What will Philadelphia's demographic change mean at the ballot box?

Posted: March 21, 2011

The census is out, and the numbers are in: Philadelphia added nearly 97,000 Asian and Hispanic residents during the last decade. But will those numbers translate to political influence in the 2011 city elections?

New faces alone will not propel candidates into office from communities neither monolithic nor necessarily politically united.

No one knows that better than City Councilwoman Maria Quiñones Sánchez, whose hold on her Seventh District seat is precarious. She cannot even count on unified support from her own Puerto Rican community. Two of three Hispanic ward leaders in her district are against her in the Democratic primary between her and Dan Savage, whom she unseated in 2007.

Should she lose, Council would be without a Latino voice for the first time since 1984, despite the addition of nearly 58,700 Hispanic city residents since 2000.

The city's Hispanics are concentrated in the Seventh District, in North Philadelphia, where they make up nearly half the population. In the last decade there, Hispanics increased by 12,573, nearly 19 percent.

Citywide, Hispanics make up 12.3 percent of the population, up from 8.5 percent in 2000; Asians are 6.3 percent, up from 4.4 percent. The African American population held steady at about 42 percent. The white percentage dropped from 42.5 to 36.9.

Among Hispanics citywide, census estimates in 2009 indicated that Puerto Ricans were by far the largest group, with 123,172 residents, dwarfing the second-place Mexicans, who totaled 13,788.

But those two-year-old estimates are likely low. Census figures released last week did not include country of origin and provided only the total number of Hispanic residents: 187,611.

The Hispanic label encompasses residents from a wide array of countries largely in Central and Latin America and the Caribbean. An increase in Hispanic residents does not necessarily translate into more voters, however, since only 46 percent of foreign-born residents in Philadelphia are U.S. citizens.

This is not an issue with Puerto Ricans, who are American citizens.

The prospect of no Hispanic representation on Council does not sit well with community leaders.

"As an ethnic community that has got a lot of pride and a lot of growth, to have someone without representation in City Council for the first time in 28 years, it's not a good thing," said Juan F. Ramos, who lost his at-large Council seat in 2007 amid infighting among Hispanic politicians. "Maybe that's what the community needs to get itself together."

Ramos said he would have won had his rivals not backed another Ramos, former State Rep. Benjamin Ramos, for an at-large Council spot in the Democratic primary.

Sánchez and Savage have been joined in the Seventh District race by first-time candidate Juan Rodriguez. A third Hispanic candidate, Humberto Perez, is seeking the Democratic nomination for an at-large Council seat.

Angel Ortiz served from 1985 to 2004, and he was succeeded by Ramos, who served one term.

An increase in Asians has buoyed the hopes of at least two candidates looking to run citywide.

Republican David Oh and Democrat Andy Toy appear to have their best chance yet to become Council's first Asian American members. The Asian population grew from just under 57,500 in 2000 to more than 95,500 in 2010.

Their candidacies may have more to do with the political maturation of the Asian American community and their own perseverance. Both have run before, and both performed well.

Oh, who ran for Council in 2003 and in 2007, said he had seen an increase in Asians registered to vote, particularly since 2007.

He said he had also noticed greater interest in his candidacy from Asian communities, particularly the Korean American community, from which he sprang.

In 2003, he was hardly taken seriously, and he raised most of his money from his family, he said. That changed somewhat in 2007 as community leaders became increasingly involved, and Oh lost to Jack Kelly by 122 votes in a count of absentee ballots.

Oh's broad message to all Philadelphia voters still did not fully energize a community that was not confident he could win, he said, until this year, when Korean leaders united behind him. As a result, Korean newspapers have taken much more interest in his candidacy.

"There's a lot of excitement, particularly in the Korean American community, that was not there in 2003 or 2007," Oh said.

That energy and excitement, however, won't translate to victory for an at-large candidate, who needs votes from all over the city. Oh and Toy, who is of Chinese ancestry, have attracted support from broad-based groups and interests.

Sánchez, too, must always work to not be painted as catering only to her Hispanic constituents.

"My ability to serve as the only Hispanic voice on Council has not hurt my ability to serve all the neighborhoods," she said.

Being the bridge between an ethnic community and mainstream politics can be treacherous, said Lee Huang, a director at Econsult Corp. who has supported Oh since 2003.

"When you try to be a bridge, sometimes that means you get walked on by both sides," Huang said.

Still, Toy, who was active in the Complete Count effort to encourage ethnic communities to be counted in the census, noted that Philadelphia's marginal growth from 2000 to 2010 could not have happened without new immigrants. The census in 2009 estimated that Philadelphia had 168,961 foreign-born residents.

"Had we not reached out to those immigrant populations, the census may have shown that we had lost population," Toy said.

Amanda Bergson-Shilcock is director of outreach and program evaluation at the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians, a nonprofit agency that helps work-authorized immigrants find jobs and develop small businesses. She noted three rules of ethnic immigrant politics: The longer a community is established, the more people will be able to vote; there is great diversity within ethnic groups; and the older the immigrant population, the more likely it is to vote.

Contact staff writer Jeff Shields at 215-854-4565 or jshields@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writer John Duchneskie contributed to this article.