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There are two iterations of Latino political power in Philadelphia: the dreamed-of potential power, and the reality.
The potential is huge.
Between 2007 and 2012, the city’s Latino population grew by about 30 percent and now totals just over 200,000, according to U.S. Census estimates. Of that population, the Census estimates that more than 130,000 are Puerto Rican, and thus U.S. citizens eligible to vote.
But the reality of Latino political power in Philadelphia doesn’t come close to matching those numbers.
State Reps. Angel Cruz and J.P. Miranda are the only members of Philadelphia’s Harrisburg delegation of Latino descent. Indeed, they are the only elected Latino in the entire statehouse, a remarkable fact in light of the fact that Pennsylvania is home to about 780,000 Latinos. (See note at end of story.)
Councilwoman María Quiñones-Sánchez is the only Latino on council. And no Philadelphia Latino has ever run for mayor or controller. Republican Daniel Alvarez ran for district attorney last year against Democratic incumbent Seth Williams, but only got 11 percent of the vote citywide and only five percent of the Latino vote in key divisions.
In all, Latino representation in city and state power structures is no better than it was a decade or more ago, despite the dramatic growth in the Latino community.
“There’s this fallacious view in the political community that we’re still in the 1980s,” said Angel Ortiz, who became the city’s first Latino councilman in 1984. “We’ve stagnated.”
The reasons for that chronic under-representation in positions of power are numerous, from voter disengagement, to warring Latino political factions, to obstructions thrown up by the Democratic Party, and more.
But there are signs that change could be in the offing.
“They always tell you to wait your turn in politics. I don’t think the Latino community wants to wait its turn anymore,” said Nelson Diaz, a longtime leader in the city’s Latino community. “We have to force our turn.”
Latinos for mayor
There are are no fewer than four Latinos among the rumored 2015 mayoral candidates; Diaz, Sánchez, former city solicitor Kenneth Trujillo and city managing director Richard Negrin. All are clearly qualified and credible candidates. And this May, voters can expect to see more Latino names on the ballot in races for statehouse positions.
But if Latino leaders are no longer content to wait their turn, it is not at all clear yet that Latino voters can convert those ambitions into reality.
Just as it does nationwide, Latino voter turnout in Philadelphia lags behind both white and African American turnout (more on this from AxisPhilly on Wednesday).
Latinos are also the most impoverished population in Philadelphia, with 41 percent living below the poverty line, and few Latino households with incomes of $150,000 or more. That makes it challenging at best for Latino candidates to raise money from their Latino base.
Just as problematic are the longstanding internal divisions and shifting alliances within Philadelphia’s Latino leadership.
The conflicts are entirely normal for Philadelphia politics: generational divides, tussles over ward turf and general grappling for clout. You see the same sort of thing in most sections of the city within both white and African American political camps.
But for a minority group fighting for a respectable share of political power, the internal backbiting makes it harder for Latino candidates to win, and easier for the Democratic Party to ignore Latino demands for greater inclusiveness.
Managing Director Richard Negrin says the city’s Latino community should take its cues from the African-American empowerment movement led by Bill Gray and others in the 1970s and 1980s.
“They came together to build that machine. I don’t know that that’s happened in the Latino community in a meaningful way,” Negrin said.
Negrin is Cuban American, not Puerto Rican, and his public service has been in appointed positions, not electoral ones. So he is not identified as being part of any particular political faction within the Latino community—a potential plus.
“We’re 25 to 30 years behind the African American movement,” Negrin said. “We need to work together.”
So far, that isn’t happening. And it doesn’t look as through reconciliation is imminent.
Sánchez and State Rep. Angel Cruz—the city’s two elected Latinos—are on the outs, partly over ideological differences, and partly because they seem just to not like each other very much (Cruz did not return repeated calls seeking comment for this story).
Sánchez is at odds as well with Angel Ortiz and Nelson Diaz, who comprise the old guard of the city’s Latino political leadership and seem to view Sánchez as an unrespectful upstart.
The Latin kings
“We’ve ended up in a situation where we have a limited pool of people who have had access to power at some point, who have knowledge, who have opened the doors, but have been unable or unwilling to really embrace the younger generation,” said Sánchez, who often refers to the older generation of leaders as the “Latin kings.”
Sánchez’s ascendancy has been swift and sure. She beat party-backed incumbent Daniel Savage for the 7th district seat in 2007 and again in 2011. Along the way, Sánchez has racked up some of the biggest legislative accomplishments of any council member over that span: the newly created land bank, business tax reform that should prove a huge boon to small businesses, tax foreclosure reform and more.
And yet Sánchez continues to downplay rumors that she will run for mayor in 2015. “It’s the right race for a woman,” she says, “but it’s not the right race for me.”
Sánchez, 45, seems to think her time, if it does come, will be nine years from now, not one. By then, she hopes and expects that her work in council will be yielding dividends in her heavily gerrymandered and high-poverty district, which stretches from eastern North Philadelphia up into the Northeast.
“I think I’m as prepared as any other candidate would be, but my neighborhood is not,” Sánchez said. “And what I’ve done legislatively is going to give me the tools to transform el barrio.”
Because of those legislative victories, Sánchez’s profile has grown in circles well outside the Latino community. Sánchez is well liked by many of the city’s progressive activists, and she is a favorite of many powerful women in Philadelphia, who see in her the potential not just for the city’s first Latino mayor, but its first female mayor as well.
That kind of crossover appeal is crucial for any citywide mayoral candidate. If he runs, Trujillo will seek that crossover support in the business community, where he has plenty of contacts and a long history of political fundraising.
Diaz, meanwhile, has relationships in progressive quarters across the city that go back decades and a particularly impressive resume: judge, city solicitor, general counsel to HUD and founding credits at a host of non-profit organizations. Ortiz predicts that if Diaz runs, he would unify the Latino community and prove its potency in a citywide election.
That would be a major break with past performance.
Puerto Ricans vote in remarkably high numbers in Puerto Rico, often at rates far higher than mainland voters of all ethnicities. But Puerto Ricans living in the states are generally unreliable voters—and that’s across the U.S., not just in Philadelphia—for reasons nobody really understands.
This makes it easy for the city’s Democratic Party to routinely withhold support from Latino candidates like Sánchez.
Here in Philadelphia, some Latino leaders surmise that predominantly Spanish-speaking voters are cut out of civic life by the relative lack of Spanish-language news outlets. Others think Puerto Ricans still identify politically with the island, not the city. One big factor is likely poverty. Latinos stand at the bottom of the economic ladder in almost every category: household income, percentage of higher income families and home ownership.
“There is gut wrenching poverty in the Latino community,” Negrin says. “Everything we struggle with as a city is incredibly exacerbated in the Latino community because of that poverty.”
This is surely true. The challenge for Latino leaders is to convert those struggles into motivation to vote.
Contact Patrick Kerkstra on Twitter @pkerkstra.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story identified Angel Cruz as the only Latino legislator. Freshman state Rep. J.P. Miranda is the the other. Miranda, who represents the 197th District, has a Latino father and African American mother. He said he identifies himself as a “Puerto Rican and a young black male.”