Thursday, August 10, 2006

Council - Courier - Editorial: Latinos deserved closer look

Published in the Courier News, Wednesday, August 9, 2006

Plainfield Latinos deserved closer look

In the aftermath of Ray Blanco's death, many Plainfield Hispanics say they want Blanco's replacement on the City Council to be another Hispanic.

It won't be. There isn't even a Latino among the three potential candidates being offered to the City Council by the city Democratic Committee. And that, at the very least, shows some insensitivity by Democratic leaders to the impact of Blanco's loss on the Hispanic community.

Under other circumstances, we might agree that those responsible for selecting Blanco's successor should put ethnicity aside and concentrate only on finding the best possible candidate.

But this is different. Ray Blanco was different.

Blanco, a Cuban-born immigrant, was more than a representative of his own ethnic group. He had emerged as a leader of the entire city, the most prominent voice on the City Council as president under the new administration of Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs. Blanco had arrived as one of former mayor Al McWilliams' "New Democrats," but he did not let that prevent him from embracing the visions of a new regime and aggressively trying to refocus some of the council's efforts.

Plainfield's growing Hispanic community -- about 25 percent of the overall population as of the 2000 census, although assumed to be much higher now -- was rightly proud of Blanco's role in city government. Losing such an influential figure who also was so sensitive to the needs of the city's Hispanics is particularly painful to that community. Blanco's shoes can't entirely be filled, but another Hispanic could at least have picked up some of the pieces scattered by Blanco's death.

The Democratic Committee, however, has approved a slate of three candidates that had been proposed by former mayor Harold Mitchell. They were approved as one bloc, without giving voting consideration to anyone else. And at least one Latino said he had formally offered himself as a potential replacement.

Robinson-Briggs said afterward that ethnicity shouldn't matter, that every member of the City Council is responsible for representing the entire city and needs to work together. And in an ideal world, we'd all truly be that color-blind, equally aware of and sensitive to the needs of everyone.

That, however, isn't reality, and it's not unreasonable to expect a governing body to reflect the diversity of its own community. After all, blacks in the city would find it unthinkable for the City Council to return to the days when all members were white. Was it too much to ask for Democratic Committee members to place some extra emphasis on finding a Latino to at least be among the recommended options to succeed Blanco? Instead, it appears as if the process was designed to virtually keep out any challengers other than Mitchell's bloc of three.

Latino leaders reacted by saying they hadn't decided on potentially challenging the City Council's choice in the November general election. Whether or not they do, however, doesn't change the importance of the Hispanic community's continued involvement in city politics.

Blanco worked himself up through the system, buoyed by the battles between McWilliams' Democrats and the old guard led by Assemblyman Jerry Green. Now Hispanic leaders will need to work on developing other voices that may someday wield the kind of influence Blanco did.

But it won't be easy. Blanco's death has left a lot of wounds -- personal and professional -- on a lot of people in Plainfield. And the Democratic Committee's choice of candidates wasn't a good start to trying to salve some of those wounds, especially in the Hispanic community.

Link to online story.

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Plainfield resident since 1983. Retired as the city's Public Information Officer in 2006; prior to that Community Programs Coordinator for the Plainfield Public Library. Founding member and past president of: Faith, Bricks & Mortar; Residents Supporting Victorian Plainfield; and PCO (the outreach nonprofit of Grace Episcopal Church). Supporter of the Library, Symphony and Historic Society as well as other community groups, and active in Democratic politics.