NY-22 Minute: Racial and Ethnic Diversity Limited at Brindisi Town Halls By Luke Perry
1 in 4 Utica residents are African-American (15 percent) or Latino (11 percent). These numbers are lower in Oneida County, where African-Americans are 7 percent of the population and Latinos are 6 percent, and in NY-22, where African-Americans and Latinos constitute 4 percent of the population respectively.
Greg Mason from the Observer Dispatch has reported on social barriers and apathy regarding African-Americans in Utica. Some, like Patrick Johnson, believe “there’s something about being black in this city where I think often, many black people feel invisible— invisible in the sense that their voices and life experiences don’t matter as much as their white counterparts.”
Politically, African-Americans have been consistently and overwhelmingly Democratic since the Civil Rights Act of 1964, signed by Lyndon Johnson, ended racial segregation. For instance, Democratic presidential candidates have won an average of 87 percent of the African-American vote since 1972. Currently, 92 percent of African-Americans disapprove of President Trump, while 84 percent think the president is racist.
According to Clemmie Harris, Assistant Professor of American History and Africana Studies at Utica College, "Brindisi is not only actively courting Trump voters, who are likely predominately white, he seeks to take advantage of his previous record in the Assembly and thereby profit from black and Latino voters while not actively mobilizing them or representing their issues."
"The danger here," Harris contends, "is that it sends the signal that the Dems in Upstate NY congressional races are willing to sacrifice any effort to openly court minority votes in order to expand their tent with independent white voters and any insurgent white GOP voters who are angry with Trump," which "has been, and remains, a major problem with the Democratic Party when it comes to showing that they value black and Latino voters."
People knowledge about local Latino political involvement suggest that low attendance at town halls should not be surprising. This has been a norm since the early 1970s and reflect time constraints surrounding work and family more than political apathy. Local Hispanics are worried about national affairs, such as the inadequate response to Hurricane Maria and family separations of immigrants.
Some local Democrats, such as Robert Palmieri, have focused on Latino outreach, particularly during his first campaign for Mayor of Utica. Whether the NY-22 candidates attend Utica’s annual Latino festival at the end of the month is worth watching.
African-Americans and Latinos were sparse at Claudia Tenney’s “Coffee with Claudia” forums last year, including Cortland and New Hartford. The difference for Democrats is that voter mobilization has become a prominent challenge in the wake of the 2016 election, which saw Republicans win the White House, Senate, and House. Key parts of the Democratic coalition, including African-Americans, Latinos, and young adults, were out mobilized by conservative constituencies.
“Hopefully it’s a reminder that elections matter and voting counts,” Barack Obama said following the election of Donald Trump. “I don’t know how many times we have to relearn this lesson, because we ended up having 43 percent of the country not voting who were eligible to vote.” Obama recently endorsed 81 Democratic candidates in the midterm election and said he was “eager” to help the party on the campaign trail. Anthony Brindisi was not one of the endorsements.
Political Parties scholar Ray LaRaja contends the Democratic Party “retains considerable pluralism and flexibility in pursuing policies and organizing itself.” This is “both a strength and a weakness for the party,” which has become “a mishmash of causes and interest groups compared to the Republicans.”
LaRaja believes the Democratic Party is unified around its core principle of equality without being as ideological rigid as the GOP. At the same time, a “profound problem of Democratic pluralism is that the party can be biased toward a few moneyed and highly organized factions who do not reflect the broader rank-and-file.”
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is making unprecedented efforts to turn out African-Americans and Latinos after acknowledging earlier efforts have been insufficient. Democratic victories in prominent elections last year, such as the gubernatorial race in Virginia and U.S. Senate race in Alabama, “black voters were specifically courted and mobilized" and "black voters, particularly black women, were key to the Democrats' victories in both states.”
Turnout will be a key factor for NY-22 in what looks to be a close race. Every major rating agency currently labels the contest a “toss-up.”
Luke Perry (@PolSciLukePerry) is Chair and Professor of Government at Utica College.
Read the NY-22 Minute for timely and comprehensive analysis of the campaign.