Black Candidates Add Wrinkle to BP Race
By HANNAN ADELY
The race for Bronx borough president continues to evolve, as Riverdale resident Ronald Law entered the race last month and Councilman Lawrence Warden is reportedly gathering petition signatures in preparation for a run. The two men, who are African-American, could play a significant role in the outcome of the race if they draw a significant black vote, further dividing the minority voting pool.
In a Democratic primary where candidates are more alike than not and stress similar themes, like improvements in schools, housing, and health care, race could play a role, political observers say. "I think it's an important factor," said Jerry Skurnik, a political consultant. "But I wouldn't say it's a deciding factor ... A large number of voters, in the Bronx and the city and the country [vote along racial lines], but not all the time."
According to a 1994 annual report of the Voter Assistance Commission, a city agency, African-Americans make up the borough's second biggest voting block, with 31.5 percent of all registered Bronx voters; Latinos make up 34.6 percent; whites make up 27 percent; and Asians make up 4.3 percent.
Skurnik said people are most likely to vote along ethnic or racial lines when they are not familiar with the candidates, as appears to be the case in the campaign for borough president. "In this primary, most of the candidates are known only within their district," he said.
Law, a former official in the Giuliani administration and an aide to U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, is the least known candidate in the field. He has never held public office, unlike the other candidates, and is running without support from any political organization.
Warden, who represents Wakefield, Co-op City, Baychester, Edenwald and Williamsbridge in the Council, has been mulling a run for months, and has reportedly been fundraising and collecting signatures. But staff at the councilman's office said Warden is still deciding whether he will enter the race.
Warden or Law could get a boost if the Rev. Al Sharpton endorses either of them. A spokeswoman said Sharpton has not yet decided who he will endorse and recent news reports indicate that he won't make a decision until he is released from prison (Sharpton is serving a 90 day sentence for civil disobedience on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques) on Aug. 15. A couple of months ago, Sharpton said he wanted the Bronx Democratic machine to support a black candidate for borough president, in exchange for his support of current borough president Fernando Ferrer's mayoral bid, but later backed off that quid pro quo. There was no black candidate at the time and the party endorsed a Latino, Councilman Adolfo Carrion.
Sharpton's backing could mean a difference of 20,000 to 25,000 votes, Skurnik estimated. "If the election is very close, he could make a difference," he said.
The current field of Democrats also includes State Senator Pedro Espada, a Latino with a base in the south Bronx, and Councilwoman June Eisland, a white candidate from Riverdale who is expected to do well among white voters in the north Bronx.
Carrion said he is not concerned about losing the black vote to Law or Warden. "The black community in the Bronx has been very supportive," he said. "I have very strong relationships with the leadership in the black community and the clergy and I really believe at the end of the day I will enjoy that support in this race."
Carrion does not agree that voters vote along racial or ethnic lines. "I think the people of the Bronx are bigger than that," he said. "Everybody tries to reduce the voting public to their ethnicity or race. The challenge for us is to assure we speak to the issues."
Eisland also believes Bronx residents will vote according to record, and not race. "I have confidence that I will a get a more than fair opportunity from voters all over the Bronx," she said. "I'm upbeat about my campaign. I've worked with block associations and different groups that have been made up of racially mixed communities."
Eisland added that she has received "a wonderful response" to her drive for petition signatures in Tracey Towers, a large apartment complex on Mosholu Parkway that is largely African-American.
If Law and Warden are at a disadvantage, it may be because of a lack of organization and money. "I don't think either has as much money as the other candidates and they also started late, and they have smaller political operations," Skurnik said. "Law doesn't have any political club supporting him."
And though the field now has four declared candidates, it may thin out yet. "It's sort of time when reality sets in for some candidates when they start collecting their petitions and they're not getting as many as they thought they would," Skurnik said.
Ultimately, in a borough with 567,079 registered voters, the election will probably depend on whether a candidate can cross racial lines and appeal to a wide range of voters. "Nobody can get elected by appealing to only one group," Skurnik said. "Nobody has a majority. You have to appeal to some people in other groups to win."
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