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.
New York still falls short in political representation of minorities. In a city of about 2 million Latinos, none has been elected to citywide office. There has not been a Latino borough president outside of the Bronx. There has been just one mayor of color, David N. Dinkins, and he was in office only four years. Before Liu, the only other person of color elected to citywide office was Comptroller William C. Thompson Jr., who is black and who just lost his bid for mayor.
For years, the City Council was a bastion of white incumbents who rarely gave up their seats to newcomers. And racial tensions were high as recently as the mayoralty of Rudolph W. Giuliani. A few weeks ago, Giuliani was campaigning with current Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and warned an audience of Orthodox Jews that if Bloomberg were not reelected, New Yorkers could return to an era of fear and danger in the streets.
"You know exactly what I'm talking about," said Giuliani, whose remarks were interpreted by many as equating Thompson with Giuliani's black predecessor, Dinkins.
Police are investigating an Election Day incident in which a group of white people allegedly shouted ethnic slurs and attacked two campaign volunteers for a Korean American City Council candidate in Queens, where the campaign had ethnic overtones.
At first glance, it appears that many New Yorkers voted in this election along racial lines. Bloomberg, an independent who is white, had the strongest support among high-income whites and had the backing of two-thirds of white voters. His Democratic rival, Thompson, took most votes from Bloomberg from among middle-class blacks, and about 73 percent of black voters chose him.
Yet analysts say this is more than a simple racial divide, as economic categories often overlap: The areas where the mayor's support dropped most precipitously since the election of 2005 have some of the highest foreclosure rates, as well as working-class and middle-class families of color.
"My opinion is the city's politics are becoming more international, and that is very American," said Se-Suk-Cook, 41, a nail salon worker walking in Union Square Park.