As much as things change, sometimes they don’t change enough.
On June 20th, a well-attended political debate was held at the Jewish Center of Jackson Heights. It was a unique political event that brought to the fore northwestern Queens’ immigrant landscape and the quest for Latinex electoral political inclusion. Which elicits an important question: In a borough ravished by the forces of gentrification and dominated by a long-standing political machine is ethnic electoral inclusion enough?
The debate provided a venue for seven prospective Democratic Party candidates for State Senate District 13, State Assembly District 14, and Congressional District 14. Out of the seven candidates, four women and two men were of Latinex lineage, while Joseph Crowley – the incumbent Congressperson and boss of the Queens Democratic machine – was the only native-born white.
At first glance, considering the long-standing political marginalization of Spanish language immigrants, this unprecedented ethnic shift appears to be a political step in the right direction. Yet, initial observations can be deceiving.
The change in ethnic and gender is not merely limited to the dramatic growth in Latinex demographics. This novel situation is framed by rapidly changing historical circumstances that triggered base-line fissures in the political and civic arenas. The election of Donald Trump, his authoritarian agenda, and rabid anti-immigrant initiatives opened the floodgates to an eruption of new political actors – especially women – that generated a “liberal/progressive” political pushback at the national, state, and local scales.
Locally the liberal political discontent is not simply activated by anti-Trumpism. It’s a set of multiple responses to the aftershocks of the 2008 financial meltdown that accelerated unsustainable income concentration and destabilized the economic, political, and social status quo. Thus, opening the door – on the liberal side of the national political equation – to a questioning of the fossilized institutional arrangements that sustain inequalities in the overlapping domains of gender, economics, and politics.
This generalized backdrop – with variations in class and ethnic background – informs the political terrain in northwestern Queens. Most Latinex residents, particularly in Corona, directly experience a range of social and economic inequities by dint of their: working-class background; residential insecurity as renters; high rates of undocumented immigration; and ongoing ethnic/racial discrimination.
On the flip side, middle-class and largely home-owning core democratic voters are clustered in gentrified Jackson Heights and the traditional democratic stronghold in East Elmhurst. Both sets of core democratic voters are ideologically and politically animated by the anti-liberal Trumpian and right-wing Republican initiatives that threaten their respective nostalgic versions of liberal American exceptionalism and middle-class status.
These class and geographical distinctions matter in the local election. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, as a former grassroots activist, has crafted what she terms “a bottom-up” campaign of political mobilization that critiques the democratic political machine and its close linkages to corporate power. Along these lines, Ocasio-Cortes identifies corporate capital’s colonization of the city’s economy, political system, and real estate market as a principle lever in generating inequality.
Across the board, and in keeping with old school democratic electoral pragmatism, the remaining candidates addressed the existing inequities and the lack of affordable housing and commercial real estate in a piecemeal fashion. Acknowledging their humane concerns, they nonetheless limited their respective policy initiatives to a revitalization of the city’s housing rent control and stabilization programs. In a time of crisis, which calls for creative analytics and the reining of the corporate goliaths, this incremental recycling of urban policy tinkers along the margins.
The problem, at least for this analyst, is that emerging ethnic political actors are working within the institutional electoral framework of a backward looking and bankrupt political machine. This limits the arc and flexibility of their policy initiatives. In effect, the party’s hegemony has systematically truncated the development of organic social movements that could anchor and support forward looking policies that genuinely confront the bottom-up issue of social justice.
As things stand, the Queens Democratic Party champions such pressing issues as anti-Trumpian resistance, immigrant rights, and a range of standard liberal concerns. This is not political stretch considering the historical backdrop that frames New York’s political and immigrant profile.
Clearly, during these troubling times, this will not suffice. Unfortunately, until politically conscious New Yorkers establish and institutionalize democratic and inclusive bottom-up social justice movement(s), what we have now is clearly not enough.
Arturo Ignacio Sánchez, Ph.D. is an urban planner and the former chairperson of the “Newest New Yorker Committee” of Community Board 3, Queens. He has taught at Barnard College, City University of New York, Columbia University, Cornell University, New York University, Pratt Institute, and various Latin American universities