Newly elected State Sen. Adriano Espaillat wore a big smile, his right arm held upright. His mother held the Bible as Eric Schneiderman, New York State’s new attorney general and Espaillat’s predecessor, swore him into office earlier this month.
Espaillat is not the typical New York state senator. He immigrated to upper Manhattan from the Dominican Republic when he was nine, and was nearly 11 before he learned fluent English. He even admits that he was, for a time, undocumented after his family’s visa expired.
Espaillat overcame those challenges, though. After working for community organizations, in 1996 he became the first Dominican-American elected to a U.S. state house, representing the 72nd Assembly District for the next 14 years, until Schneiderman announced his campaign for attorney general. Espaillat then threw his hat in the ring for Schneiderman’s seat.
“Once he decided, it was almost a no-brainer for me,” says Espaillat of his decision to run.
While Espaillat broke new ground in 1996, he now joins five other Latinos in the 62-member New York state senate, according to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. His election represents a net gain of one seat for Latinos, especially in upper Manhattan.
As the U.S. prepares to release the results of the 2010 Census, upper Manhattan’s growing Latino delegation in Albany reflects a national trend. An increase in eligible Latino voters is securing the group’s place as a force in national politics, according to a report from the Pew Hispanic Center.
“In any district there are more Latinos then there were 20 years ago,” says Mark Hugo Lopez, associate director of the Pew Hispanic Center.
The Latino population’s influence is most evident in the 2010 Census’ reapportionment numbers. In states gaining Congressional seats, 15.2 percent of eligible voters were Hispanic, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. In states losing seats, by contrast, Hispanics represented only 5.4 percent of eligible voters.
As for uptown, the five-year estimate from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, ending in 2009 shows that 296,701 people living in the 15th Congressional District identify as “Hispanic or Latino” — 44.7 percent — outnumbering those who identify as white or black. The “Hispanic or Latino” category is not race-specific.
The Pew Hispanic Center provides additional estimates. The Center estimates that of about 672,000 people living in the 15th Congressional District in 2008, 404,000 were eligible to vote, 36 percent of them Hispanic.
Five New York State assembly districts and two New York State senate districts fall mainly within the 15th Congressional District. Dominican-born officials now occupy two of those seven state seats; the other is Assemblyman Guillermo Linares, elected to Espaillat’s former seat.
Linares now represents areas from Washington Heights to the Marble Hill section of the Bronx. In his biography, Linares, like Espaillat, proudly touts an advance for Latinos as “the first Dominican born elected to public office in the United States.” Linares served as a member of New York’s city council from 1992 to 2001.
Of the city council’s four seats within upper Manhattan, two are occupied by Hispanics born outside the U.S. Dominican-born Ydanis Rodriguez represents the 10th and took office in 2010 from embattled Miguel Martinez, serving five years in prison for theft. Puerto Rican-born Melissa Mark-Viverito has represented the 8th District since 2005.
Roberto Perez, host of The Perez Notes — an Internet-based radio show from LaGuardia Community College – applauds the growing representation of Latino officials, but points out that “we don’t have a city-wide official, and we don’t have a state-wide official.”
That’s because politicians need to establish themselves, a process that takes time, explains Julissa Gutierrez, director of civic engagement for the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials’ New York City office. “I would say running for office can be very challenging,” she says, adding that some people are doing it very successfully.
“One thing that’s important is building multicultural networks,” says Gutierrez.
Espaillat agrees, saying his campaign succeeded in building broad-based coalitions to win his senate district.
“I think it depends on the place and the demographics,” says the Pew Center’s Lopez about coalitions.
But Perez says a coalition is not a matter of choice for a Latino who wants to win election city-wide. “It has to be a coalition,” he adds.
Gutierrez believes one challenge is informing the public that elections will keep coming up and that they matter. “Our challenge is to have people connect the dots and realize it continues,” she says.
Perez also believes people need to understand that their votes affects their lives. “Connect the dots of rent and politics,” he says.
Part of the burden also falls on the Board of Elections to educate the public that the election cycle is perpetual, says Gutierrez. “The message should be continuous and long term,” she says. “What does that mean? It means that the budget needs to be there.”
Perez predicts more Latinos may get involved in politics after the recent discussions, in New York and nationwide, about immigration issues — most visibly the defeat of the DREAM Act during the last session of the 111th Congress, which would have created a path to citizenship for certain illegal immigrants brought to this country as children.
“Of course that’s going to get you angry,” says Perez. But he adds, “I think it’s getting more people involved.”