NiLP Guest Commentary
By Domingo Morel
The NiLP Report (May 15, 2018)
One of the most significant changes in American politics over the past 30 years has been the demographic transformation of the Latino population. The Latino population in the U.S. grew nearly 60 percent between 1990 and 2000 and increased 43 percent between 2000 and 2010. This growth of the Latino population has had significant political implications, particularly at the local level. Today, the vast majority (67%) of Latino elected officials in the U.S. serve at the municipal level; on school boards, city councils, county commissions, and as mayors.
The number of Latino mayors has increased steadily over the past 30 years. The number of Latino mayors climbed from 139 in 1984 to 247 in 2009, an increase of 78 percent. Although Latino mayors are concentrated in the West and Southwest, cities around the country, in the Northeast, Midwest, and the South, have also elected Latino and Latina mayors.
In our volume, Latino Mayors: Political Change in the Postindustrial City, co-edited with Marion Orr, the authors present case studies of Latino mayors in six large U.S. cities: Federico Peña of Denver, Colorado; Henry Cisneros, Edward Garza, and Julian Castro of San Antonio, Texas; Alex Pinellas, Carlos Alvarez, and Carlos Gimenez of Miami-Dade, Florida; Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles; Eddie Perez and Pedro Segarra of Hartford, Connecticut and Angel Taveras of Providence, Rhode Island.
Although their numbers have increased over the past 30 years, we know little about the rise of Latino mayors, the paths they have taken to the mayoralty, their governance experience once elected, and how their mayoralties have affected the communities they represent. Moreover, by examining the rise of Latino mayors, we can also learn about ethnic secession, changing urban demography, changing political contexts, and the future of cities.
The election of Latino mayors is occurring at a particular stage in the economic, social, and political history of American cities. To understand the emergence of Latino mayors, we first provide an examination of mayors during the industrial city (roughly 1830s-1930s); a period when ethnic Europeans, especially the Irish, gained the mayor's office and political incorporation.
Then we look at the period of the redevelopment city (roughly 1940s-1980s) when Black mayors came to power. The redevelopment city got underway in the post-World War II years, when the city was adapting to the automobile, hemorrhaging from white flight, and responding to deindustrialization. Latino mayors are coming of age in the postindustrial city (roughly 1990s to present) at a time when the United States' economy has shifted from a manufacturing to a service-based economy. In the postindustrial city, Latino mayors are working in a changing urban context in which concerns about downtown economic revitalization has given way to a heightened focus on other issues such as education, immigration, affordable housing, and gentrification.
Latino mayors in the postindustrial city have encountered significant challenges. One key challenge involves expanding economic opportunities to city residents, including Latino constituencies. Like the Irish, Italian, and African-American communities before them, Latinos expect that Latino mayors will address issues and needs of the Latino community. However, the steady shift of traditional public services to the private sector has led to a decrease in the number of public employment opportunities in the postindustrial period. Additionally, court challenges have limited affirmative action policies at the municipal level. These and other factors have provided Latino mayors institutional constraints that limit their capacity to provide opportunities to their Latino constituents compared to mayors who governed in previous eras.
Yet, despite the challenges of providing public sector employment opportunities, Latino mayors, and other mayors in the postindustrial city, can play a major role in helping advance employment conditions for their constituents in the service-based economy. Mayors can push for increasing the minimum-wage, particularly for employees of firms who receive city contracts or subsidies.
Additionally, in many major cities, the Service Employees Union International (SEIU) and Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) have emerged as powerful unions that represent janitors, hotel housekeepers, hospital orderlies, and supermarket clerks. Many of their members are Latino immigrants. We suspect that in the future, Latino mayors will continue to be on the frontline of disputes between largely Latino immigrant workers (led by unions like SEIU and HERE) and the city's business communities. Latino mayors can be a powerful voice for their constituents in these negotiations.
Another major theme for Latino mayors in the postindustrial city is coalition-building. In the industrial city, Irish and Italian mayors relied primarily on their co-ethnics to win mayoral elections. In the redevelopment period, Black mayors depended on cross-racial and ethnic coalitions to a larger extent than in the industrial period. However, in many cities in the redevelopment period, racial tensions and white voters' refusal to support Black candidates required Black mayors to be largely dependent on Black voters. In the postindustrial city, Latino mayors have had to rely on Latino and non-Latino constituencies to get elected. In the majority of the cases in our volume, Latino mayors had to cultivate cross-racial and ethnic coalitions to win their elections. In the postindustrial city, such coalitions will be increasingly important.
Although Latino mayors have had to rely on coalition-building to win elections, Latino mayors have not been successful in converting electoral coalitions into governance coalitions that can address the major issues that are of concern to their constituencies. We argue that the key to converting electoral coalitions into governing coalitions is through community organizations. Community organizations play an important role in advocating for increasing wages, creating affordable housing, improving schools, and addressing concerns with public safety, among other things. Community organizations have also played an instrumental role in preparing the way for the election of Latino local officials, including Latino mayors. Most of the Latino mayors covered in our volume were involved with community organizations before holding office.
The results of our study show that a robust presence of community organizations will continue to provide a mechanism to help future Latino mayors get elected. Equally as important, community organizations are the most effective vehicle to challenge Latino mayors, indeed, all mayors, to meet the needs of the residents they represent.
Record 6,000 Latinos serving in Elected Office Nationwide," The NiLP Report (January 31, 2018)