Is it really “brown versus black” in a New York congressional race which is making national headlines? A Dominican-American politician, state senator Adriano Espaillat, is 800 votes away from the votes cast for Congressman Charles Rangel, one of the country’s most well-known African American congressmen for over four decades. The primary might involve a recount, due to what the New York Times refers to as the “wildly dysfunctional planet” known as the New York City Board of Elections. But even without knowing the final result, some analysts say the race has already been a game changer.
“Even with a low voter turnout, the fact that Espaillat is this close and the media is talking about it is pretty amazing,” says Angelo Falcón, a political scientist at the National Institute for Latino Policy. “After this, politicians will not take the Dominican community for granted again.”
At the Espaillat campaign office, Libbys Ceballos, who immigrated from the Dominican Republic thirty years ago, says no matter the outcome, “para mi, el ganó.” (for me, he won). Ceballos, who says she became politically involved after her raising her now grown children, says there is a real value in working to see “one of their own” make it to Congress. “Imagine a child in this community who wants to study political science, and sees a role model in Espaillat,” she says.
The inevitable question is whether Espaillat ran a “it’s our turn” campaign. Ceballos says absolutely not. “If you come into this campaign office, you see a potpourri of races,” says the Dominican volunteer.
Espaillat’s deputy chief of staff, Ibrahim Khan, says the numbers speak for themselves. “You don’t get 43 percent against an over 40-year incumbent without appealing to different groups,” he says. Khan also said Espaillat won a state senate seat “against Mark Levin, in a district with many Jewish voters. He has won his Senate seat repeatedly because of his broad appeal.”
But this is where it gets interesting. Some of Congressman Charles Rangel’s staunchest supporters were – Latino. Puerto Rican congressman José Serrano said Congressman Rangel “had fought for our community with every fiber of his being.” Illinois congressman Luis Gutiérrez, a Puerto Rican who nevertheless has become a champion for undocumented immigrants, campaigned for Rangel. Rangel, by the way, known as one of New York’s most established African American elected officials, has a Puerto Rican father.
The Puerto Rican endorsements for Rangel do not, however, make this a “Dominican versus Puerto Rican” issue, since two prominent Puerto Rican politicians, former Bronx borough presidents Fernando Ferrer and Adolfo Carrión, came out to support Espaillat. “The truth is that Rangel amassed the confidence and goodwill of so many Latinos and other ethnicities, even after his censure in Congress and after losing his chairmanship in the Ways and Means committee,” says Gerson Borrero, a columnist and political commentator at NY1 News and NY1 Noticias. “There is a long history there,” he adds.
A similar case is occurring in Texas, where a popular African American incumbent, Marc Veasey, now faces a runoff later this month with Domingo García for a north Texas congressional district. García would be the first Latino elected to Congress from North Texas, though he is credited with appealing not only to Latinos, but to blacks and whites. Veasey, in turn, has received the endorsement of a large share of the state’s Latino politicians, including many elected officials in the Mexican American Legislative Caucus.
As the Texas candidates face a runoff, Garcia’s biggest hurdle, ironically, comes from his own community. It is Latino low voter turnout. “If the Hispanic voters don’t come back out, game over,” said Dallas political consultant Vinny Minchillo about Garcia’s chances to win over his African American contender.
In New York’s congressional district, an organization, Latino Justice PRLDF, says it received reports that bilingual poll workers were moved from Latino-heavy polling places and were not available to assist some voters. While the events surrounding the voting that day are examined, one thing is clear – Espaillat and Rangel’s close race was also impacted by the low voter turnout.
As Latino candidates continue to increase in different parts of the country, political scientists and observers say it is crucial to also focus on increasing Latino participation in the polls – regardless of whom Latinos vote for. Falcón says states like New York should learn from Puerto Rico and Mexico, where all candidates get funds for “get out the vote” efforts, and where voting day is a national holiday. “Working people are never sufficiently represented in local elections.”
California’s growing Latino population – as well as dwindling African American population – has also shifted political districts, which has brought into play the “brown versus black” issue. Even here, though, demographics is not necessarily a “slam dunk” for political office.
“A few years ago a Latino state senator, Gil Cedillo, tried to run in a plurality Hispanic district against an Asian candidate, Judy Chu, but the Democratic establishment – including many of the state’s prominent Latinos, backed Chu,” explains political scientist Stephen Nuño.
Across the country, Latino candidates face the same – and equally important – dual issues. They have to appeal to a broad swath of voters, yet also convince more Latinos to come out and vote.