[lg policy] New York: In Race for an Assembly Seat, a Challenger Courts the Bangladeshi Vote

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Thu Aug 19 14:25:48 UTC 2010

August 18, 2010

In Race for an Assembly Seat, a Challenger Courts the Bangladeshi Vote


Like most New York State lawmakers, Peter M. Rivera, a nine-term
Democratic assemblyman, has never had to worry much about job
security. He has won his last two races with more than 10 times as
many votes as his rivals. Still, that has not dissuaded another
long-shot candidate from making a run for Mr. Rivera’s seat in the
76th Assembly District in the Bronx. But this time, the Democratic
challenger, Luis Sepulveda, is adopting a novel strategy that speaks
volumes about New York’s rich ethnic political stew.

Mr. Sepulveda plans to take down Mr. Rivera, a fellow Puerto Rican, by
courting the district’s growing population of Bangladeshis. Since
February, Mr. Sepulveda has attended nearly two dozen Bangladeshi
events, visiting mosques, halal restaurants and picnics, and marching
in parades. He has pledged that, if elected, he would hire a Bengali
speaker for his staff and to crack down on hate crimes against South
Asians. He has promised to push for halal menus in public schools and
Bengali lessons in the classroom. He has developed a taste for spicy
curries and says he now knows as much about Bangladesh’s founding
fathers as he does about America’s.

While Mr. Sepulveda, 46, maintains that he is embracing a group that
has long been ignored, he is also candid about his political
calculations. “It’s surgical,” he said. “We know where we have to go
to get the votes.” Inside New Jol Khabar restaurant on Westchester
Avenue on a recent weekday night, as volunteers passed out
registration cards in advance of the Sept. 14 primary and a
Bollywood-style video played silently in the background, Mr. Sepulveda
spoke to a crowd of more than 50 people.

“If we can get the Bangladeshi community to get out and vote,” he told
the packed room, “you will decide who is the next assemblyman.” He
could very well be right. Bangladeshi leaders hope to register as many
as 800 voters. In a district where 5,167 people out of 53,521
registered Democrats voted in 2004, the last Democratic primary, that
could be enough to tilt the election. There are more than 2,500
Bangladeshis in the district, according to census estimates, though
community leaders say the number is far higher.

“If the Bangladeshi community can mobilize toward the primary, I think
Rivera has a serious challenger on his hands,” said Christina Greer,
an assistant professor of political science at Fordham University.
“Rivera has done English and Spanish and has essentially treated this
small, growing community as nonexistent citizens. Luis has
acknowledged them, and that may be enough to get him in office.”

Mr. Sepulveda’s Bangladeshi supporters — they call him Mr. Luis and
enjoy plying him with heaping plates of buttery rice — say they sided
with him, mainly, because he bothered to ask.

“The most important reason was because he was reaching out to us and
asking what are your needs, what are your concerns,” said Zakir A.
Khan, a local real estate agent who has taken on the role of Mr.
Sepulveda’s liaison to Bangladeshis. “People are saying he is
respecting us, he is valuing us.” For months, Mr. Khan pointed out,
Mr. Sepulveda’s campaign trucks have rolled through the neighborhood
blaring slogans in English, Spanish and Bengali.

“This was the first time we’re hearing our language on the
loudspeakers,” he said. “It was very exciting.” Mr. Rivera, 63 ,who
has spent much of his 18 years in the Assembly focusing on Latino
issues, has not allowed Mr. Sepulveda’s strategy to go unanswered. His
most recent newsletter included, for the first time ever, a small
section tucked on an inside page titled, “Bangladeshi Issues in the
76th Assembly District,” though it was written in English and Spanish
but not in Bengali.

One Bangladeshi group — there are several such associations in the
Bronx, many of which do not get along — recently held a fund-raiser
for Mr. Rivera. But though Mr. Rivera promises to help his Bangladeshi
constituents however he can, he said he had no plans to focus on them
as a potential swing vote. “I don’t focus on this community or that
community,” he said.

Brooklyn and Queens have more Bangladeshis than the Bronx, but their
numbers have increased there in recent years. The Bangladeshi
population in the Bronx stood at roughly 2,100 in 2000, but had more
than doubled, to nearly 5,500, by 2008, according to census estimates.
Bangladeshi leaders say the community has not been especially active
in local politics until now. Yet the group’s presence in the
Parkchester and Castle Hill areas, part of the predominantly Latino
district that Mr. Rivera and Mr. Sepulveda are battling to represent,
cannot be missed.

On Starling Avenue, the main Bangladeshi thoroughfare in the area,
women in bright-colored saris pushed strollers past the Bangla Town
Supermarket and the Dhaka Beauty Salon recently while bearded men in
long robes and white skullcaps shopped at halal butchers. The
neighborhood has seen a revitalization in recent years, and the
Bangladeshis, most of whom are Muslim, have played a significant part.

Many Bangladeshi leaders have found the unexpected campaign appeals
alluring, and have grown confident, if not cocky, about their growing
political muscle.

“Which way this community is going to go is going to be the winning
team,” said Mahbub Alom, president of the Bangladesh Society of the
Bronx. The registration drive among Bangladeshi voters, he added, has
been making slow progress.

Mr. Sepulveda works as a lawyer for the State Senate majority’s office
and is assigned to State Senator Rubén Díaz Sr., a strong supporter
who himself is running for re-election and is also seeking Bangladeshi
votes, though he probably does not need them.

Like most incumbents, Mr. Rivera enjoys a bigger campaign fund — he
has more than $53,000 compared with Mr. Sepulveda’s $15,500 — but Mr.
Sepulveda, in his first run for public office, raised more money from
January to July, according to the latest campaign filings.

The campaign has featured some testy exchanges. In a televised debate
that quickly turned into a shouting match, Mr. Rivera called Mr.
Sepulveda “a jerk” and accused him of running “a seedy campaign” for
raising questions about his campaign spending and the clients Mr.
Rivera represented as a lawyer before he entered politics.

Mr. Rivera, a former police officer, said in an interview that his
record spoke for itself, pointing to his efforts to increase minority
enrollment at New York colleges and improve access to mental health
services in the Bronx.

“I think that I have proven after eight elections that I have the
confidence of the people in my district,” he said. Mr. Rivera has
survived several controversies in his career, including reports that
he received tens of thousands of dollars in campaign donations from
the pharmaceutical lobby after he voted against a bill to create a
preferred drug list for Medicaid recipients, and that he spent $54,000
in campaign donations on a Mercedes and an Audi.

At a time of deep public disenchantment with Albany, Mr. Sepulveda
said he believed that Mr. Rivera was vulnerable and that a new voter
pool was key to victory.

Three hours after the New Jol Khabar meeting was scheduled to begin,
with the smell of mutton curry in the air, Mr. Sepulveda and Mr. Díaz
argued that a vote for Mr. Sepulveda was a vote for Bangladeshis.

If Mr. Sepulveda wins, Mr. Díaz told the crowd, “I can assure you that
every other politician in the whole borough of the Bronx will be
looking for you.”

“That is the way to get respect,” he added. “You will put the fear of
the Bangladeshi community in everybody’s mind.”



 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com


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