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Latinos Stir Tension in New Brand of Urban Politics

November 26, 2001|RONALD BROWNSTEIN

Propelled by rising numbers, Latinos are pressing for power in the nation's largest cities more urgently than ever. But so far, they're not quite getting in the door--and that's generating new tensions that are rewriting the rules of urban politics.

For roughly the last 30 years, big-city politics in America has turned on a two-way competition for power and jobs between blacks and whites. Over that period, the most racially charged urban elections were almost all fought out between black and white opponents--like the two bruising New York contests between Rudolph W. Giuliani and David N. Dinkins. This year, though, the mayoral races in New York and Los Angeles featured bitter competitions between white and Latino Democrats. Houston, which will choose its mayor in a runoff Saturday, has produced a variation on the theme: Black Democratic incumbent Lee Brown is struggling to hold his seat against City Council member Orlando Sanchez, a Latino Republican.

In each of these cities, relentless Latino population growth is creating a three-way struggle for influence and is destabilizing old accommodations between whites and blacks. "With the Latino population appearing in such significant numbers, it is becoming much more complex because it turns from biracial to multiethnic politics," says Harry Pachon, president of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, a Latino think tank.

These new pressures are taking urban politics back to the future. The struggle to balance emerging Latino interests against entrenched white and African American power recalls the decades-long ethnic conflicts that shook New York (and other Eastern cities) early in the 20th century. At that time, the political challenge was to make room for rising Italian and Jewish populations in an urban power structure dominated by the Irish. The lesson from those collisions is that the group at the top never surrenders power easily, even when it no longer has the population to justify it. "They don't hand over power gladly just because the numbers are running in somebody else's direction," says John H. Mollenkopf, an expert on ethnic politics at the City University of New York's Graduate Center.

Latino leaders in New York and Los Angeles don't need a history lesson to know that. In both cities, Latinos are growing rapidly. In Los Angeles, they comprise 47% of the population (more than any other group); in New York, 27% (almost even with blacks). This year, Latinos in both cities put forward credible and effective mayoral candidates: Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer in New York, and former Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa in Los Angeles. But each was defeated by a white Democrat--Mark Green and James K. Hahn, respectively.

The dynamics of the two races weren't identical. In both cities, whites voted heavily for the white Democrat and Latinos for the Latino Democrat. But blacks diverged. In Los Angeles, African American leaders unified behind Hahn and helped him win a decisive 80% of the black vote--partly because of his longtime family ties to that community and partly because they feared a Latino mayor might tip the local balance of power away from them. In New York, the most ideological black leaders, particularly the Rev. Al Sharpton, backed Ferrer and helped him carry 70% of the African American vote against Green in their primary battle.

The common ingredient was that the contests exacerbated ethnic tensions roiling the urban Democratic coalition. In Los Angeles, Latino leaders accused Hahn of trafficking in stereotypes with an ad linking Villaraigosa to a drug dealer; New York Latinos accused Green of wooing whites with racial code words in an ad against Ferrer.

Republicans didn't benefit from the tensions in Los Angeles because the conflict between Hahn and Villaraigosa emerged once they were the finalists in the city's nonpartisan election in June. That meant Latinos never had the opportunity to express their anger by defecting from Hahn in a subsequent general election against a Republican.

Green had no such luck. The wounds from his primary victory over Ferrer helped Republican billionaire Michael Bloomberg win almost half of the Latino vote (more than Giuliani ever did) in the general election Nov. 6. That helped propel Bloomberg to victory.

Democrats are again bracing for heavy Latino defections in the Houston mayoral runoff. Though Sanchez is Cuban American, Republican and conservative in a city where most Latinos are Mexican American, Democrat and liberal (at least on economic issues), polls show him winning almost two-thirds of Latino votes, along with a substantial majority of whites. Brown is depending on white liberals and near unanimous support among blacks, which may be just enough.

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