Generations of immigrants have improved their lot in the United States through the political process, starting at the ground level by fielding candidates to represent them in local elections. Nowhere is the pattern better exemplified than in New York City, which immigrants have called home since before the founding of the American Republic.
In the time-honored tradition of American politics, candidates representing ethnic groups across New York are running for office. And in several races this year, they are competing against rivals from the same ethnic backgrounds.
Political science professor Douglas Muzzio specializes in local elections at Baruch College. He says New York's ethnic mix makes the city the center of new immigrant voting patterns.
"What you have is a classic case of ethnic political succession," said Douglas Muzzio. "I has been going on in New York for two centuries. What happens is the group becomes large enough to control a political district and then there is infighting because there are disagreements, whether it is over contracts or ethnicity."
Voters in Flushing, Queens, a section of the city heavily populated with Chinese immigrants, will elect New York's first Asian member of the State Assembly this year. That the winner will be an Asian is a certainty because the three candidates, representing the Democratic, Republican and Green parties, are all of Chinese background.
Last year the same district elected the first Asian member of the City Council. Professor Muzzio says the intra-ethnic rivalry is a sign that New York's large Asian population, about 800,000 people, has come of age.
"We are at the point now where the communities are large enough, they have established their economic footholds and they understand the importance of the political arena," he said. "In Flushing in that Assembly district you are going to have the first Asian American in the state legislature because all the candidates are Asian. You have a 'where they came from' or 'where their ancestors came from' conflict. Is it Taiwan? Is it Mainland China? You will find people are going to divide over the most basic and sometimes superfluous things."
Chinese voters in the Flushing area have developed so much local political clout that the three candidates conducted one of their debates in the Mandarin language, giving new Chinese immigrants a chance to hear the issues discussed.
The story of intra-ethnic competitors is repeated in the State Senate district covering parts of the South Bronx and East Harlem, where three Hispanic Americans are vying for the State Senate seat of longtime incumbent Olga Mendez. A quarter of a century ago, Ms. Mendez became the first Puerto Rican woman to be elected to a state legislature. But two years ago, Ms. Mendez switched her party affiliation from Democratic to Republican. In a district where voter registration favors the Democrats 10 to one, she is facing a strong challenge from City Council member Jose Serrano Junior, a Democrat, who is the son of a powerful U.S. Congressman. A third Hispanic candidate is running on the Conservative ticket.
Douglas Muzzio says there are positive and negative arguments to supporting candidates based on ethnic groupings.
"I would argue generally that there are issues with many of these groups that are specific to these groups," said Douglass Muzzio. "For example, religious communities. When they celebrate their religious day and what the impact is on traffic, law enforcement. Those are specific to those groups. But more generally there is the need for basic economic development, jobs, safe and functioning infrastructure, good schools, which transcend their ethnic differences.
Ethnic identification gives voters a sense of pride and a sense of belonging. When all the candidates represent the same ethnic group, issues play an important role in determining the choices voters make. For example, sensitive issues, such as immigration, can often divide the same ethnic groups along generational lines, with older immigrants more willing to support more stringent immigration policies.