Reaching for New Heights

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Ydanis Rodriguez refers to himself as “we” when he talks about his campaign for City Council. The race is not about him as a candidate, he says. “This is the beginning of an empowerment project. Our community will speak through Ydanis.” In Washington Heights, where dueling political factions have dominated the landscapefor a decade, Rodriguez’ words are not entirely hyperbolic.

Ever since Dominican activists fought for and won their own council district in northern Manhattan, Guillermo Linares and Adriano Espaillat have been at odds. In 1991, Linares won a city council seat and became the first Dominican public official in the United States, beating out Espaillat, now a state Assemblymember. Since then, local elections have been run by these warring factions, each putting up candidates against the other. Their disputes have often surfaced during discussions on proposed neighborhood projects as the community board finds itself divided along Linares-Espaillat lines.

“They can’t get together because they see in their future they will have to compete, and it’s a mistake,” says Rafael Lantigua, chairperson of Alianza Dominicana, a social service group in northern Manhattan, and a leader in 1990’s fight for a Dominican council district. This year’s Democratic primary looks to be more of the same: Linares is supporting Victor Morisete-Romero, director of the Community Association of Progressive Dominicans, a social service agency that Linares founded. Espaillat is behind Miguel Martinez, program director of a Washington Heights family services project and president of the assemblyman’s political club, Northern Manhattan Democrats for Change.

Rodriguez, a 35-year-old high school teacher, is not bogged down in the politics and has the leadership and team-building abilities to expand Dominicans’ political power, says Lantigua. Other community leaders agree: “He has the energy; the others seem to be the status quo,” says Michael Amezquita, executive director of the Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrants and a resident of the Heights.

Rodriguez is certainly experienced at generating power out of next to nothing. As a teenager in his native Dominican Republic, he marched with local priests for better school conditions and a new high school building, which his town later got. A few years after moving to Washington Heights in 1983, he helped lead a student movement against tuition hikes at City College, where he was enrolled in remedial classes. The school did not raise tuition that year and, encouraged by the victory, he began speaking out against the death penalty and police brutality as president of La Union de Jovenes Dominicanos.

“He is surrounded by the next generation of bright Dominicans,” says Lantigua. “They are progressive, politics is in their blood, they have a lot of energy and they know how to target issues.”

Still, Rodriguez will have to distinguish himself from not only the two candidates with backing from Linares and Espaillat, but from the whole pack of seven hopefuls, all of whom are Dominican-born men with social service backgrounds. Since November, he has hosted open discussions of campaign issues–everything from voter registration and term limits to the function of a City Councilmember–on the first Sunday of every month. Compared to a revivalist meeting by some participants, the events have attracted as many as 100 local residents at a sitting. Volunteers also have been scattering over a 10-block area every Saturday to knock on doors and paper apartment buildings with campaign fliers.

Rodriguez is the only candidate to have opened a storefront campaign office so far, and he regularly stands outside, under the shadow of the George Washington Bridge on the corner of 177th Street and Broadway, to meet and greet passersby. He admits he may be paying for the prime location–$1,700 a month–but says it’s too important for the campaign to forego. “I didn’t want to be in a place where there was even one stair for people to climb,” he says. Rodriguez pledges, if elected, to consult the community before making any vote in the council, and to hold town hall meetings every three months.

With all this work, Rodriguez is clearly relishing his outsider status, and it may actually be helping his campaign. At the moment, Rodriguez maintains a slight cash lead over his opponents, for which he can thank his 13 brothers and sisters and their families, as well as his colleagues in the school system. The Rodriguez campaign hopes to do an end run around the neighborhood’s political club leaders. Of the 35,000 registered voters in the district, about 7,000 voted for Linares and 3,000 for Espaillat in their last elections. The Rodriguez plan: “We’ll go for the people who didn’t vote,” says local activist Daisy Dominguez. “This year, it’s going to make a difference.”

Pam Frederick is a Manhattan-based freelance writer.