Mayor hones Spanish to woo Latinos

March 8, 2009 2:03:17 PM PDT
For a long time, it was hard to get Mayor Michael Bloomberg to say more than a few words in Spanish. Today, as his bid for a third term as mayor gets off the ground, he can't seem to stop. The billionaire businessman has been studying Spanish since his first run for mayor, and he had mostly limited his public utterances to a few phrases and greetings here and there.

But now, with more and more Latino voters in New York City, along with higher-rated Spanish-language news broadcasts, Bloomberg is looking for more ways to be heard despite his inelegant accent and clumsy verb conjugations.

He now concludes every news conference by summing up the main points and taking some questions in Spanish, and at two recent events - a snowstorm briefing and women's luncheon - he answered reporters' questions in Spanish without any help.

The responses were sometimes filled with awkward phrases like "the streets have cleaned" and "it was a lot of windy," but he's willing to try.

At the beginning of 2007, about 676,000 of the city's 3.8 million registered voters were Latino. Now, that number has grown to more than 860,000 out of the total of more than 4.2 million, according to Voter Contact Services, which processes voter files.

"It's a group that all the campaigns will be going for," said Jerry Skurnik, a political consultant and expert on voter data.

However, campaign strategists say there is no such thing as one Latino voting bloc in New York City, with its large numbers of Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Ecuadorans, Colombians and Mexicans, along with many smaller communities.

Bloomberg isn't the only one working on a bilingual campaign.

The two leading Democratic mayoral hopefuls, Comptroller William Thompson Jr. and Rep. Anthony Weiner, both speak conversational Spanish occasionally at public events and with Spanish-language media, and have taken lessons to keep up their skills.

Bloomberg aides say his decision to summarize his public events in Spanish, and to speak it more regularly, grew out of discussions last fall, with an eye to getting attention on the rapidly growing Spanish media in New York City.

The 6 p.m. newscast on WXTV, the Spanish-speaking Univision affiliate, eclipsed its English competitors on the ABC, CBS and NBC stations in popularity last year among viewers younger than 49, according to Nielsen Media Research.

The first time Bloomberg ran for City Hall, his campaign let it slip out that he had started learning Spanish, and his tutor sometimes accompanied him to campaign events. Bloomberg could manage only greetings and pleasantries, but it was enough to show he was making an effort.

That year, he won roughly one-third of the Latino vote.

For his re-election bid in 2005, Bloomberg's campaign made a big show of releasing its first television ad in Spanish. By then, he was also comfortable enough to occasionally speak a few words in public, despite his mispronunciations and awkward accent.

He won less of the Latino vote that year - about one-fourth - but he was facing an opponent of Puerto Rican descent who had an established base of Latino support.

After winning re-election, Bloomberg kept up his lessons and occasional bilingual public displays, surprising many people during a trip to Mexico in 2007 when he conducted a news conference in both languages, without help from a translator.

And last week, for the first time, he began a local news conference in Spanish as he stood with the city's police commissioner to announce an arrest in an alleged hate crime killing of an Ecuadoran immigrant.

Yet with all his practice, including regular tutoring and lessons on an iPod, Bloomberg still demonstrates only a basic grasp of the language at best, as evidenced by his clumsy phrases during last Monday's snowstorm briefing.

And his accent is still widely considered to be awful.

"Before I die, I am going to accomplish this," the 67-year-old mayor said last week. "Although it's a race, I will say that."


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