WASHINGTON -- Hillary Rodham Clinton stomped on plenty of toes in her first tango with the New York Puerto Rican community last week, bruising a group known for its power to shake the state's politics and swing close elections.
"We're icing her out," said Mike Nieves, a New York political consultant planning four days of Puerto Rican political rallies this weekend. "You only bite us once. We may be an up-and-coming community, but we aren't stupid."
Such tough talk might not sustain itself over the 14 months between now and the New York election for the U.S. Senate, but it points to the intensity of New York's ethnic politics and, in particular, the expectation of the Puerto Rican community that candidates it supports will not take it for granted.
They call themselves "New Yoricans" -- New York Puerto Ricans -- and they deliver powerful activists who often rule the airwaves and complicated issues that can leave politicians flat-footed.
In New York, candidates have been known to rise and fall through their treatment of the Puerto Rican community, which has a formidable political voice and the numbers and influence to continue to grow.
The dangers for Clinton seem clear. After opposing her husband's decision to commute the sentences of 16 Puerto Rican nationalists, she suffered a blistering backlash from Latino leaders that culminated in Bronx Democratic Rep. Jose E. Serrano withholding his support for her candidacy.
Aides say the first lady spent much of the week on the phone with Puerto Rican politicians -- calling them "friends," calling some every day -- amid accusations that she had lost their trust and flip-flopped on the issue.
"Everybody is now talking about the Latino vote as a crucial part of any election," Bronx Councilman Jose Rivera said. "We're not a force you should be flip-flopping with."
So the first lady has plunged into the storm of New York's ethnic politics, and there appears to be little respite from the turbulence.
The Puerto Rican community is awaiting Clinton's response on a subject freighted with emotion and symbolism: the fate of Vieques, a tiny island off Puerto Rico long used by the Navy for target practice but currently occupied by protesters after an errant bomb killed a civilian Puerto Rican guard and wounded four others.
Starting this weekend, Vieques is the subject of four days of rallying among mostly Puerto Ricans in New York -- from the quiet pews of St. Cecilia's Roman Catholic Church to the dance floor of Club Monaco, where a Latin ska band will perform its new rap song about Vieques. As they prepare for a presidential panel's recommendation on the island's future, some Puerto Rican politicians are pushing the first lady to call loudly for an immediate end to the bombing.
In an impassioned plea while visiting Puerto Rico recently, Rivera insisted that Clinton should rant against the bombing from "the tallest skyscraper in New York." Back in New York, Bronx County Democratic leader Roberto Ramirez pressed Clinton on the matter the last time they met, shoving a Vieques briefing paper into her hands during her last "listening tour" stop in the Bronx.
They might lack the fund-raising power of Manhattan's Upper East Side socialites and the sheer numbers of New York suburbanites, but Puerto Rican voters can make the difference in close elections.
"The Latino vote is becoming more and more active, and it's nothing to be taken for granted. It is not a slam-dunk for the Democrats," said Emily Giske, a longtime New York Democratic activist. Certain New York Puerto Rican leaders, she said, are "geniuses" at getting out the vote.
The Puerto Rican vote has proved critical in tight statewide races such as that for New York state attorney general last year. In the last week of the campaign, Republican incumbent Dennis C. Vacco reportedly referred to Latinos as "banditos" outside "bodegas" in a discussion of the death penalty as a crime deterrent. Democrat Elliot Spitzer won by 20,000 votes, a victory political analysts attribute at least partly to the turnout of Latino voters.
The state's 1.3 million Puerto Ricans are New York's largest Latino community, and theirs is the Hispanic voice most often heard in its ethnic politics.
For years, Puerto Rican leaders have lobbied to commute the prison terms of 16 nationalists ), some of whom received sentences of 50 years.
The prisoners were affiliated with the FALN, an acronym for the Spanish name of the organization, Armed Forces National Liberation. The group was involved in more than 100 bombings in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s. None of the members granted clemency was convicted in connection with any deaths or injuries.
New York politicians are wary of the clemency issue's emotional weight. Both of the state's Democratic senators opposed the deal, but they have said very little else on the subject.
Critical voting bloc
Political missteps with Latinos in New York, home to more Puerto Ricans than any other place in the mainland United States, can send this traditionally liberal voting bloc to the polls for Republican candidates.
In 1993, some Puerto Ricans backed Republican Rudolph W. Giuliani, who was challenging Mayor David N. Dinkins, a Democrat. They remembered a perceived slight by Dinkins, who, in 1990, refused to invite two formerly jailed Puerto Rican nationalists to a reception for Nelson Mandela, then just released from prison in South Africa.
Latino leaders say Giuliani garnered a surprisingly high 38 percent of the Puerto Rican vote in that race, in part because of the episode. It was an extraordinary showing for Giuliani, who had captured 18 percent of the Latino vote in his failed 1989 mayoral bid.
It might have helped Giuliani once and could again in his expected showdown with Clinton in next year's Senate contest. But in Giuliani's successful re-election bid in 1997, voters in the Bronx, where one of two residents is Latino -- turned out overwhelmingly against him.
"For the average statewide candidate it's critical to get a big turnout of the Hispanic vote," said Jerry Skurnik, a Democratic political consultant. While the Latino vote is only about 6 percent of the state's total, he said, "in a relatively close election, it's very important."
That Latino community is organizing. In 1990, New York was home to 11 Latino elected officials statewide. Now there are 26, the overwhelming majority Puerto Rican. Among them are Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, who is planning a run for mayor in 2001.
Puerto Rican politicians say they want to see the first lady demonstrate her loyalty to their community in the months to come but still signal their willingness to support her.
The backing of Ramirez, chairman of the Bronx Democratic Committee with a much talked about ability to turn out the Latino vote, is clearly important to the Clinton camp. He said the first lady called him once a day at the height of the clemency flap.
"You have a new generation of Hispanics who were born in this city, educated in this city and are succeeding in this city and now developing political activism," said Ramirez. "It's all part of the American tradition."