harlem and not in Central Harlem," Falcon said. "I don't know if that's symbolic of something bigger in the community."

Comments

 

Discussions about race, ethnicity and culture tend to get dicey quickly, so we hold our commenters on Code Switch to an especially high bar. We may delete comments we think might derail the conversation. If you're new to Code Switch, please read over our FAQ and NPR's Community Guidelines before commenting. We try to notify commenters individually when we remove their comments, but given that we receive a high volume of comments, we may not always be able to get in touch. If we've removed a comment you felt was a thoughtful and valuable addition to the conversation, please don't hesitate to get in touch with us by emailing codeswitch@npr.org.