Latino Candidates Recast Big City Elections

While race and ethnicity have always been potent forces in American politics, the role these issues play is evolving as Latinos have overtaken blacks as the nation's largest minority group.

A case in point: Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, who is Puerto Rican, was the top vote getter in September's Democratic primary for the New York City mayor's race -- though he ultimately lost to Mark Green, who is white, in the October 11 Democratic runoff.

Ferrer managed his historic achievement -- he would have been New York's first Latino mayor if he'd won -- with a lot of help from Latino voters and the Rev. Al Sharpton. Ferrer collected 52 percent of the black vote and more than 70 percent of the Latino vote in the primary. But Ferrer only mustered 7 percent of the white vote in the primary.

Similarly, Antonio Villaraigosa, a California-born Mexican American, made history in his losing bid last summer to become mayor of Los Angeles.

In a hard fought race, Villaraigosa pulled in about 80 percent of the Latino vote. But unlike Ferrer, Villaraigosa fared poorly among blacks. Only one out of five African Americans in L.A. backed him in his loss to attorney James Hahn, who is white.

Nonetheless, the New York and Los Angeles elections -- two cities as culturally and geographically disparate as America has to offer -- underscore a new trend in U.S. politics.

Consider that no less than five major U.S. cities have fielded viable Latino candidates for mayor this year.

But voters should not assume that all Latino candidates are created equal. Houston candidate Orlando Sanchez and Miami's incumbent Mayor Joe Carollo, for instance, are both conservative Republicans and Cuban Americans. San Antonio Mayor Ed Garza is a centrist Democrat and Mexican American. While Villaraigosa and Ferrer are both staunch liberals.

Ideological and ethnic differences aside, each of these candidates have faced common political challenges. Most notably, they've often had to refute crass presumptions, even among some journalists, that they more interested in becoming a "Latino" mayor instead of a mayor for their entire community. Reporters never dare ask a white candidate if he or she is running to be a "white" mayor.

Latino candidates also routinely confront touchy questions about black-brown relations. Mr. Villaraigosa, despite winning less than 20 percent of the black vote in Los Angeles, believes that African Americans and Latinos have far more in common than not. He predicts growing unity between the communities.

Coalition building also has taken on new meaning and importance with the ascension of prominent Latino candidates. In Los Angeles where half of the population is Latino -- but far fewer in that community actually vote -- Mr. Villaraigosa needed, and wanted, far more black and white support. He came up short in both regards and lost. In San Antonio, Mr. Garza needed major white support. He got it and won.

Ferrer, as already indicated, needed to boost his ranking among whites dramatically or face defeat. So in the waning days of the primary race, Ferrer downplayed his campaign pledge to represent "the other New York" as a way to reach across ethnic lines. His tactic failed.

For Mr. Ferrer, it seems, the chasm of race and ethnicity in American politics was still too great. Perhaps future Latino candidates will fare better.

James Garcia is editor and publisher of americanlatino.net. E-mail the writer at Politico1@aol.com.

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