Opinion

Dominican Ascending: Adriano Espaillat and the future of Dominican politics

By Angelo Falcón |  

July 24, 2016 |  

The election of Adriano Espaillat in the June 28 New York Democratic Primary that has positioned him to become the first Dominican-American to serve in Congress was historic in several ways.

As the first Dominican to serve in this post, he not only breaks new ground by continuing to diversify the country’s political institutions both as an ethnic and a formerly undocumented immigrant, he also represents the latest phase of racial-ethnic succession for a northern Manhattan long identified as Central Harlem, the center of African-American politics in New York City. In this sense, it also illustrates the continuing significance of race and ethnicity in the city’s politics, despite the “post-racial” pretensions of the forces of gentrification. Espaillat’s election also represents a major accomplishment for the Latino community as a whole. After close to three decades of holding only two of the 13 Congressional seats in New York City, despite significant Latino population growth making them over 28 percent of the city’s population, Latinos will finally have a long sought after third Congressional seat in the city’s delegation.

As the dust settles on the Dominican community’s relishing of Espaillat’s victory, it is important to begin to acknowledge the many challenges ahead. The most immediate one is the fact that Espaillat won with only 36 percent of the vote (and by a margin of only a couple of points), meaning that close to two-thirds of the district’s voters did not support him. This, of course, means that he will have to reach out politically to those outside of the Dominican community – African-Americans, Puerto Ricans, whites, Mexicans and others – to develop a viable long-term coalition to support his efforts. Rather than a sign of weakness, this low percentage of support for the winner in a tightly contested primary is pretty common and not necessarily an indicator of either electoral success or failure. For example, Rep. Nydia Velazquez was first elected in the 1992 Democratic Congressional Primary with only 33 percent of the vote (trailed by Elizabeth Colon, who got 26 percent of the vote). Velazquez went on to become the first Puerto Rican woman elected to Congress and has held her position ever since.

There are other challenges that a Congressman Espaillat will be confronting. These include the following:

Managing African-American political resentment. As Congressman, Espaillat would become the highest ranking elected official in Northern Manhattan, an area covering close to 800,000 people, 55 percent of whom are Latino, 34 percent black and 17 percent white. However, when it comes to eligibility to vote, blacks could outnumber Latinos largely because of the difference in citizenship status (although the number of African and West Indian immigrants in the district has been growing).

Besides their numbers in the population and the voting booths, the black political presence in the district has been institutionalized more completely than that of Latinos. Keith Wright, for example, is leader of the New York County Democratic Party and has served as co-chairman of the state Democratic Party. This has institutionalized a strong black presence in the borough’s Board of Elections. In addition, there is a wide array of black-led community institutions, ranging from the Schomburg Center, the Apollo Theater, black churches, the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone, the National Action Network and others, including parts of the City College (CUNY) that make up a longstanding network of African-American institutions that receive federal and other government funding. This network provides a strong civic infrastructure in the black community that does not have a comparable equivalent in the Latino community. While not effectively mobilized in this year’s primary, this remains a potentially potent political resource.

Some argue that the racial-ethnic boundaries between Blacks and Latinos are more porous than this would imply, given the growing racial consciousness of Afro-Latinos. However, in contrast to such movements in Latin America and the Caribbean that have taken political forms in advocating for greater racial equality, within the United States, these movements have largely remained cultural. For Afro-Latinos, the dilemma of being a racial-ethnic “minority within a minority” makes their explicitly political mobilizing problematic. The result is that in the political sphere, the distinction between being black and Latino remains a daily reality requiring ongoing coalition- and community-building efforts on the part of both communities.

Overcoming Dominican insularism. In all three attempts by Espaillat to run for Congress in this district, the concern was that he would need to appeal to voters beyond his Dominican base to be successful. However, in this year’s race, with an open seat and nine candidates, it appears that Espaillat’s victory was primarily a result of relying on his Dominican base.

The political development of the Dominican community has been defined in many ways by its early hyper-segregation in the Washington Heights-Inwood section of northern Manhattan. This high population density has had a positive effect on this community’s ability to make early gains in political representation. This is a residential pattern distinct from that experienced historically by Puerto Ricans in New York City, a population where residential settlement has been more dispersed. This has resulted in Puerto Ricans organizing themselves through citywide organizations and not primarily through neighborhood-based institutions. In the past two decades, it appears that the Dominican population has become much more dispersed from its original Washington Heights bases into the other boroughs, with, for example, now having a larger presence in the Bronx than in Manhattan. This would indicate that the political development of the Dominican community has not simply followed the Puerto Rican pattern and is probably closer to the African-American experience in the role that hyper-segregation has played in its political development.

