03/28/2008 02:48 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

NYC Latinos Torn Between Clinton And Obama

Ivis Acevedo is a young woman working in a 99-cent store in a mostly Puerto Rican district of Brooklyn. As she talks about New York's upcoming primary election, she cups her hands and moves them up and down as if comparing two objects of nearly the same weight. She's on the Internet about Obama's programs in India and she found them interesting, she says, but she's also a "Hillary Clinton fan." She acknowledges that the prospect of a first female president is tempting her to vote for Hillary, but she's excited by the idea of the first black president as well.

Ms. Acevedo's feeling that this is a difficult choice is common throughout the diverse Latino communities of New York City, and both campaigns are fighting hard for this group's vote. Ms. Clinton begins with a strong home-state advantage. There is a widespread sense that she is already a close friend of the city's Latino communities and she has commands deep alliances with leaders of the democratic party such as US Representative Nydia Velásquez and former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer. Mr. Obama's campaign, meanwhile, has been looking for creative ways to loosen her grip on the Latino vote, including marches in Harlem and Washington Heights, knocking on doors, and face-to-face outreach with people in the streets.

The leaders of Senator Clinton's Latino outreach campaign stress the familiarity between the Senator and the community. "She's a friend to New Yorkers," said Karina Cabrera, the Chairwoman of Latina PAC. "We know her, she's a fighter. When 9-11 happened, she was the first one making sure that people's health was represented." Senator Clinton's promises of universal healthcare, changes to the immigration system, and more affordable education are attractive to Latinos, Cabrera added. "To us, it's a no-brainer."

Julissa Reynoso, a lawyer on the Latinos for Hillary steering committee, emphasizes another aspect of Hillary's strength: the support she gets among leaders in Latino business and social organizations. "We're basically recruiting the people who supported her during her Senate run, community leaders and local democratic party groups. After the different meetings and organizational efforts, the local community leaders brought the message to other people in the community."

None of this comes as a surprise to the Obama camp. "The traditional political establishment in New York is very much in support of the home-state senator and understandably so," said Marc La Vorgna, the Spokesman for the Obama Campaign in New York. In response, Mr. Obama's campaign has attempted to find other conduits for his message, often relying on more grassroots approaches. On February 2, for instance, the campaign organized a march through Harlem. The next day, volunteers visited 1,000 churches across the entire state, urging attendees to vote for Obama after services.

Ralina Cardona, the head of Obama's office in the South Bronx, described the feel of these events. "People were giving us thumbs up on the street" as volunteers for Obama drove in a caravan through Washington Heights, she said. "We got a great response from the merchants and we were able to plaster many of the stores with Obama posters." The Latino community becomes enthusiastic about the Senator from Illinois when they get to know about him, Cardona said. "We just wish they had a little more time to get to know him."

The difficulty for them is that the community already knows Senator Clinton, both through her years as the local senator and her time as first lady in the 1990s. "I think they associate her with a time of function, a time of great prosperity," said Diana Reyna, a city councilwoman from a Brooklyn district that includes Williamsburg and Bushwick, and which is 65 percent Latino. "The 90s were a better time," Reyna said, "people were agreeing to disagree and work on different issues. As first lady, she got a first-row seat to observe all of that." Reyna herself, who is 34, said that like many of her generation she's torn between the two candidates. But members of her mother's generation tend to support Senator Clinton almost unwaveringly, she said, in part because of their positive feelings toward her husband.

But there's another side to Senator Clinton's powerful association with her husband's presidency. Ana Maria Archila is the co-executive director of Make the Road By Walking, a Brooklyn-based organization that promotes economic equality. She said many of her organization's clients don't remember the 1990s so fondly. "In Bushwick," she said, "people went through really hard times during welfare reform. Our members who are new immigrants are mostly for Clinton but those who've been here longer are more skeptical." Some of her members like Obama because he's the son of an immigrant himself, she said, while others are attracted to Clinton because she's seen as caring about children and families.

Members of the community may differ on who best represents the interests of New York City's Latinos, but they all agree the election is the most exciting in recent memory.
"This is a real election," Archila said, describing the community's interest during a recent get-out-the-vote campaign. "This is an actual choice."