Bill de Blasio’s convincing triumph in the 2013 race for mayor has given a broad mandate to the progressive forces within city politics that have been gradually building during outgoing mayor Michael Bloomberg’s last term. This mandate will allow those forces to shift City Hall´s emphasis from complicity with corporate interests to the creation of alliances that address the needs of the city’s middle and working classes, as well as the poor. From a Latino perspective, de Blasio’s victory also creates an opportunity to address a major problem in the Bloomberg administration: lack of Latino representation in city government.
While acknowledging that City Hall’s lack of diversity also includes African Americans and other racial and ethnic minorities, a recent open letter sent to de Blasio by National Institute for Latino Policy president Angelo Falcón states:
“Of the top eleven top positions at City Hall, only one is held by a Latino, and it is a position with an extremely low profile and role.
Of the over 80 positions of commissioners and directors of city agencies and programs, only four… are held by Latinos.
Despite making up 25% of the city’s civilian labor force, Latinos only make up 18% of city government employees. ([I]f the Police Department is excluded, Latinos are only 15% of the work forces of the other city agencies).”
The lack of representation, as well as the city and state Democratic Party’s lack of prioritization of Latino issues, has been a sore spot for Latinos and other minorities for years. Republicans, when not being openly hostile toward Latinos, are not seen as advocates, and Democrats seem to take the Latino vote for granted and feel the need to prioritize issues that affect swing voters. With growing awareness of the demographic shifts that affect not only New York but also the country in general, there is a chance that the addressing of this inequity can be a central plank of a new progressive movement.
In fact, de Blasio’s victory was strongly linked to 1) a court decision against Police Commissioner Ray Kelly’s stop-and-frisk tactics, widely perceived as discriminatory toward African Americans and Latinos, and 2) the voters’ positive response to campaign ads that showcased his African American wife and mixed-race children. The symbolic presence of people of color at the core of his candidacy bodes well for the inclusion of diverse faces in his new administration.
Several Latinos are already in the conversation to be part of the new regime. Ursulina Ramirez, formerly a senior policy advisor to de Blasio during his tenure as public advocate, is the executive director of the new mayor’s transition team. Rafael Piñeiro has been mentioned by de Blasio as his choice to replace outgoing police commissioner Ray Kelly. And Scott Stringer, incoming city comptroller, has announced that his transition team will include union activist Vincent Alvarez, Make the Road New York director Ana María Archilla, and Hostos Community College President Félix Matos Rodríguez.
But the Latina best positioned to move into prominence is East Harlem City Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito. Co-chair of the City Council’s Progressive Caucus, Mark-Viverito has been widely perceived as a rising political star after two terms in her district. While at first linked with outgoing speaker and losing mayoral candidate Christine Quinn, she was an early de Blasio supporter. She also is a bit of a lightning rod for controversy—she has been attacked by the right for things like not saying the Pledge of Allegiance at City Council sessions because of her support for Puerto Rico’s independence movement, but also criticized by leftist East Harlemites for not being strong enough against gentrification of the neighborhood.
Daily News columnist Juan Gonzalez has written that some council members describe Mark-Viverito as “aloof and combative,” and she has faced minor controversies, such as her 2010 push to wrest control of community center space from a local arts group. Nonetheless, she stands to ascend to the speaker post unless Bronx Councilwoman Annabel Palma, also of Puerto Rican heritage, is named as a “compromise candidate.” De Blasio might use his influence to put an early progressive stamp on his administration by pushing for Mark-Viverito, and his fellow Democrats might be in the mood to allow such a move to enhance his mandate.
But the strongest impact of the new mayoral mandate may be moving the debate over many policy issues toward the left. The progressive tone of a de Blasio mayoralty may liberate many existing Latino leaders who have felt the need to compromise to retain power, allowing them to take more militant positions. Major issues that are already being talked about are education, affordable housing, land use and rezoning, and, of course, a more humane approach to policing poor neighborhoods. These are all issues that affect the majority of Latinos, and there’s a chance that the new administration may make strong headway to improve their quality of life in general as well as take the necessary steps to include more Latinos in important positions of power.
Ed Morales is a freelance journalist and author of Living in Spanglish (St. Martin’s Press). He teaches at Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race.
Read the rest of NACLA's Winter 2013 issue: "Latino New York"