A Sad Day for Latinos in New York: Hector LaSalle's Rejection

Rusking Pimentel

The New York State Senate’s Wednesday rejection of Justice Hector LaSalle’s nomination for Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, is yet another example of how Latinos continuously get shafted. We can no longer say such dismissal is the fault of conservatives rather than progressives: lack of advancement for Latinos has truly become a nonpartisan affair. The shafting is equal opportunity, with Latinos consistently on the receiving end.

Like Governor Hochul’s last major nominations—first the selection of Brian Benjamin and then, after Benjamin’s resignation amid corruption charges, Antonio Delgado for lieutenant governor—the rollout of this pick has been riddled with problems from the outset.

The Delgado and LaSalle choices apparently recognized that Latinos are a group to be reckoned with. Yet, serious Hochul blunders plagued both selections.

Delgado has a Latino sounding name but is not actually Latino, much to the disappointment of Latinos across New York who have long clamored for representation at the highest levels of state government. LaSalle’s nomination — which could have made him the first Latino Chief Judge in state history — resulted in a backlash from many progressive and some moderate elected officials and groups, as well as some labor unions. Hochul’s inability to communicate with key stakeholders before a public announcement that she was going to nominate LaSalle is partly, though not entirely, to blame for this defeat.

There is no guarantee that another Latino candidate will be nominated, especially if the previous list of candidates presented by the state’s Commission on Judicial Nomination is any indication.

The contentious battle spurred by this nomination has further exposed a shift that is occurring in Latino politics in New York: there is a crop of Latinos that were part of the early (and current) struggles for Latino representation at all levels of government and there is a newer generation of Latino leaders that see ideological fidelity as being as important as representation itself, if not more so.

In this LaSalle battle, Luis Miranda and Roberto Ramirez represent the protagonists of the first group, both long-time powerhouse lobbyists and political consultants. Miranda and Ramirez were architects of Fernando Ferrer’s mayoral bids in the mid-2000s, and have more recently worked on Letitia James’ successful run for state attorney general, among other campaigns.

Miranda and Ramirez organized a number of other Latino leaders, many of whom have long struggled for representation. There is Fernando Ferrer himself; Melissa Mark-Viverito, a progressive who made history as the first Latina to serve as speaker of the City Council; and former labor leader Dennis Rivera, among many others. Miranda and company know first-hand the importance of representation and have seen LaSalle’s nomination as a necessary step for a group that has long been ignored, under-valued, and held back.

The newer group of Latino leaders recognize the importance of representation but seemingly not at the expense of certain ideological affinities. Among the newer generation of leaders are State Senators Jessica Ramos, Gustavo Rivera, Julia Salazar, and recently-elected Kristen Gonzalez, who would all have had a vote in LaSalle’s nomination had it passed committee. Ramos and Luis Sepulveda were the two Latino senators on the Senate judiciary committee; Ramos voted against LaSalle; Sepulveda was a staunch supporter.

The current divide among Latinos immersed in political affairs in New York is clearly largely ideological. It is yet another obstacle to Latino progress, empowerment, and representation. Latinos have seemingly always had difficulties maintaining the necessary level of unity for more progress to ensue. This was the case even when Puerto Ricans were the dominant Latino group in the city. One can think of the Herman Badillo versus Ramon Velez battles, and other intra-Puerto Rican squabbles that hindered the Puerto Rican quest for fairness and representation.

Yet as Latino groups increased in numbers over the years, among them our Dominican and Mexican sisters and brothers, the rifts that some predicted never fully materialized. There has been genuine support for leaders who trace their origins to places other than Puerto Rico. For example, Puerto Rican Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez’s early support of Antonio Reynoso, a Dominican who represented a City Council district (and is now Brooklyn Borough President) that had an overwhelming number of Puerto Rican voters. Then there’s her support of Carlos Menchaca, a Mexican who represented a district with a large number (though now decreasing) of Puerto Ricans. Notably, Velazquez has been another prominent progressive Latina in support of Justice LaSalle.

There is also former Assemblyman Jose Rivera, who was one of the pioneering Puerto Rican political leaders who supported a number of Dominican candidates at a time when Dominicans were just beginning to increase in large numbers in the Bronx. Rivera’s support for now-Assemblymember Yudelka Tapia when she ran for school board (when New York City had school boards) and his support for Nelson Castro’s bid for State Assembly are indications of this.

Of course, there were and are exceptions to the work of these extraordinary leaders. But the rifts in their time were not overly detrimental to the Latino cause, even if more advancement would have been possible through more unity.

There is no obvious remedy to bridge the ideological divide that has engulfed Latino politics in New York. What does appear certain is that Latinos will continue to impede their own progress, and in consequence, make the job even easier for those who are already resisting their empowerment and advancement.