After Senatorial Tussle, Latino Politicos Ascendant In New York State

By Diego Graglia, FI2W web editor

In this year of political firsts, Malcolm Smith has secured his chance to become the first-ever African American politician to preside over the New York State Senate (he’s also the first Democrat in four decades).

But for this Smith had to earn the support of two Latino senators from The Bronx who seem to have strong-armed fellow Democrats into granting one of them, Pedro Espada Jr., the position of majority leader, before they would support Smith. (This is an unprecedented split, since tradition holds that the Senate president also serves as majority leader.)

"Latino Punch" - El Diario/La Prensa
“Latino Punch”: Espada on El Diario/La Prensa

The New York Times, which reported on the new power distribution, said the deal makes Espada, who has just returned to the State Senate, “arguably the most influential Hispanic elected official in New York.”

“It’s a moment of great pride for our community,” Espada told El Diario/La Prensa newspaper. “It’s the first time in this state that we celebrate a power sharing agreement. Smith will occupy the first position and I, the second, in legislative and state affairs.”

Somewhat suprisingly, the other Latino senator in the deal is Rubén Díaz Sr., a longtime rival of Espada’s: their sons ran against each other in an Assembly race in the 1990s, and Díaz unseated Espada from the Senate in 2002 (and then beat him again in 2004.)

“People tried to separate us bringing back the memories of the old fights between the Diazes and the Espadas,” Díaz told El Diario. “But this struggle united three people who had nothing in common. We stood firm in the face of threats and we’ve been part of something historic, which has changed the norms that have ruled the Senate for over a hundred years.” (The third person he was referring to is Brooklyn State Senator Carl Kruger, who also held out his support for Smith until the deal was approved.)

What Díaz seems to have obtained in the deal is an influential position — possibly a committee chairmanship — and, according to the Times, a promise that the Senate will not vote next year on legalizing gay marriage, an issue on which the socially conservative pastor stands apart from his party’s majority.

Social issues like gay marriage are highly important for Díaz. Despite being a Democrat, he supported Republican candidate Mike Huckabee, a fellow minister, early in the presidential race, as Feet In 2 Worlds reported in this podcast by Lorenzo Morales. [Press play to listen or click here to see it at WNYC’s website.]

[audio:http://audio.wnyc.org/news/news080203_latinoevangelicals_morales.mp3]

(Morales, an El Diario/La Prensa reporter, recently won an Ippie award from the New York Community Media Alliance for his print version of this story.)

The deal reached last week shows Latino elected officials are climbing high in the shifting New York State power structure. And, with the Latino vote increasing in importance both statewide and nationwide, they are willing to wield it as a political weapon.

Díaz, Espada, Kruger — together with incoming Senator Hiram Monserrate of Queens — had started their rebellion the day after the Nov. 4 election returned control of the State Senate to Democrats after four decades. As Díaz told the Times, “There’s a concern that we have a black president, a black governor and we have a concern that we have to be sharing power.”

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