THE New York City mayor's race is still five months away, but a bevy of contenders is already jockeying for the support of a key ethnic constituency: the Hispanic vote.
Although Hispanics cast only 15 percent of the votes in the city's last mayoral election, some political observers say they could provide the margin of victory in this city often polarized into ethnic and racial voting blocs. Hispanic activists are hoping for a close race that will force the candidates to woo the Latino community.
"We want a very competitive race where candidates are raising Latino issues," says Angelo Falcon, president of the Institute for Puerto Rican Policy, a New York research organization. "But the Latino leadership is very fragmented. Even though we may be the decisive vote, we may not get what we want because of this fragmentation."
Indeed, New York's Hispanic community - which is 80 percent Puerto Rican, with the rest coming largely from other Caribbean islands - is currently divided between several of the declared candidates, according to opinion polls.
Rudolph Giuliani, a former federal prosecutor who is the only Republican running, managed to win one-third of Hispanics' votes in the last mayoral election. Since then, he has won praise from Puerto Ricans for lobbying for the establishment of a Hispanic congressional district in New York.
"He realizes that the Latino community is a key component," says Walter Alicea, Mr. Guiliani's Latino affairs director.
But Giuliani may have hurt his cause in New York's Dominican community by publicly supporting a federal agent who was convicted (and later pardoned) for illegally raiding Dominican bodegas to search for drug dealing. Mr. Falcon says that Giuliani may be forced to "pitch himself specifically to the Puerto Ricans and forget about the Dominicans."
In the Democratic primary, Mayor David Dinkins, who is seeking a second term, appears to be the front-runner for Hispanic votes. A recent New York 1 News poll showed that 65 percent of Hispanic voters back Mr. Dinkins in the Democratic primary. That support could be crucial to the mayor, since Dinkins did not win a majority of white votes in the last election and has since alienated some Jewish constituents.
In a clear signal that he values the Puerto Rican vote, Dinkins in January attended the inauguration of Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Rosello (the mayor's chief Democratic rival, City Council President Andrew Stein, was also there). But the mayor offended some Puerto Ricans with his denunciation of the Puerto Rican nationalists who were convicted, and later pardoned, for attacking President Truman in 1950.
Dinkins also has alienated some in the Hispanic community because of the perception that he has not lived up to his campaign promises to give Latinos a prominent place in city government. Dinkins's adviser on Hispanic affairs, William Nieves, quit last year to join Mr. Stein's staff.
"When Dinkins appointed me, he told Latinos that I was going to be his eyes and ears of the Latino community. It never happened," Mr. Nieves says.
Leland Jones, Dinkins's press secretary, replies that Dinkins did appoint Hispanics to such top positions as deputy mayor for health and human services.
But Nieves's resignation, and the disenchantment of some Hispanics with Dinkins, may have given an opening to Mr. Stein. Nieves says the City Council president's well-financed campaign - which has not yet been formally announced - will appeal to Hispanics by stressing such issues as long waiting lists for subsidized housing and the lack of affordable health care.
So far, however, Stein has not made much of a dent among Hispanic voters: the New York 1 News poll showed him with only 10 percent support. Seven points ahead was long-shot candidate Herman Badillo, a former congressman who is the only Hispanic in the race.
But although Mr. Badillo seems to be scoring with Hispanic voters, he has detractors among New York's Caribbean community. Howard Jordan of the Task Force on New Americans, an group that advocates liberal immigration policies, criticizes Badillo for opposing the creation of a Hispanics-only public school in New York. "He's been alienating himself from the Puerto Rican community that made him," he says.