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When Phil Reed won his City Council seat four years ago, he not only had his supporters to thank, but his opponents as well: Four Puerto Rican residents of East Harlem divided the votes from their community, paving the way for victory for the African-American district leader from the West Side.

This year, with newscaster Felipe Luciano in the race, leaders in El Barrio thought they had a chance to win the district, which is close to 60 percent Hispanic. “He is a legend of sorts here in Spanish Harlem,” said District Leader Felix Rosado, referring to Luciano’s time on television and his days as a leader of the Young Lords, a radical group of young Puerto Ricans who took on the ills of East Harlem in the 1960s. Rosado and others criticize Reed for neglecting the Hispanic community, and believe Luciano “has this community’s best interest at heart.” (Reed laughs at this charge, pointing to his support from prominent Puerto Rican officials like Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer and State Senator Olga Mendez as testament to the work he has done for the community.)

A few weeks ago, however, Latinos’ chances of taking the Harlem seat greatly diminished. At a brainstorming session with a small group of his campaign supporters at the end of April, Luciano lost some of his star status when he allegedly made comments described by some witnesses as “offensive” and “hurtful.” (Luciano did not return calls for this story.) Turned off by his behavior, some people split off from his campaign, and another East Harlem candidate was born. Miriam Falcon-Lopez, a longtime staffer to Congressman Charles Rangel before becoming chief of staff to Assemblyman Adam Clayton Powell IV last year, withdrew her support for Luciano, announced her candidacy and took some of his other supporters with her.

Now the two residents of El Barrio are dividing the neighborhood’s institutional power with a third, Edwin Marcial, a perennial candidate for this seat. (He won just under 10 percent of the vote four years ago.) Luciano has the backing of two of the community’s four Democratic district leaders, while Lopez has her boss and Assemblymember Carmen Arroyo of the Bronx. Marcial is backed by former assemblymember Nelson Antonio Denis, and City Council Speaker Peter Vallone has asked him to carry his petitions for mayor.

This split, combined with Reed’s support from powerful officials like Congressman Charles Rangel, certainly makes a repeat of 1997 more likely. Reed took his seat with just 35 percent of the vote. This time out, a three-way split again promises to be deadly for Latinos: African Americans in the district vote at rates historically higher than Latino residents.

Still, no one’s giving up yet. The bottom line, says Mickey Ponce, a longtime political consultant in East Harlem who is working for Luciano, is “to put your troops on the ground and your money in the bank. And whoever gets 5,000 votes is going to be the winner.”

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