Bernie Sanders’ New York City campaign claims that the Latino vote is an important element in their get-out-the-vote strategy and in establishing a multi-ethnic electoral coalition. If all politics are local, then one must ask: How is the campaign doing in crafting a bottom-up approach that targets eligible Latino voters in the immigrant neighborhoods of northwestern Queens?
Latino voters are a key component in the Clinton and Sanders campaign strategy. There are important differences in how they deal with Latino voters. Clinton, a former New York senator, has corralled key Latinos democrats into her city-wide electoral coalition via the allure of political patronage. Thus, once again, grassroots Latino democrats are being taken for granted and manipulated by local self-serving political elites. Sanders, as a political outsider, is disconnected from the local political ecology. His campaign must therefore muster significant effort in penetrating the diverse Latino communities. This is a challenge and a unique opportunity for Sanders’ campaign. Are they up to the task? It depends.
Mobilizing ethnically diverse Latino voters in the neighborhoods of Corona, Elmhurst and Jackson Heights is a complex and nuanced political project. Excluding the issue of comprehensive immigration reform and a pathway to citizenship, a one size fits all approach will not fly with Latinos. The political messaging must be finely-tuned to the particularities of each group. This requires a bottom-up political assessment of distinct group-based needs and strategic linkages with local and transnational immigrant networks, neighborhood/community leaders, and ethnic opinion-makers.
The Sanders’ campaign has significant problems in connecting to our Latino immigrant neighborhoods. This, of course, is to be expected for a national campaign that includes key staffers from outside of New York City. Clinton’s campaign also – it should be added – hired Jorge Silva, a non-New Yorker, as the National Director of Hispanic Media. Best intentions aside, national staffers lack a granular sense of local placed-based Latino realities. The learning curve is steep. For example, Bill Velazquez, the National Director of Latino Outreach and Erika Andiola, the National Latino Press Secretary are respectively from Illinois and Arizona. Speaking with these folks, one gets the sense that New York’s Latinos are tierra incognita for these key organizers.
When Mr. Velazquez was asked why the first major Latino event was held in the Bronx, he stated “… because Bernie feels the Bronx is economically disadvantage.” While the Bronx is hurting economically, his comment beg the question. Growing Latino poverty and residential/commercial expulsions – as it rips through Jackson Heights and Corona – reflects 21st century post-industrial tensions, while poverty in the Bronx was triggered by 20th century deindustrialization. As such, the Bronx assessment, from a key staffer, demonstrates a glaring disconnect between a top-down political strategy and local historical realities. Misguided good intentions, in this case, trump a nuanced assessment of local political economic realities.
New forms of global economic growth and urban poverty are writ large in immigrant Queens. Financial speculation, gentrification, income inequality, and labor force informality are the order of day for our newest New Yorkers. Therefore, in order to mobilize Latinos voters, Queens’ neighborhoods must be a strategic priority.
Outreach to Latinos in Queens leaves much to be desired. Examples abound. According to the Sanders’ website, for the week of April 3rd, three meetings have been scheduled in Jackson Heights – two at Espresso 77 (a space favored by local gentrifiers) and one at the Community Methodist Church (a multi-cultural meeting space used often by local white co-op owners). These local spaces will attract, by default, young hipsters and white middle-class residents – while overlooking working- and middle-class Latinos. This unimaginative approach contradicts the Sanders’ agenda of inclusive bottom-up democracy while inadvertently marginalizing Latinos.
If the campaign is serious about mobilizing Latinos they must craft ethnic specific political narratives, organize Spanish/English language outreach in migrant spaces, and target Catholic and Evangelical churches that minister to Latino immigrants. To accomplish this the campaign needs to work closely with neighborhood activists – a task where Sanders’ team has come up short.
Neighborhood place(s) matters for Latinos. Pragmatic Latino outreach requires intervention and mobilization where immigrant voters live and work. Novel ways of outreaching and mobilizing should be the marching order of the day. This calls forth a strategy that highlights particular differences and overarching commonalities. It is not enough to construct a strategy that claims – as Mr. Vasquez stated – “… if Latinos just hear Bernie’s progressive message they will support him.” This is a misguided assumption that disservices the campaign and Latinos.
Corona, Elmhurst and Jackson Heights, which are part of Congressional District (CD) 14, are important communities for mobilizing Latino voters in Queens. CD 14 has a total of 411,000 voters, of which 160,000 are eligible Latino voters. Latinos represent, in effect, 30.4 percent of the eligible voters. Numerically and symbolically this is a big number that should be leveraged if the Sanders’ campaign is serious about mobilizing Latino voters and constructing a multi-ethnic electoral coalition. This requires that the campaign have its hand on the pulse of Latino neighborhoods.
So returning to the original question: Is the Sanders campaign up to the crucial challenge of incorporating Latinos into a successful bottom-up electoral coalition? Unfortunately, unless things change fundamentally, this will not be the case.
Arturo Ignacio Sánchez, Ph.D. is chairperson of the Newest New Yorkers Committee of Queens Community Board 3. He has taught courses on immigration, entrepreneurship, and globalization at Barnard College, City University of New York, Columbia University, Cornell University, and New York University.