In the world of New York politics, this was supposed to be the year of the immigrant. With 35 City Council seats term-limited, candidates from more than a dozen nations are running for office, in most cases vying to be the first person from their countries to be elected to public office in the United States. By all accounts, turnout early on the morning of September 11, the city's original primary day, was high in many immigrant communities.
Since the events at the World Trade Center later that morning, however, interest in city politics has been low to nonexistent. Now, just before the rescheduled September 25 primary, some candidates and immigrant groups are attempting to revive interest in the election and save the chances of one of their own getting into office.
Mae Lee, executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association, tries to remain optimistic. In Chinatown, three candidates are vying to become the first Chinese native to hold elected office here. Following a press conference she and some of the candidates held on Friday to remind people to vote on Tuesday, she said the election may be more important now than ever: “You've got to vote now to let them know you're still here.”
But Lee and other organizers still expect turnout will be low. “People are in this other mode right now,” Lee admitted, noting that candidates have done little to no campaigning in her neighborhood this week. Lamenting her group's foiled plans to mobilize large numbers of voters for the September 11 election, she said residents' concerns have now shifted to economic recovery. Local restaurants and other businesses in Chinatown, she noted, have been badly hurt without their regular clientele from the City Hall and courthouse area, which still has not fully reopened.
Trevor Rupnarain, a Guyanese candidate from Richmond Hill, Queens, sees the same bittersweet possibilities in his community. His neighbors have either lost loved ones, lost jobs, or been subject to bias attacks as some people try to take retaliation for last week's terrorist attack. “I don't think people are afraid to come out,” he said of the voters. “I think they're just frustrated.” Still, he remains determined to do what he can to get people to the polls, and plans to campaign at subway stations this weekend and cruise the neighborhood in his van, equipped with a loud speaker system asking people to vote.
Activists in other communities that have been targets of harassment are less hopeful. “People aren't going out to do a lot of things,” said Monami Maulik of Desis Rising Up and Moving, a grassroots South Asian group based in Jackson Heights. “A lot of young people aren't going to school. Older people aren't going to work.” The group has been meeting with neighborhood groups to assess needs, like an escort service to school and work. But not once, said Maulik, has anyone mentioned a need to get to the polls on Tuesday.
Among the groups still determined to make the election a priority for new Americans is the New York Immigration Coalition, a citywide group. “This was going to be a unique year because so many immigrants were going to vote,” said coalition executive director Margie McHugh–and, she argues, it still could be. Her group has distributed about 30,000 palm cards on voters' rights. It's also sending 200 volunteers to work the poll and will go ahead with a voter help line for anyone facing problems on election day. The hotline is at 800-566-7636.