By Deepti Hajela
The Associated Press
NEW YORK (AP) —A historic win for a Black woman on Staten Island and a Chinese American woman in Chinatown have helped to make election history — for the first time, people of color will hold the majority of seats on the New York City Council.
When newly elected members take office in January, the 51-person council will have 27 members of color, accounting for slightly more than 50 percent.
The shift reflects demographics changing citywide.
Non-Latino whites make up 35 percent of the population, while Latinos are at 28 percent, non-Latino blacks at 24 percent, and non-Latino Asians at 12 percent, according to Census estimates.
“The fact that the City Council is resembling more the racial and ethnic makeup of the city is a positive development,” said Carlos Vargas-Ramos, a researcher at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College. “Now we have to see what they do on policy.”
In the current session, members of the Black, Latino, and Asian caucus hold 24 seats. It had been 25 until one member resigned from the council in July.
After last Tuesday’s election, those 25 seats will continue to be held by people of color, either incumbents or newly elected people of color replacing them.
Pushing the minorities into the majority will be Margaret Chin, the first Chinese American elected to represent Chinatown, and Debi Rose, the first black ever elected on Staten Island. Both will be filling seats that were previously held by white men.
“It’s an indication that democracy is getting better,” said John Liu, the first Asian American on the council and now as comptroller-elect, the first Asian American to be voted into citywide office.
“When the high level offices in government are filled by people of different faces, it’s good for everybody.”
But merely having a majority of people of color on the council doesn’t automatically mean changes, Vargos-Ramos said, pointing out that a lot of power is concentrated in the hands of Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
“You still have a very powerful mayor that is not going to change,” he said. “This is a mayor who is very good at getting his way.”
Councilmember Charles Barron said the important step would be getting minority council members into positions of leadership on important committees like finance and land use, and into positions like Council Speaker.
“I’m saying while the demographics have changed, so should the power equation,” he said.
“New York City is now majority people of color,” Barron said, but “unless there are policy changes, budget priority changes, power position changes, it’s just numbers.”
Rose was hopeful that the increasing presence of people of color would have an impact.
“By having minorities in the majority, the conversations change. In the committees, conversations will be different,” she said.
“The hope is we’ll be able to eventually affect the legislation so that people feel that it is much more representative of the city.”
Chin agreed, “I think it will be more reflective of the whole city, and the concerns of the various communities across the city will have a voice.” ♦