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Politicians Shun Race-Baiting As Cities Grow More Diverse

Focus on immigrant concerns boosts Al Sharpton's showing in New York primary.

When the Rev. Al Sharpton upended the New York political establishment this week by forcing Democratic front-runner Ruth Messenger into a run off, he unearthed a new truth about New York: It's not the city it once was.

In fact, it's changing so fast that by 2000 as many as 40 percent of inhabitants here will be foreign-born. Whites already account for less than half the city's population. Hispanics outnumber blacks, and the Asian-American community is growing so rapidly that it's soon expected to account for 10 percent of the population.

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From Miami to Chicago to Los Angeles, US cities are rapidly growing more diverse. As the most recent wave of immigrants begins to flex its political muscle, the impact is being felt at the ballot box. The result: Urban politics isn't simply black and white anymore. Race-baiting is out; inclusion is in.

In New York, the lackluster Democratic primary inspired only a 15 percent turnout. But pundits credit Mr. Sharpton's showing to his passionate identification with Abner Louima, the Haitian immigrant who was allegedly brutalized by police last month in a Brooklyn precinct house.

"Abuse of Abner Louima resonated throughout other communities," says Mitchell Moss of the New York University Urban Research Center. "That was the basis for about half of Sharpton's vote."

The controversial preacher won 32 percent of the vote, forcing a runoff election on Sept. 23 against Manhattan borough president Ruth Messinger, who fell just short of the 40 percent she needed. The winner will face the formidable incumbent Rudolph Giuliani in November.

Polls show the mayor would handily defeat any challenger. He's got a dramatic drop in crime and a big boom on Wall Street feeding his momentum. But the former prosecutor has also worked hard to portray himself as the champion of immigrants.

His motto is "one city, one standard." When the federal government took away some benefits of legal immigrants, Mr. Giuliani took the feds to court.

"Immigration is crucial to maintaining New York City's position as the capital of the world and is essential to its continued success," said the mayor, in releasing a January report showing immigration here had jumped 32 percent from 1990 to 1994.

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Nonetheless, Sharpton charges that Giuliani is "hopelessly out of touch" with the city's minority and new ethnic communities. As proof, he repeatedly hit on the theme of police brutality against the disenfranchised. But he also backed away from some of the more racially charged rhetoric that marked his earlier campaigns. His message this time was one of inclusion.

"No matter what happens now," Sharpton said Wednesday, "they have to deal with the fact that we are a permanent political force. We can't be dismissed."

Few political experts expect the Louima case to be a deciding factor in the general election. While one of the police officers reportedly said, "This is Giuliani time," as he tortured Mr. Louima, many here agree that the mayor responded to the crisis forcefully.

"It may have had more repercussions if the mayor didn't handle it as forthrightly as he did," says Emanuel Tobier, a professor of economics at NYU here.

The Hispanic community, which accounts for 27 percent of the population, has become a powerful force in city politics. Its top issues are law and order, education, and immigration. Polls show about half the community supports the mayor.

"We are a middle-of-the-road force, so nobody can take us for granted on either side," says Luis Miranda, president of the Hispanic Federation, an umbrella organization of more than 60 health and social-service groups.

He says "Latinos went to sleep" after Bronx borough president Freddie Ferrar pulled out of the Democratic primary. No one else really worked to mobilize the community, Mr. Miranda says.

Asian-Americans have also supported Giuliani overwhelmingly in the past, and that support seems solid going into the fall.

But Margaret Fung of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund says no one should take their votes for granted. In 1994, 39 percent of Asian-Americans here were first-time voters, and half of those were naturalized during the previous two years. "It's clear that people who come here want to stay here, and want to have a say in what happens here," she says.

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