02/21/2013 07:07 pm ET

In New York Mayor Race, Democrats Court Immigrants' Votes

NEW YORK -- A full 40 percent of the people who call New York City home and 30 percent of all its registered voters were born abroad.

So it’s no wonder that the Democrats vying to become the city’s next mayor lean heavily on a well-known set of bromides about international migrants, the immigrant experience and their influence on New York. At least two of those running or considered likely to run are themselves immigrants. Immigrants are “woven into the fabric of New York City,” an “essential source of labor,” “innovation,” and amount to the city’s “lifeblood,” candidates contacted by The Huffington Post said.

They are also a substantial voting block living in a diverse array of socioeconomic conditions.

Jackie Vimo, the director of advocacy at The New York Immigrant Coalition, describes what unites those from Eastern Europe living in Brooklyn with those from Southeast Asia who have relocated to Queens: the struggles to find economic opportunity, suitable work and pay and places to live and educate themselves and their children.

“It’s all the stuff that lies in the gap between the lovely things that people say about immigrants in New York City and their lived experiences,” Vimo said.

Christine Quinn, the speaker of the New York City Council who also represents a Manhattan district, has not officially declared her candidacy but is widely considered the race’s front runner. Quinn, a white, American-born woman who is both the first female and openly gay individual to serve as the council’s speaker, had about $6.19 million in her campaign coffers as of January, according to New York City Campaign Finance Board records.

As speaker, Quinn controls which bills come to the full council for a vote. Quinn’s support for a streamlined permit and inspection process for small business owners -- many of them immigrants -- is well known. The council is also considering legislation that could lower some vendor fines, an issue of huge importance in the city's immigrant communities where many work as vendors or own and operate small stores.

“As Speaker I have made it a priority to lessen the burden on New Yorkers who are trying to open and run small businesses,” Quinn wrote The Huffington Post.

Quinn has also sponsored a council proposal to fund English-language learning courses for nearly half of the estimated 33,000 young undocumented immigrants living in New York who are eligible for temporary, renewable work permits and visas under the Obama administration’s deferred action program.

“This will guide immigrants into safer, higher-earning jobs and career paths and will give students an incentive to stay in school,” Quinn said.

Demand for these courses is expected to grow if federal immigration reform includes an English-language proficiency mandate.

Critics say that Quinn has blocked votes on a mandatory paid sick-time bill for workers living in the city, and has also courted the endorsement of outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an independent billionaire intent on creating a business-friendly city. Immigrant workers are clustered in the often low-wage and hourly-pay industries that do not offer paid sick time to their workers, Vimo said.

Quinn described the idea of mandating paid sick leave as, “a worthy and admirable goal, one I would like to make available for all,” but said the economy remains too fragile to implement such a requirement for employers at this time. As the economy continues to “evolve,” she plans to discuss the idea with proponents, she siad.

John Liu, New York’s Comptroller, a former Queens city councilman and the first Asian-American elected to city-wide office, ranks among the list of undeclared but not exactly cash-poor candidates. Liu, who immigrated to the United States from Taiwan with his parents as a young child, had roughly $3.12 million in his campaign war chest in January, according to public records. (Lui’s campaign fundraising has also been mired in controversy and the subject of at least two investigations. One campaign aid was arrested in November and a second campaign staffer taken into custody this month.)

Liu said he was shaped by the experience –- coming to a new country, learning a new language, and watching his father accept a bank teller job far less complicated and prestigious than the work he performed for the Bank of Taiwan, and his mother labor in what he called a sweatshop.

He ranks providing quality education to New York City’s children -- particularly those of immigrants –- among his priorities. He also wants to limit the fines and fees assessed against small business owners and ensure that city policy aims to do more than help immigrants, he said.

“A lot of times, people will talk about immigrants as an important community that needs services, that needs resources, and that is all true,” Liu said. “But immigrant communities need opportunities, immigrant workers need better wages and sick time. The small businesses they open with their blood, sweat and tears on every block of New York need tax relief.”

He believes that the city could use its potentially lucrative contracts with builders, suppliers and service providers to mandate paid-sick time for the low wage, often immigrant workers on their payrolls and create pressure on other business to voluntarily do the same.

Liu also wants to see the city carefully examine tax abatements offered to large businesses and the tax rate paid by smaller business, as he believes the latter -- often owned by immigrants –- are helping to subsidize the former. Liu said that 85 percent of the city’s small businesses would owe no corporation taxes under his plan.

