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The New York Sun

Neighborhood's Ability To Elect Own Leaders Questioned After Defeat Of Mendez

By HELEN CHERNIKOFF, Special to the Sun

10 January 2005
Copyright © 2005 The New York Sun, One SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

They call it El Barrio, or "the neighborhood," as if there were no other place to live. Many Puerto Ricans feel that way about the patch of East Harlem between 96th and 116th streets and Madison Avenue and the East River. Legendary musician Tito Puente was born here in the 1920s.In the 1960s a band of fierce young idealists who called themselves the Young Lords rose to power here and demanded support for their neglected community.

For decades, one of El Barrio's signature strengths was its ability to nurture and elect its own cadre of leaders. They included a former state senator, Olga Mendez, a cherished neighborhood institution who was first elected in 1978. But, after switching to the Republican Party, she was defeated last fall by Jose Serrano Jr., who represented the Bronx part of the Senate district at the City Council. The defeat of Ms. Mendez left El Barrio without a homegrown official in either the state Capitol or City Hall at a time when residents are already anxious about rising housing costs, according to Angelo Falcon, who directs policy at the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund.

"Whatever people thought of Olga, she did bring resources in," Mr. Falcon said, "and that's going to be a real loss."

The community's next chance to grab back some clout is its council seat, he said. It opens up this year because Philip Reed, an African-American, must leave office because of the city's term-limits law. Before El Barrio can seize the seat, however, its candidate must beat the competition - from within and without.

Infighting is a problem in El Barrio, according to Douglas Muzzio, a political scientist who conducts an annual citywide poll for the Hispanic Federation, a health and human-services organization. Demographically, the district looks like it should elect Latinos. Yet it hasn't, because a superfluity of candidates from El Barrio split their neighborhood's vote in the Democratic primary and handed victory to someone from another part of the district, he said.

That habit has candidates concerned. The Democratic field for the 8th District is only just emerging, but it's already crowded, Mr. Muzzio said.

"What worries me is the fact that, as a community, we can't decide on one candidate," Melissa Mark-Viverito, a researcher for local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union, said. Ms. Mark-Viverito, a resident of El Barrio who was raised in Puerto Rico, ran against Mr. Reed in the 2003 primary.

Felipe Luciano, too, will run from El Barrio, both Mr. Muzzio and Mr. Falcon said, although Mr. Luciano could not be reached for comment. A television reporter who was once a leader of the

Young Lords, Mr. Luciano was the strongest challenger Mr. Reed faced in the 2001 campaign, according to Board of Elections data.

From the district's west side come two candidates with a passion for children's issues. A member of Community Board 7, Joyce Johnson, said she's decided to run because of her passion for education. A child-welfare activist who has been associated with the Rev. Al Sharpton, Woody Henderson, might run. He said a goal is to reform the city's foster-care system.

A lifelong El Barrio resident and activist, Harry Rodriguez, also said he is pondering a run. So is a three-time council candidate, Felix Rosado, an El Barrio lifer who now works for State Comptroller Alan Hevesi.

"Everybody else gets up on their podium and starts chanting about equal representation," Mr. Rosado said. "Here in the very cradle of the Latino community in New York City, we haven't had a Latino representative in over two decades."

There's a reason for that, according to Mr. Reed, who doesn't speak Spanish and won the seat three times. His district is economically diverse and geographically fragmented, divided into El Barrio on the east side of Central Park, Manhattanville on the west side, where Mr. Reed lives, and a chunk of the South Bronx. The Manhattanville section is wealthier than the other two. It has a median family income of $52,939, according to data from the 2000 census. The eastern section, which includes El Barrio, has a median family income of $22,503, and for the Bronx part the figure is $18,830.

"It is important to remember that 40% of this district is not El Barrio. You cannot be myopic. You can't win that way," Mr. Reed said. To win, a candidate must connect with all segments of the eclectic electorate.

Mr. Rosado said he knows that already. "I'm going to do everything I can to help anyone, but it's going to be a lot fairer than it has been," Mr. Rosado said. East Harlem's Latinos haven't gotten their fair share of either public money or political appointments, he said.

Likewise, Ms. Mark-Viverito said she felt called to El Barrio because she wanted to contribute to a neighborhood that needed her, and that was so significant to Puerto Ricans. She said her candidacy is an outgrowth of her involvement in efforts to combat housing development that prices current residents out of the neighborhood. Both Mr. Rosado and Mr. Ruiz say housing is the neighborhood's most pressing need, and both are involved with a nonprofit affordable housing development organization started by Mr. Rosado's brother Gustavo in the 1980s.

"There is a history in this community that has to be respected," Ms. Mark-Viverito said. Developers with designs on the neighborhood should be either induced or forced to include moderate and low-income units in any new projects.

Ms. Mark-Viverito said, however, that she is not an "us-versus-them" candidate. She's talking to tenant organizations in other parts of the district to learn more about their needs.

Mr. Rosado, too, has plans to get out there.

"I've got my local base of support," he said. "It's just a matter of going out to these other areas, the West Side and the Bronx, and securing some support there."


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