This is a situation that contributes to a widely held observation that the Dominican community exhibits a level of political insularism that has both positive and negative aspects. On the positive side, it has resulted in the strong political cohesiveness that resulted in the primary victory of Espaillat this year. On the negative side, it has resulted in a level of political isolation that can limit the group’s political influence with the broader political system. The continual dispersal of the Dominican population throughout New York City challenges this Washington Heights-centered insularism and will no doubt result in a more open political style for this community. However, they appear to be in the middle of such a transition at this point in this regard.  

Reaching out to the Puerto Rican community. The Democratic primary for New York’s 13th Congressional District also illustrates the limitations of such umbrella terms like “Latino” and “Hispanic” when characterizing this segment of the electorate. While these pan-ethnic terms have their political uses, they can also be misleading if not properly contextualized.

This year, the Dominican-Puerto Rican political relationship in the 13th Congressional District was interesting both on the level of the electoral base and among the political leadership. While in East Harlem Espaillat had the endorsement of leaders like City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, he lost the support of the area’s electoral base. In the Bronx, although Wright had the endorsement of leaders like Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., and Bronx Democratic County Chairman Marcos Crespo, both Puerto Rican, Espaillat won the vote in the Bronx.

The relationship between Dominicans and Puerto Ricans in the district is a tenuous one that will require some attention by Espaillat. There is the challenge of reaching out to what most agree is a largely politically dysfunctional East Harlem, currently represented by Mark-Viverito, the term-limited Council speaker. Espaillat will also have to deal with a Puerto Rican and black political leadership in the Bronx that did not support him, but which represent a population that is increasingly Dominican and did support him. The forging of a truly pan-ethnic “Latino” politics in the district, therefore, remains a challenge at these different levels.

Tempering great expectations. The Espaillat victory has, as one would expect, raised expectations in the Dominican community in the benefits it would accrue regarding political power and economic resources. After so many decades of being represented by African-Americans in Congress, Dominicans now have a seat at the table. The significance of Espaillat’ s new role as a Congressman is important not only to the Dominicans of the district but also to Dominicans throughout the city and nationally, as well as for the Dominican Republic and the rest of the Caribbean.

A profile of the socioeconomic status of the city’s Dominican population reveals a reality that calls for a tempering of expectations of what Espaillat can accomplish for this community. Dominicans in New York City have a poverty rate of 32 percent for individuals (exceeded only by the 34 percent poverty rate of Mexicans); for Dominican female-headed households, the poverty rate rises to 43 percent, and for Dominican seniors to 35 percent.

Despite all of the accolades that Rep. Charles Rangel has received for his 47 years of service as the district’s congressman, his impact on the day-to-day realities of its residents has been relatively minor. Beyond the symbolism of black leadership in Congress and his role as a national voice for urban and civil rights issues, Rangel’s ethical missteps diminished the power of his office, and the fact that the House of Representatives has recently been controlled by the Republican Party highlights the limitations of his role. This is a set of circumstances within which Espaillat will assume office unless the Democrats win control of the House in November.

Unless Espaillat becomes part of a national progressive movement to change the priorities of the federal government in ways that are more supportive of the country’s urban centers, and subsequently results in a humanitarian comprehensive immigration reform and addresses the growing problem of income inequality and related issues, very little can be expected to change in the district. In the absence of this, all the Dominican community can expect is a trickle of federal funding into the area and the current array of federal policy half-measures that maintain the status quo, including the continued anti-poor gentrification of its neighborhoods.

It is important that Espaillat does not fan the flames of unrealistic nationalist expectations that would fuel an already strong political cynicism that exists in the district. There is a need to project a realistic political strategy for community empowerment that is inclusive of all of the district’s communities, and builds on the political strengths that already exist in the Dominican experience. This needs to be done in a way that places Dominican political development in a broader political context that can provide the level of social changes that will make a material difference in the lives of not just Dominicans, but all residents of the 13th Congressional District.

Angelo Falcón is president of the National Institute for Latino Policy, for which he edits the online information service, the NiLP Report on Latino Policy & Politics. He can be reached at afalcon@latinopolicy.org.

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