Italian American ethnic politics in New York

Salvatore J. LaGumina
Nassau Community College, New York

The phenomenon known as «ethnic politics,» while less familiar outside of the United States, is a common staple of American political practice. This custom is associated with ethnic groups, that can be described as groups, that while residing within the nation, are set off from other groups by religion, race, or nationality, or some combination of the same. Current pre-occupation with multi-culturalism is an example of its continuity. To aver that ethnicity continues to remain an important component in American politics is to acknowledge that «ethnic politics» has surfaced repeatedly during electoral campaigns. On a national level in the nineteenth century one can cite the efforts of the Democratic party assiduously cultivating Irish immigrants to support Andrew Jackson’s candidacy for president in the 1820s, or the Republican party’s attempts to convince German Americans to vote for Abraham Lincoln in 1860. Likewise the twentieth century saw Franklin D. Roosevelt’s careful construction of the New Deal coalition that was heavily dependent on attracting ethnic groups such as Jews, Italians, Irish, and African Americans.
            However, it is on the local plane, of state, county, town, city and village levels that the influence of ethnic politics is more readily manifest. At these levels ethnic politics finds its strongest expression and leads to the enshrining of certain elective offices to various ethnic groups. Thus, in New York one finds congressional districts that are undisguisedly African American or Puerto Rican, and councilmanic districts that are Asiatic or Orthodox Jewish.
            To a considerable degree Italian American political activity revolves around the concept of «ethnic politics» , one that has enabled them to emerge as political forces who must be included in the political enterprise. From the beginning, Italian Americans began to gain meaningful inclusion in the political process to the extent that they could demonstrate political power as a result of organizing themselves into voting blocs that could effect political outcomes. Fiorello H. LaGuardia is an early twentieth century example of an Italian American whose political upward mobility rested on a strong Italian American home base. Generoso Pope, because he was the publisher of  «Il Progresso Italo Americano» , a powerful organ among Italian Americans during the 1930-50 period, notwithstanding his prior pro-Mussolini posture, was courted by President Franklin D, Roosevelt, who was desirous of keeping the Italian American vote in the Democratic party column. By 1950 Italian Americans had come to be so dominant in New York City’s political scene, that the three main candidates for mayor were all Italian-born: Vincent Impellitteri, Ferdinand Pecora and Edward Corsi. New York Italian Americans both within and without New York City continue to be active political performers, as witnessed by the contemporary careers of Mario Cuomo, Geraldine Ferraro, Alfonse D’Amato and Rudolph Guiliani.
            What do the results of the 1997 elections tell us about the present? Interestingly the results inform us that the majority of nearly 18 million New York State residents are governed in municipalities and counties headed by Italian Americans. They are Mayors Rudolph Giuliani, Anthony M. Masiello and Roy Bernardi, re-elected mayors of New York City, Buffalo, and Syracuse respectively, and Thomas Gulotta and Andrew Spano as County Executives of Nassau and Westchester counties. All of this is topped off by the partial Italian background of George Pataki, current governor New York. This is a truly remarkable development when one considers that Italian Americans were virtually absent from the political scene only a few generations ago. Although Fiorello H. LaGuardia became the first Italian American elected mayor of a large New York city in 1933, it was in the last two generations that Italian Americans were elevated to other important New York executive offices: Ralph Caso elected Nassau County Executive in 1970, Alfonse D’Amato elected United States Senator in 1980, and Mario Cuomo elected governor in 1982.
            The occupancy of so many Italian Americans in high political offices is indeed impressive. It is, however, part of a piece, a development that has seen a steady emergence of Americans of Italian heritage in New York State government in recent decades. The presence of Italian Americans in the New York State Legislature, which includes the New York State Assembly and the New York Senate, offers further convincing evidence of the ethnic groups’ political emergence. The best estimates are that in the 1990s Italian Americans represent approximately 16% of the population of New York State. Whereas in 1950 only 23 Italian Americans (6%) were members of the New York State Legislature, by 1974, 40 were Italian Americans(16%). From 1982 on the number of Italian Americans in the New York State Legislature have far exceeded their percentage reaching 34% in 1994.
            With respect to political party affiliation, for most of this century most Italian Americans elected to the New York State Legislature were Democrats, a fact that underscored their proletarian orientation as well as their urban concentration. However, commencing with the 1960s a decided movement to the Republican party has taken place. In part attributable to right-wing swing in politics on the part of an increasing number of ethnic groups in recent decades, it is also a concomitant of the movement into suburban areas of New York. It is in the suburbs that the political emergence of Italian Americans is especially evident.
            By 1997 the presence of Italian Americans in New York politics has become so palpable that it causes observers to remark about a superfluity of Italian American officeholders. The prodigality of Italian Americans is evident on local levels, particularly the suburban town of Hempstead, the country’s largest town, which if it were a city would be comparable to cities like Baltimore. In contemporary Hempstead concern has been registered that with four of the seven town board members of Italian heritage, there are too many, thereby precluding consideration of any other of that nationality for the position at this time. The Italian political profusion is also manifest on a statewide basis. Thus, in the aftermath of the November 1997 election which saw Nassau County Executive Thomas Gulotta win re-election with a huge majority, the «New York Times» speculated that Gulotta’s potential elevation to a statewide elective office was jeopardized by an over-abundance of Italian Americans in politics. «Ethnic background poses another barrier for Mr. Gulotta. The presumptive state ticket already has two Italian-Americans, United States Senator Alfonse M. D’Amato and State Attorney General Dennis C. Vacco.» («New York Times» November 30, 1997) Gulotta’s case is ironic in that his father overcame ethnic prejudice by becoming the first Italian American to win county-wide office as District Attorney in 1945. «There once was once a time when being Italian meant that you, couldn’t be in politics. Now they’re saying the same thing to Tom, [Thomas Gulotta] for the different reason that there are too many already in office.» («New York Times» , November 30, 1997).
            The recent experience of Italian Americans in New York’s political arena is extraordinary. Whereas shunned and openly discriminated a couple of generations ago, they are common currency of late. Although of recent evolvement, another development is discernible, namely the emergence of Italian American women to political office. Again a look a the demographic makeup of Italian Americans in the New York State Legislature is helpful. The fact is that Italian American political representation has been male-dominated. Until the present generation not only were virtually all Italian Americans elected to the New York State Assembly and the New York State Senate males, but there was a near absence of Italian American women even as candidates. As of 1994, only six female Italian Americans had been elected to the State Legislature, and of that number five currently hold such offices. While a small number when compared to some other ethnic groups such as Jews and African Americans, it nevertheless may mark the beginning of a trend
            While prognostication is understandably subjective and speculative, the historical record demonstrated that the people of New York State have accepted Americans of Italian descent as political leaders. The growing approbation on the part of the body politic to choose members of the ethnic group for public office stands in sharp contrast with the political realities of a couple of generations ago. Although it would require further study, there is an impression that the New York situation has some relevance for some other states in which Italian Americans make up a substantial part of the population such as New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts. It is of course not known whether this trend will persist for any considerable period. What can be said is that for the present and for the immediate future, Italian names will be familiar currency among New York officeholders and if New York has its usual influence elsewhere, the Italian American political phenomenon may be manifest in other parts of the country as well. 


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