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April 8, 2001

Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor, Your Vote

By Susan Sachs
New York Times

Ydanis Rodriguez, a schoolteacher and candidate for City Council, went campaigning the other day in Washington Heights, home to New York City's biggest concentration of Dominican immigrants like him. Buffeted by wet gusts of wind, he called out greetings in Spanish and was rewarded with broad smiles of recognition.

But being popular in a neighborhood buoyed by immigrants, while comforting on a cold day, will not necessarily get an immigrant politician elected. As Mr. Rodriguez would be the first to admit, few of those who greeted him so cheerfully may be eligible to vote.

"We have a long way to go," he acknowledged. "To empower our community, it's not just a question of getting elected but of educating people so they understand they have to become citizens and to register."

Still, this could be a banner year for politicians like Mr. Rodriguez.

He is one of at least a dozen foreign- born candidates who have set their sights on the City Council elections this fall, when term limits will force out two- thirds of the incumbents and 35 seats will be open.

Many more of the 175 people who have declared their intentions to run are second-generation immigrants with Hispanic, Asian or West Indian roots.

In fact, so many immigrant candidates are chasing the immigrant vote that they could cancel one another out in some races. For example, along with Mr. Rodriguez, at least five others of Dominican descent are running for the Council seat in Upper Manhattan held by another Dominican-American, Guillermo Linares.

It is inevitable: a wave of immigration has transformed New York City since the mid-1970's. One million legal immigrants arrived in just the last decade and by now, city planners estimate, about 40 percent of New Yorkers are foreign born.

Despite their numerical strength, the newcomers from Asia, Latin America and the former Soviet Union have yet to win real political power. Their biggest handicap is that not all of them become citizens. And their American- born children, when they are old enough, tend to vote at the same rate as other Americans - infrequently. But recent years have brought significant changes that could give these New York residents their best shot at shaking up local elections.

Spurred by national laws that eliminated services for even legal immigrants, a record number of them, nearly 575,000, have become citizens since 1996. Concerted voter registration efforts by advocates like the New York Immigration Coalition also appear to have paid off. The number of registered voters in the city has topped 3.6 million, 278,000 higher than a year ago.

At the same time, term limits have removed the advantage of incumbency in Council races, opening opportunities for Hispanic, Asian and other immigrant candidates who had largely been ignored by established party organizations. Finally, a generous campaign finance law will give even neophytes access to public matching funds to run promotional ads and print campaign material.

"This is a situation where you have had just a little bit of change in any one year, but when you add up 10 years, it can be substantial," said John Mollenkopf, director of the Center for Urban Research at the graduate center of the City University of New York.

He added: "The non-Hispanic white population is down, the immigrant population is up and there really was a lot more naturalization in the second half of the 90's. Gradually that's going to translate into greater voter registration and, sooner or later, into more votes."

A study by Dr. Mollenkopf of where new voters registered from 1994 through 1999 showed the biggest increases in areas that have received the greatest number of immigrants. That is not so surprising. But what has happened in other neighborhoods could tip the balance in a city where voting often divides along ethnic and racial loyalties. In some non-Hispanic white neighborhoods, voter rolls actually shrank.

Candidates who try to mine the immigrant vote still face their own peculiar challenges; for instance, there is the task of focusing energy on people who can actually cast a vote on Election Day, and then getting those people to the polls. That is the kind of help that has historically been provided by the Democratic Party organization. While its power to deliver jobs and favors has declined sharply, some neighborhood clubs and county organizations still anoint their favorites and mobilize on behalf of selected candidates.

But few immigrant activists have advanced very far in the party hierarchy.

"I am the only Hispanic who is a Democratic leader of any county in the state, so I am qualified to say that the Democratic Party has failed miserably to take into account this new constituency," said Roberto Ramirez, the Bronx Democratic Party chairman.

Mr. Ramirez, who was born in Puerto Rico, said the party structure was uncomfortable with "the sleeping giant" that Hispanic and other immigrant voters represent.

"New immigrants have a bright- eyed, bushy-tailed approach to voting," he said. "The problem is that the political apparatus over the years has become less eager to take advantage of them because these people look different."

Indeed, to many would-be immigrant politicians, the party is often seen as more of a hindrance than a help.

"As long as you're an activist, you're welcome," said Inna Stavitsky, a Russian-born candidate running for the Council seat in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. "As soon as you're a candidate, you're not, of course, because you're a rival."

The enduring power of the clubs shows on Election Day. Poll workers and observers are drawn from the ranks of established party networks.

"All sides are controlled by the clubs and for new people it's very difficult to participate," said Ms. Stavitsky, echoing complaints that have been raised by many Asian-American and Hispanic groups. "Last year there was a lot of abuse. In many cases they are very old. They have hearing impediments. And they don't understand the differences between the first and last names of immigrants."

Labor unions, on the other hand, have shown more interest in promoting immigrant candidates.

"They do pretty systematic phone banks," said Rocky Chin, a City Council candidate in Lower Manhattan who has already been endorsed by Unite, the garment workers' union. Mr. Chin is a Chinese-American seeking the seat held by Kathryn E. Freed.

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