In Washington Heights, a 23-Year-Old Rivalry Rages On

The 1991 city elections changed politics in Washington Heights. (Photo by Gerardo Romo via El Diario)

The 1991 city elections changed politics in Washington Heights. (Photo by Gerardo Romo via El Diario)

The 1991 City Council elections may sound long gone, but they not only radically changed the Upper Manhattan political environment; the race gave way to a rivalry that is still strong 23 years later.

Back then, a teacher named Guillermo Linares made history by becoming the first Dominican to occupy a public seat in the U.S.

Among the four candidates Linares defeated was Adriano Espaillat, who was president of the 34th Precinct Community Council. Five years later, he too broke new ground by becoming the first Dominican assemblyman in the history of New York State.

The rise of both Dominican politicians expanded the power of the Hispanic front that Puerto Ricans had established decades before. However, it also froze political representation for the Dominican community. In the decades after these breakthroughs, Dominicans have not seen major changes in their political sphere.

Linares and Espaillat will soon seek the voters’ support again: Espaillat will seek reelection in the State Senate, while Linares will try to reclaim his Assembly seat, snatched away by Espaillat himself earlier this decade. The Assembly position became vacant this summer after Espaillat’s successor, Dominican Gabriela Rosa, plead guilty to immigration fraud, and stepped down.

“What we are dealing with here is a ‘recycling’ of sorts, as I call it,” said Zenaida Méndez, president and founder of the National Dominican Women’s Caucus and of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in New York.

She considers that there is “in-fighting.” “I think it has to do with ill-planning, a lack of strategic thinking within our community and a reluctance to build alliances,” said Méndez.

Both Linares and Espaillat deny any rivalry, but history proves that they have had significant disagreements over the years. In 2012, Espaillat accused Linares of being a “traitor” for supporting Charles Rangel instead of him when he attempted to run for Congress for the first time. In turn, Linares tried to take Espaillat’s Senate seat while his daughter, Mayra Linares, attempted  – and failed – to take over her father’s seat in the State Assembly. She lost to Rosa, who was Espaillat’s favorite.

Espaillat will be facing an ally of Rangel’s, African-American former Council member Robert Jackson, who says that he wants to “put an end to Upper Manhattan’s net,” referring to the string of candidates supported by Espaillat who have been found guilty of corruption, such as former Council member Miguel Martínez.

According to Méndez, these quarrels have created divisions among voters, and have hampered the emergence of new leadership.

In order to move forward, Méndez says, the Dominican community must “join forces with African Americans, whites and every resident of this area.”

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