Mrs. Clinton tries to mollify `Nuyoricans'

First lady seeking support of Puerto Ricans she recently offended

September 12, 1999|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Hillary Rodham Clinton stomped on plenty of toes in her first tango with the New York Puerto Rican community last week, bruising a group known for its power to shake the state's politics and swing close elections.

"We're icing her out," said Mike Nieves, a New York political consultant planning four days of Puerto Rican political rallies this weekend. "You only bite us once. We may be an up-and-coming community, but we aren't stupid."

Such tough talk might not sustain itself over the 14 months between now and the New York election for the U.S. Senate, but it points to the intensity of New York's ethnic politics and, in particular, the expectation of the Puerto Rican community that candidates it supports will not take it for granted.

They call themselves "New Yoricans" -- New York Puerto Ricans -- and they deliver powerful activists who often rule the airwaves and complicated issues that can leave politicians flat-footed.

In New York, candidates have been known to rise and fall through their treatment of the Puerto Rican community, which has a formidable political voice and the numbers and influence to continue to grow.

The dangers for Clinton seem clear. After opposing her husband's decision to commute the sentences of 16 Puerto Rican nationalists, she suffered a blistering backlash from Latino leaders that culminated in Bronx Democratic Rep. Jose E. Serrano withholding his support for her candidacy.

Aides say the first lady spent much of the week on the phone with Puerto Rican politicians -- calling them "friends," calling some every day -- amid accusations that she had lost their trust and flip-flopped on the issue.

"Everybody is now talking about the Latino vote as a crucial part of any election," Bronx Councilman Jose Rivera said. "We're not a force you should be flip-flopping with."

So the first lady has plunged into the storm of New York's ethnic politics, and there appears to be little respite from the turbulence.

Vieques Island

The Puerto Rican community is awaiting Clinton's response on a subject freighted with emotion and symbolism: the fate of Vieques, a tiny island off Puerto Rico long used by the Navy for target practice but currently occupied by protesters after an errant bomb killed a civilian Puerto Rican guard and wounded four others.

Starting this weekend, Vieques is the subject of four days of rallying among mostly Puerto Ricans in New York -- from the quiet pews of St. Cecilia's Roman Catholic Church to the dance floor of Club Monaco, where a Latin ska band will perform its new rap song about Vieques. As they prepare for a presidential panel's recommendation on the island's future, some Puerto Rican politicians are pushing the first lady to call loudly for an immediate end to the bombing.

In an impassioned plea while visiting Puerto Rico recently, Rivera insisted that Clinton should rant against the bombing from "the tallest skyscraper in New York." Back in New York, Bronx County Democratic leader Roberto Ramirez pressed Clinton on the matter the last time they met, shoving a Vieques briefing paper into her hands during her last "listening tour" stop in the Bronx.

They might lack the fund-raising power of Manhattan's Upper East Side socialites and the sheer numbers of New York suburbanites, but Puerto Rican voters can make the difference in close elections.

"The Latino vote is becoming more and more active, and it's nothing to be taken for granted. It is not a slam-dunk for the Democrats," said Emily Giske, a longtime New York Democratic activist. Certain New York Puerto Rican leaders, she said, are "geniuses" at getting out the vote.

The Puerto Rican vote has proved critical in tight statewide races such as that for New York state attorney general last year. In the last week of the campaign, Republican incumbent Dennis C. Vacco reportedly referred to Latinos as "banditos" outside "bodegas" in a discussion of the death penalty as a crime deterrent. Democrat Elliot Spitzer won by 20,000 votes, a victory political analysts attribute at least partly to the turnout of Latino voters.

The state's 1.3 million Puerto Ricans are New York's largest Latino community, and theirs is the Hispanic voice most often heard in its ethnic politics.

For years, Puerto Rican leaders have lobbied to commute the prison terms of 16 nationalists ), some of whom received sentences of 50 years.

The prisoners were affiliated with the FALN, an acronym for the Spanish name of the organization, Armed Forces National Liberation. The group was involved in more than 100 bombings in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s. None of the members granted clemency was convicted in connection with any deaths or injuries.

New York politicians are wary of the clemency issue's emotional weight. Both of the state's Democratic senators opposed the deal, but they have said very little else on the subject.

Critical voting bloc

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