N.Y. elections reflect city's shifting racial landscape

By Robin Shulman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 11, 2009

NEW YORK -- When the newly elected New York City Council convenes in January, for the first time in its history white council members will be in the minority, as whites are in the city.

Also for the first time, an Asian American will serve in an elected citywide office -- as comptroller -- and the council will include two new Asian American members, giving three key posts to the city's constituency of roughly 1 million Asian Americans.

There was another first in the campaign for the post of the city's public advocate: the eventual winner, a white candidate, using images of himself with his black wife and their biracial children -- pictures that attracted national attention.

In some ways, slow-moving New York City politics are catching up with the changing dynamics of the city itself, as the number of immigrants continues to rise and the idea of dividing the political pie three ways, among blacks, whites and Latinos, seems obsolete.

This is old news elsewhere in the country, as immigrants and other minority groups have gained prominence in the politics of the West Coast and the South.

Though New York is perceived as cosmopolitan, it has long been "a very prejudiced city," said the Rev. Al Sharpton, noting that tensions broke into ethnic riots as recently as the 1990s. "We were sectioned off, people kind of lived in their own turf, we kind of practiced tribal politics. Those walls are coming down."

Part of it could be an Obama effect. George Arzt, a political adviser to John C. Liu's successful campaign for comptroller, said young Asian Americans inspired by President Obama's election last year came out to volunteer for Liu.

Bill de Blasio, who was elected public advocate, said he was encouraged by Obama's election to use images of himself with his wife, Chirlane, and their children in his campaign literature and commercials, though he was not sure how they would be received.

"I did feel there would be more receptivity than there had been in the past," said de Blasio, who has written and spoken about his decision with national media outlets. "And this is who I am."

Others said some of the changes come simply from the city's demographics. The number of Asian Americans, for instance, has increased dramatically in recent decades, and more immigrants have become citizens.

"I'm just part of the community coming of age," said Liu, the comptroller-elect, who was born in Taiwan but spent his childhood in the Flushing section of Queens. "It means that the policy decisions and budgetary allocations will more closely reflect the people of this city and will, in fact, hold more credibility."

Still, those close to the campaign say Liu was able to pull together a remarkable coalition of support from Chinese, Korean and South Asian communities, essentially creating an Asian American vote. He also had strong African American support.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company