NEW YORK (AP) — Hispanics could make up nearly a quarter of potential voters in the city's mayoral election, and polls suggest their vote is still very much up for grabs.
"This is the great X-factor in this election," said Democratic candidate Bill de Blasio, among the candidates who have been making frequent forays into Latino neighborhoods, shaking hands with voters and often greeting them in Spanish.
"This is a community that is politically independent in the sense of being open minded, and a big, big piece of the vote," de Blasio said. "And we are making it very central to our strategy."
The latest poll that tracked Latino voters found them virtually split between two Democratic candidates, with 20 percent saying they would vote for former U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner and 19 percent for City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. De Blasio followed with 12 percent.
That NBC 4 New York/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll was taken last week after the latest sexting scandal involving Weiner. Another post-scandal poll, a Quinnipiac University survey that didn't break out Hispanics, had Quinn on top and Weiner falling to fourth place among Democrats.
Of the city's 2.4 million Latinos, half are citizens over 18, according to 2011 U.S. Census data. While the city's elections board does not track voter registrations by ethnicity, Hispanics are expected to have a significant impact on the November election.
"Even though many people are not eligible to vote because they are not citizens, or they are younger or poor and they do not get involved, the Latino community is so big in the city that even with all these obstacles that exclude Latinos from the electorate, Latinos represent a big bloc of voters," said Angelo Falcon, president of the National Institute for Latino Policy.
In the last mayoral election in 2009, former comptroller and current candidate Bill Thompson won the biggest share of the Latino vote — 55 percent, according to exit polls by Edison Research. Yet that was not enough to beat Michael Bloomberg, who received 43 percent of the Latino vote. Latinos made up about one-fifth of the electorate that year.
Candidates this year are frequently seen at events targeted to Latinos. Some attended the National Puerto Rican Day Parade that every June runs along Fifth Avenue. And some rushed to the podium to speak during a ceremony in May to name a portion of Broadway as Juan Rodriguez Way, in honor of a Dominican man who is thought to have been New York's first non-Indian settler.
Other candidates walk every week in Latino areas of Queens and the Bronx to greet voters. Some have met in private with the Hispanic Federation, an umbrella organization for Latino nonprofit agencies. And most were forced to reveal whether they eat "cuchifritos," Puerto Rican fried foods, during a recent debate.
Candidates also are publicizing their stances on issues that concern Latinos. Quinn has published a booklet, Nueva York 2014, which lists her accomplishments as City Council speaker and explains her positions on issues. She also uses the literature to propose that bus and trains announcements also be made in Spanish and that a scholarship be created for bilingual students who provide translation services for the city.
De Blasio, the city's public advocate, speaks Spanish and has proposed a universal city identification card for residents, including immigrants who live illegally in the U.S. He also has proposed allowing immigrants living illegally to apply for a driver's license.
Weiner, who resigned from Congress two years ago after a sexting scandal that resurfaced last week, has proposed a city health care system similar to Medicare that would include immigrants excluded from federal coverage.
Two Latinos are among more than a dozen candidates in the race. Erick Salgado is running as a Democrat, and Adolfo Carrion is running as an Independent. Carrion, a former Bronx borough president, is more well-known, but his campaign has picked up little traction. He said his Puerto Rican ancestry will help him attract Latino voters.
"Any Latino has an advantage with the Latino community simply because they become a rallying point for their dreams and aspirations," Carrion said.
Jorge Ayala, owner of La Fonda restaurant in Spanish Harlem, follows the campaign. He said he personally knows two of the candidates — Thompson and Carrion — but hasn't decided who gets his vote.
Victor Hernandez isn't fazed by the attention from candidates. He doesn't plan to vote — a tradition he started after casting his last ballot, for John Kennedy for president.
"There are too many candidates for mayor now. ... How many are there? Ten?" asked Hernandez, who is 70.
Lucia Gomez, who has been going through neighborhoods registering Latinos to vote, said candidates have made a lot of promises to Latinos. Voters should hold them accountable once they're in office, said Gomez, executive director of the nonprofit organization La Fuente, a group that works on immigrant and worker rights issues.
"I think we will see then if Latinos really have the power to accomplish something," she said.