Bill de Blasio, the New York City Public Advocate, an elected ombudsman between residents and the government, is also vying to lead the city after officially declaring his candidacy in late January. De Blasio, who is white, hails from Brooklyn and his wife is African-American, which some political analysts believe could give him an edge with voters of color. His campaign had collected about $3.53 million in donations as of last month, according to New York Campaign Finance Board records.

De Blasio also responded to The Huffington Post’s questions with written statements and references to previous media reports. His staff described de Blasio as a “staunch supporter,” of mandatory, paid sick leave; a man who has focused on efforts to reduce the burden of “excessive fees on small businesses;” and one who has worked to enhance city supports such as technical advice and access to capital that would help immigrant-owned businesses grow.

This month, the small-business resource provider ACCION USA and the Fund for Public Advocacy, a nonprofit that is a part of de Blasio’s public advocate office, released a survey of 625 immigrant business owners in all five boroughs. Researchers found that 92 percent started and sustained their businesses without outside help on financing, counseling, marketing or applying for licenses and permits. And nearly four in five business owners said they needed one or more permits or licenses.

“This is one of the most dynamic and resilient parts of our economy,” said de Blasio in a statement issued after the survey results were made public. “If they actually received help from the City commensurate with their weight in the economy, they could add thousands more jobs right in their own neighborhoods.”

Sal Albanese, another mayoral candidate, is a Democrat, former city schoolteacher and council member who represented a district in Brooklyn. When his campaign reported its fundraising activities in January, Albanese had drawn in $134,615.

And, like Liu, Albanese is an immigrant. Born in Italy, Albanese also arrived in the United States with his parents as a young child. His disabled father struggled for nearly two years to find an Italian speaking doctor. His mother labored as a piece worker and sample maker in the city’s once-thriving garment district.

Albanese wants to see expanded city spending on ESL courses. Demand is not only likely to increase if Congress makes language proficiency a requirement of immigration reform, but the courses will also help to serve a large backlog of people in need of nighttime and weekend help to learn the English language, according to Albanese.

“Obviously language is very, very important,” he said. “I remember where I came here from Italy walking in to a classroom. I couldn’t even tell them where I lived and it was pretty traumatic.”

Albanese is also in favor of reducing the fines and fees that can be levied against small businesses, describing these costs as the city’s, "current cash cow.” Albanese wants to put in place a system of fine-free warnings and gradually increasing fines for businesses that fail to comply with city requirements.

As a former teacher, Albanese would ideally like to see the city’s college system return to a tuition-free enrollment plan, but said that such a step may not be financially feasible at this time. Instead, he said, other cuts -- such as tax abatements for corporations -- should be eliminated and the savings used to cut tuition prices in half.

In the 1990s, while on the city council, Albanese sponsored one of the country’s first living wage bills. A city analysis later found that 70,000 people –- many of them low-wage immigrants -- saw pay increases when the bill became law, he said.

Kevin Coenen Jr., a white, American-born retired New York City firefighter who divides his time between a home in Long Island and an apartment in Manhattan, has raised little for the mayoral race. Coenen had $1,600 in his campaign coffers last month, according to public records.

Representing several of the city's boroughs -- Coenen was born on Staten Island and raised primarily on Long Island -- his primary concerns include the city’s elevated and rising rents, the continued need for federal immigration reform and the exploitation that the failure to create new policy facilitates. Go into any restaurant in the city and everyone –- the customers, the managers, the staff –- know that the majority of the people working behind the scenes are immigrants, many of them undocumented, he said. And, he noted, the vast majority of these workers make less than minimum wage.

Like other Democrats vying for the mayor’s chair, Coenen would like to see limits on the fines levied against vendors and other small business and a clearer, easier appeals process put in place. Business owners should be able to work their way through it without the help of a costly lawyer, he said.

“This may sound simple, but I’m really about everybody’s well being,” Coenen said. “Right now in this city, it doesn’t seem as if people are given proper opportunities, the rents are very high, the taxes are very high and too many people are just struggling.”

Democrat William “Bill” Thompson Jr., a former New York City Comptroller and the only African-American who has formally declared himself a candidate in the race, and former New York Congressman Anthony Weiner, who has been rumored to be considering a run, did not respond to requests for comment.

The city’s mayoral primary is currently set for September but may be moved up to June, according to the New York Daily News.