Republican Lawmaker in a Heavily
Democratic District Is Atop Election Hit
State Senator Serphin R. Maltese strode slowly through the midmorning crowd at the Peter Cardella Senior Citizens Center like a shepherd corralling a weary but loyal flock. In the corridors and cafeteria, Mr. Maltese, 75, stopped repeatedly and leaned in to hear the greetings or gripes of his constituents — most of them Italian-Americans — who in the twilight of their lives have traded their neighborhood social clubs for centers for the elderly like this one in Ridgewood, Queens.
Mr. Maltese spoke to them softly as a stocky man with a shiny red tie and a microphone sang a song in Italian and another plucked gingerly at a piano’s cream and black keys.
“This group here has been absolutely essential to keeping me in office all of these years,” Mr. Maltese said. “It’s what this group stands for. It stands for a community.”
But this fall, Mr. Maltese may need more than these loyal supporters to stay in power.
Of the half-dozen or so incumbent Republican state senators whom Democrats are singling out for defeat this year, Mr. Maltese is No. 1 on the list. A conservative Republican who has represented the overwhelmingly Democratic western part of Queens for almost two decades, Mr. Maltese has rarely faced a tough re-election. His supporters have been mostly “old-line Democrats” with Italian, Irish and Polish bloodlines and conservative leanings.
But his district is quickly changing, with many more Asian, South Asian, Caribbean and Latin American immigrants calling it home.
Democratic strategists say that several factors in the district have created conditions for an upset: an aging candidate, an eroding base and a population of nonwhite new Americans whose struggles could make them more sympathetic to Democrats.
The Democrats are trying to end 40 years of Republican dominance of the Senate, and shortly before he resigned last month, Gov. Eliot Spitzer raised millions of dollars for that effort. Democrats won an upset in a special Senate election upstate in February, putting them one seat away from control.
But Mr. Spitzer’s departure had a ripple effect, elevating Lt. Gov. David A. Paterson, a Democrat, to governor and allowing the Senate majority leader, Joseph L. Bruno, to take over as presiding officer of the Senate while maintaining his Senate leadership position. That means Democrats are now two seats away from a majority. And Mr. Maltese is a marked man.
“My staff says they want to buy me a T-shirt with a big target on the back,” Mr. Maltese joked. “But if my seat is a target, Joe said he will allocate over a million dollars,” he said, referring to Mr. Bruno. “He said we will spend whatever it takes.”
In New York politics, truces between Democrats and Republicans in some districts have resulted in incumbents’ going unchallenged for long stretches. Mr. Maltese enjoyed such an arrangement for more than a decade, until 2006, when a largely unknown Democratic candidate, Albert Baldeo, an Indo-Guyanese lawyer, challenged and nearly defeated him, winning 49 percent of the vote — in part by tapping into the district’s rising nonwhite immigrant population. And Mr. Baldeo did so without the backing of the institutional party machinery.
Mr. Baldeo immediately announced plans to run again this year.
Mr. Baldeo’s career has not been without controversy: As a candidate for City Council he was accused of waving a handgun at the wife of a rival Democratic candidate. Charges against him were eventually dismissed.
“There has been a groundswell of support for my campaign. It will clearly be a much stronger campaign than last time,” Mr. Baldeo said in an interview. “The demographics have been changing from Maspeth to Middle Village to Ozone Park. These massive changes are toward minority, new-American immigrants, people of color, and they will all rally around me because I will be there for them no matter what and will always be a part of them.”
Because Mr. Maltese now seems vulnerable, Mr. Baldeo does not have the Democratic nomination assured. He is expected to face City Councilman Joseph P. Addabbo Jr. in a primary race.
Like Mr. Maltese, Mr. Addabbo has strong roots in the Italian community. Mr. Maltese grew up on the Lower East Side, and was introduced to politics in the back of his immigrant grandfather’s shoe shop, where Irish police officers and Italian politicians from the neighborhood would gather for a taste of the grape and the politics of the day.
Mr. Addabbo’s father was a well-respected and popular member of the House of Representatives from Queens for 25 years. Mr. Addabbo has the backing of the Democratic machine and is popular among Mr. Maltese’s constituents. His supporters had urged him to challenge Mr. Maltese for years, but he opted to hold out until the time was right.
Now the time is right, he said. And he faces term limits on the Council.
“He was one of the first people I approached when I finally made the decision to run,” Mr. Addabbo said of Mr. Maltese. “I said, ‘I gave you a pass in 2006, but I’m not giving you a pass this time.’ ”
The district spans working-class Queens, from Howard Beach in the south to Richmond Hill, now home to Punjabis, Surinamese and West Indians, among others, in the middle to Woodside, a neighborhood long home to the largest Irish community in Queens, which now boasts a sizable Asian population.
In 1990, 83 percent of the district’s residents identified themselves as white, according to census data analyzed by the Queens College department of sociology. By 2000, that number had dropped to 63 percent. The foreign-born population of the district jumped to 39 percent from 29 percent during that time, according to the data, with the largest increase among Hispanics.
“All politics in New York are ethnic politics,” Mr. Maltese acknowledged. So, he said, he attends the meetings of as many different groups as possible.
“What I find with this new immigrant group is that it seems to be very traditional,” Joseph Scelsa, president of the Italian American Museum, in Manhattan, said of the newcomers in the district. “And although they are not the same immigrant groups that came before them, they have very traditional values in terms of family and values.”
Though many of them are Democrats, he said, they “are Democrats with Republican values.”
“Mr. Maltese has probably appealed to that constituency and appeals to that community for that reason,” Mr. Scelsa said.
Mr. Maltese has also surrounded himself with a diverse group of staff members who match the changing face of the communities around him. They are Hispanic, Polish, Italian and Bangladeshi.
Still, it is clear he is not reaching everyone. In Richmond Hill, a few miles from the Cardella Senior Citizens Center, a bearded Sikh mechanic in a turban and an Indo-Guyanese shop owner hustled through their afternoon duties; Hispanic and Asian laborers and teenagers and business executives and tailors filled the sidewalks, streets and businesses.
“I will tell you one thing,” said one of them, a Guyanese store owner along 101st Avenue who said he speaks for many others. “The white politicians don’t care about us here.”
He said white elected officials could not rival the support or popularity that Mr. Baldeo has in the nonwhite immigrant community in Queens. “We know Baldeo and he will always do better in this neighborhood,” the store owner said. “You want to vote for someone who dwells in the same places you dwell and speaks to you in a certain way. He knows who we are.”