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Gov. Pataki Visits El Barrio

By Jose B. Rivera

Picture of Fomer Congressman Herman Badillo, State Senator Olga Mendez and Governor George Pataki standing before the crowd

October 24, 1998 – East Harlem. New York State Governor George Pataki made a rare visit to El Barrio-East Harlem to receive endorsements from local Latino elected officials. The endorsements took place at the new Julia Del Burgos Cultural Center on Lexington Avenue between 105th and 106th Streets.

The governor arrived shortly after 4:45 PM to the rousing welcome of over 200 local community folks. Some there because they wanted to be and others because they had to be (employees of local CBOs whose survival depends on the governor). In other words, politics as usual. Nothing special in terms of arm twisting, it’s just the way things are done throughout the city in terms of politics.

Picture of State Senator Olga Mendez speaking

The crowd was happy, excited and enthusiastic. Many carried Pataki/Donohue signs. The excitement in the air gave away the fact that something new, refreshing and historic was about to happen. And they all new it.  New in that it is not everyday that the governor pays a visit to our beautiful community. Refreshing in that this crowd was about to go crazy for a candidate for reelection who belonged to the party of the "enemy" - Republican. And historic in that the event itself may be a sign of a new alliance between Hispanics and the Republican Party.  And much to her credit, State Senator Olga Mendez, was the one behind it all

Many had written off the Senator Mendez after her bout with breast cancer. But here she was orchestrating an event which would have been unthinkable (maybe even to herself) as recently as five years ago.  As we say in East Harlem, "who would have thunk it?"

Picture of the audience

Two speakers revved up the crowd prior to the Pataki appearance. There was no shortage of media covering the event, network or East Harlem local media.  The network media came to ask the governor about his thoughts on the recent killing of an abortion mill doctor. The local East Harlem press came to cover the event.Gilberto Cintron of El Barrio Broadcasting filmed the who event, as did the "Applause" cable show.  They will be the only sources from which you may be able to view this even in the future.

Picture of the audience standing up holding up signs which show their support for Governor Pataki

Pataki finally arrived along with State Senator Olga Mendez, and former Congressman Herman Badillo.  The security force for the day looked on nervously as the crowd erupted into "Pataki, Pataki, Pataki!!!"

The crowd was quieted as State Senator Mendez took center stage.  She did a very wise thing.  She quite frankly gave her justification for crossing party lines to endorse the governor.  She stated that the Democratic Party had taken Latinos for granted, that necessary moneys were not and had not come into the community.  And that through her relationship with Governor Pataki,
things were starting to happen.  She also stated that Latinos should go with the party which best serves their interest. Senator Mendez then went on to endorse Pataki for his reelection for governor.

Those assembled went into another frenzied chorus of "Pataki, Pataki, Pataki". Then it was former Congressman Badillo’s turn to speak. He also endorsed the governor.  Governor Pataki was next at bat and he spoke about the need to provide employment in areas such as East Harlem. He promised that his reelection would mean more jobs for East Harlemites. He also spoke about his grandparents, parents and how their hard work made it possible for a son of immigrants to become Governor of the greatest state in the greatest nation on the planet. The governor went on to say that maybe someday, one of East Harlem’s children could grow up to be not just governor of the state of New York, but "President of this Great Nation".
Again, the crowd erupted into more "Pataki, Pataki, Pataki". The crowd was invited to a free meal on a lower floor of the building and with that Governor Pataki and State Senator Mendez were whisked away. Senator Mendez was seen "holding court" after the event in the backyard patio area of the cultural center. She had pulled it off and done it quite well.
By the way, the food was excellent, the music was great and it was a good opportunity to revisit old friendships.

Picture of a very nicely informal New York City Deputy Mayor Ninfa Segarra

New York City Deputy Mayor Ninfa Segarra

Who Attended
First let it be emphasized that some where there out of curiosity, some came to support the state senator and the governor, and some came because they had too. (Must leave a backdoor for those who wish to deny support in the future). Housing Commissioner and former Democratic District Leader Antonio Rivera was present. It was good to see Tony again. Deputy Mayor Ninfa Segarra was also present. Many local executive directors of CBOs were present (let’s leave them alone), former Anti-poverty program directors were present, as were Bronx politicos and local community folks. Outside the event, local political dynamo, Frankie Gonzales, set up a small anti-Pataki protest. Frankie’s support for the Democratic party is second to none.

One would think that the unthinkable has just occurred. A nationally well known state senator leading the charge to support a Republican governor. But State Senator Mendez must be given her due. Her support of Governor Pataki, is a smart, politically astute move. And mostly for all the reasons she mentioned. The Democratic party has taken Latinos for granted. When was the last time (or any time) you have heard the media mention the "pivotal" Latino vote. Latinos are the majority minority group in the city and yet are not counted as having any political capital. Latinos will soon be the majority group in the city of New York. Not a minority at all.  Yet we all all but forgotten by all parties.

Senator Mendez has taken advantage of something in the wind (of change) that most haven’t the sensory equipment to detect. The Republican party can be made responsive to Latino concerns. Latinos need only embrace the party and make their concerns known. Before this revelation, the Democratic party ignored and took for granted Latino issues, people, and the community. It isn’t like Chuck Rangel was going to pour money into East Harlem. The Empowerment Zones have a sad history of funding few projects from East Harlem. Harlem on the other hand has no shortage of funded projects.

Picture of the wonderful food served after the speaches were done

For all that was said and done about the Anti-poverty program politicians, they did provide at least one good thing. They provided a mechanism for Latino unity and political power. The Anglo reformers who helped East Harlem residents dismantle the antipoverty programs, did not provide an alternative to the political machine. This was a disservice to the Latino community.

Senator Mendez brings a fresh approach to Latino politics.   Yes it is not what we would have preferred, but better to get attention, moneys and things done, than to atrophy at the hands of the Democratic Party. Hey, they ignored us. The Democratic party will now have to bring back the faithful with genuine offers, projects and a real relationship with Latino voters.

Senator Mendez’s insight and courage are to be congratulated. She took a chance, which could have backfired on her, in an attempt to provide more for her community.She has done well. Not bad for the "elder stateswoman" of East Harlem. Olga Rules!

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