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Building Black and Latino Independence
in New York City
The viability of Fernando Ferrer’s candidacy for Mayor of New York City this coming year has been seriously questioned by black leaders across the community. However, the reason to reject Ferrer should not only be because of the former Bronx Borough President’s flip-flopping on the subject of the brutal assassination of Amadou Diallo, but because Ferrer represents a political party from which Black and Latino voters are beginning to declare their independence.
Polls show that increasing numbers of African Americans and Latinos across the country are self-identifying as politically independent. Among black voters, the number has reached 25% (according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, D.C.), while the percentage among Latino voters is approaching 40% (according to The Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California, San Diego). These figures are a positive development, with particular relevance to New Yorkers, as they represent signs of a desire for greater political diversity, especially among younger voters, within a highly constrained bipartisan political system.
Lacking vision and spine, the Democratic Party, has repeatedly failed poor and working people by either not standing up to Republican Party policies (when it counted), or helping to erode important legislative gains made under the New Deal or Great Society programs of the 1960s. Democrats today thrive on demonizing Republicans, yet remain silent or, worse, complicit on critical votes – from going to war in Iraq, cutting back on social services at home, to increasing corporate subsidies while shifting more of the tax burden on ordinary citizens.
As perniciously, the Democratic Party, as an institution, works with the Republican Party to diminish electoral competition – presumably a hallmark of American free-enterprise. They do so by a combination of instigating and upholding restrictive ballot-access laws, refusing to debate independent and third party candidates, and maintaining closed primaries. The net result: independents – both candidates and voters – are rendered second-class citizens in the law and in practice. The new “Jim Crow” no longer openly discriminates along color line, but by partisan affiliation.
Fortunately, New Yorkers have something called “fusion,” which allows candidates to run on more than one party line. This feature of New York politics is allowing major party candidates to team up with minor party ballot status lines. Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer and New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer have both used fusion to team up with New York’s third largest political party (with 325,000 members), the Independence Party, with much success, just as Mayor Michael Bloomberg did in 2001.
From the vantage point of gaining greater political independence in the city and state, Black and Latino voters can effectively use this “fusion” feature by supporting candidates that support essential (and democratic) electoral reform – from non-partisan elections and statewide term limits, to lowering ballot access requirements and revamping the Board of Elections.
The rejection of Ferrer this year should not necessarily translate into supporting another Democratic Party candidate for the simple reason that the Democratic Party is the “better” of the two major parties. In 2001, nearly 30% of African Americans and approximately half of Latino voters supported Bloomberg, who was running on the Independence Party and Republican Party lines. By doing so, Black and Latino New Yorkers were giving expression to their growing strategic independence from the Democratic Party.
At the center of this “declaration of independence” was Dr. Lenora Fulani, the African American leader of the Independence Party, who saw an opportunity to use the Bloomberg candidacy four years ago to advance a broadening of political choices in the city – for all New Yorkers – and extract a key demand from the would-be mayor: non-partisan elections (which Bloomberg proceeded to support as mayor, but which got voted down as a result of hysterical Democratic Party opposition).
Once again, Dr. Fulani is calling on voters to support Bloomberg. The Rev. Al Sharpton is taking the position that he will not endorse anyone, but has also stated that he will ultimately back the Democratic Party nominee. Will Black and Latino voters follow Fulani's lead? That is, will voters follow their independent convictions when they go to the polls, or give the Democratic Party another chance to prove its abandonment of poor and working people in the city?
It’s much too early to say, but one thing is clear: If African Americans and Latinos are going to gain more political leverage in the city, it will require voting more tactically – that is, using the ballot to assert that we will no longer be taken for granted by the Democratic Party. Voting for someone other than the Democratic Party will make that message loud and clear.
Dr. Omar H. Ali is an assistant professor of African American history at Towson University in Maryland. Having served as a Visiting Scholar at Columbia University's Institute for Research in African American Studies, he is currently the guest editor of Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society and the author of the forthcoming book Black Populism in the New South.