¡Viva la Política! Pataki Going Latin, Starts In Vieques

Under nearly cloudless skies, thousands of Mexican-Americans gathered on East 116th Street to celebrate the independence festival of Cinco de Mayo. Wedged between whole families of revelers were women with small folding tables displaying mangoes on a stick cut to resemble roses, and grilled corn dipped in mayonnaise, cheese and chili. Wafting through the air was the smell of roasted meat, waiting to be chopped and folded into soft corn tacos.

At the end of the block, near Second Avenue, was an enormous sound stage spanning the width of the street. The master of ceremonies had a special introduction to make: ” Bueno, que esta Geoo-oorr-rge Patakiii-ii !”

” Saludos !” Mr. Pataki shouted into a hand-held microphone. He recited two sentences in Spanish and then confessed: “That’s about it.” He changed to English, asserting that “every child in New York is entitled to comprehensive health care …. It doesn’t matter whether your parents have the proper papers or not.” The crowd understood the message, and roared its approval.

With a tough reelection battle on the horizon next year, George Pataki is aggressively reaching out to New York’s increasingly powerful Latino community, in much the same way his fellow Republican, George W. Bush, is reaching out at a national level. Latinos have long been considered wavering Democrats who might be picked off by the right Republican, and Mr. Pataki clearly believes he is up to the assignment. On this Sunday in May, he not only celebrated with Mexicans for Cinco de Mayo, but had already stopped by, unannounced, at the Cuban Day Parade in Manhattan.

“He is following a smart path,” said Democratic pollster Jeff Plaut of Mr. Pataki. “He doesn’t have to win in these communities to make it worth his while.”

That seems to be the guiding light for Pataki aides these days. Several echoed the remarks of one aide, who said that “in New York, Puerto Ricans and Dominicans are Democrats, but their values, by and large, are Republican …. They’re religious, they’re family-oriented, they believe in school choice, they’re hard-working, they’re entrepreneurs. They’re more Republican than they act electorally because Republicans have never reached out to them-they’ve pushed them away.”

Not so anymore. In the last six to eight weeks, Mr. Pataki has appeared at innumerable Latino events with health-care workers’ union chief Dennis Rivera at his side, and has gone to Puerto Rico to protest Navy training exercises on Vieques. For the first time since becoming Governor in 1995, Mr. Pataki attended the Somos El Futuro conference in Albany, an annual gathering of Puerto Rican legislators and their allies. He presided at the official swearing-in of Fernando Mateo, a potent political leader in the Dominican-American community, as president of the New York State Federation of Taxi Drivers, and he convened a press conference with Representative Nydia Velazquez of Brooklyn to announce funding for improvements to the Gowanus Canal. They literally embraced. “Kisses for Pataki,” said the banner headline in The Brooklyn Paper, a weekly distributed, among other areas, in the heavily Latino neighborhood of Sunset Park.

And there’s more: Mr. Pataki has a newly minted Citizenship Unit to help immigrants; he has hired a Latino, Ray Martinez, to run the Department of Motor Vehicles; and he has appointed a Latina, Mercedes Padilla, in his press office. (Ms. Padilla translates the Governor’s press releases into Spanish, among other things.) Mr. Pataki’s campaign home page, www.georgepataki.com, invites Web surfers to log on ” en Español .” Mr. Pataki’s Democratic rivals, Andrew Cuomo and State Comptroller H. Carl McCall, do not have such an option on their campaign Web sites.

Backstage at the Cinco de Mayo event, Mr. Pataki denied that this activity constituted a pattern. “I’ve been doing this for years,” he said. “It’s just a lot more visible when you have events like Cinco de Mayo.” Mr. Pataki’s top spokesman, Mike McKeon, insisted that the Governor’s involvement in Latino issues is simply a reflection of external events-the Navy’s bombing exercises in Vieques, for example, and the implementation of more rigorous citizenship procedures for some immigrants.

While there’s no denying that Mr. Pataki has been tilling the Latino community for some time, the Governor’s high-profile events and appointments in recent months have certainly captured the attention of political insiders. With New York Democrats on a roll-Mr. Pataki is the only Republican elected to statewide office (besides the Lieutenant Governor)-the Governor would be wise, insiders say, to expand his base as he prepares to run for a third term. In doing so, Mr. Pataki is taking a page from Mr. Bush’s playbook. Mr. Bush managed to make major inroads among Mexican-American voters in Texas, though he was not able to repeat the feat nationally.

But Mr. Pataki is also copying, in a mirror-image way, Hillary Clinton’s successful Senate campaign last year. Mrs. Clinton spent much of her time courting upstate voters, a community that historically votes Republican, and managed to win some upstate counties-like Cayuga and Niagara-that Democrats never win.

The Numbers Game

There’s good reason for Republicans to go after the Hispanic vote in New York. The 2000 Census shows that about 15 percent of the state’s nearly 19 million people consider themselves “Hispanic or Latino.” That’s about the same percentage who are African-American-and they’re not only in New York City, they’re in Westchester and on Long Island. And they’re not all immigrants-Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens at birth.

A recent Barnard College–Columbia University poll showed that the surge in Presidential voting from 1996 to 2000-about a quarter of a million voters-was almost entirely attributable to immigrant voters. Most of those immigrants were Caribbean or Latin American.

“Their voting patterns aren’t set the way African-Americans’ are,” said one Republican operative. “Even if we get just a few points there, it could make a big difference.”

That message is unquestionably coming from the top. The grandson of immigrants, Mr. Pataki feels a common bond with new New Yorkers, his friends say. “We are blessed that the same kinds of people who built this state at the beginning of the 20th century are coming here now at the beginning of the 21st century,” he said on May 6, “and we welcome them.”

Is there anyone he takes advice from on these issues? “Me,” Mr. Pataki said with a chuckle. By all accounts, this is true. Mr. McKeon pointed out that the Governor took it upon himself to reach out to Mr. Mateo after several livery-cab drivers, many of them Latino, were murdered.

“He doesn’t hesitate to pick up the phone and call people directly,” Mr. McKeon said. After his call to Mr. Mateo, the two men worked on legislation that would stiffen the penalties for attacks on livery-cab drivers. The Governor and Mr. Mateo became close, and Mr. Pataki officiated at Mr. Mateo’s swearing-in as head of the drivers’ group. Together they attended the funeral of a 23-year auxiliary police officer who also worked as a livery-cab driver.

“That the Governor took out from his time to attend this funeral-that means so much to us,” said Hector Santana, a Mateo aide.

Mr. Pataki’s attention has paid off. At a recent rally for livery-cab drivers, Mr. Mateo was ebullient in his praise. “There is no one who has done more for us than Governor Pataki!” he yelled, in English and in Spanish. “No one!”

Mr. Pataki also talks directly to Mr. Rivera, the powerful head of Local 1199 of the hospital workers’ union. “On Vieques, on health care, on things that have to do with 1199 or health-care workers, Dennis will give him as much advice as he’s willing to listen to,” said Rivera spokesman Ken Sunshine.

State Senator Olga Mendez, a Democrat, also claims to have the Governor’s ear. “I give him lots of advice,” she said. “Especially on Vieques.”

Back at the Cinco de Mayo festival, the light rays grew longer as a mariachi band took the stage and Mr. Pataki departed. Not everybody would remember Mr. Pataki’s speech, or even that he showed up at all. But some will.

And some is all that Mr. Pataki needs. ¡Viva la Política! Pataki Going Latin, Starts In Vieques