Professor's book tracks paths to Congress for ethnic politicians

A SUNY Oswego political science faculty member published her first book last month, using a database she built from scratch and years of research to construct a micro-political model for the rise of ethnic minorities in Congress, full of their stories and creative electoral strategies.

Published by Routledge of New York and London, “Inventive Politicians and Ethnic Ascent in American Politics: The Uphill Elections of Italians and Mexicans to the U.S. Congress” began as Miriam Jiménez’ quest for her dissertation in political science at City University of New York’s Graduate Center.

Miriam JimenezThe author reconstructs the tales of ethnic minority politicians in Congress, from Italian-American Fiorello La Guardia’s breaking through the Tammany Hall machine in 1916 to such pioneering Mexican-American politicians of the 1960s as Edward Roybal and on to the rise of Latinos as pan-ethnic identifiers, including Loretta Sanchez in the 1990s.

Jiménez, a visiting assistant professor at Oswego through 2013-14, scoured archives and primary sources, periodicals and scattered studies of ethnic experiences for the kind of intimate detail she knew could move her away from traditional models. She detailed a process of different and uneven stages of ethnic ascent to Congress, starting from marginalization, grudging acceptance, isolated victories and, ultimately, origin-blind acceptance.

Data on the history of ethnic minorities in Congress did not exist, so she built the dataset herself, painstakingly assembling the names—some of them Anglicized—of more than 150 ethnic House and Senate members from 1880 to 2012. She used a wide variety of sources to reconstruct the tales, resourceful strategies, successes and failures of Italian-Americans and Mexican-Americans in congressional politics.

“I wanted to re-conceptualize how ethnic politicians gain access to the process,” Jiménez said. “I took an interdisciplinary approach. My sister, a historian, talked to me about micro-history, changing the lens to look at individuals in their historical context rather than starting with the idea of ethnic minorities as homogeneous or with simplistic analyses of registration and voting patterns of an ethnic group.”

‘New insights’

Peer reviewers of the work praised her for breaking new ground.

“Miriam Jiménez’ innovative micro-political approach in this book yields new insights that turn some of the axioms of common wisdom on their head,” wrote Richard Alba, sociology professor and expert in ethnicity and ethnic identity at the CUNY Graduate Center. “As a result, the book breathes freshness into a comparison of Italians and Mexicans that has become a bit stale in the hands of others.”

Louis DeSipio, a political science professor with expertise in Latino politics and immigration at University of California-Irvine, wrote, in part, “Jiménez’ study carefully assesses not just the ethnic candidates who sought election to Congress and how they positioned themselves among co-ethnics, but also the critical role of changing political environments and institutional relationships to ensure their election to office. This book adds to our understanding of the likely future electoral influence of today’s immigrant-ethnic populations.”

Jiménez, understanding that the primary audiences for her book likely will include political scientists, politicians and students of ethnic political incorporation, said she also consciously tried to invite interested readers from the general public with her writing style and storytelling.

Compelling stories

“The book is full of stories and against-all-odds case studies,” she said.

For example, Jiménez said, the story of how Fiorello La Guardia, a former congressman from and three-term mayor of New York City, ascended politically is dramatic and compelling.

“You really have to understand the context of the times in which he lived—Tammany Hall, kingmakers, party-centered politics—to realize what political marvels he achieved,” Jiménez said. “He campaigned like crazy, he understood the electorate and spoke their language—he was, in fact, multilingual and he used those languages. Inventiveness, energy, mercurial character—La Guardia always exceeded expectations.”

Edward Roybal beat an incumbent in 1962 to become the first Mexican-American elected to Congress in California in nearly 100 years. To accomplish it, he put together a multiracial coalition, spoke for the powerless and actively supported President John F. Kennedy through Viva Kennedy clubs. He stayed in Congress for 30 years and is credited with inspiring many Latinos to become politically involved.

Ethnic minorities’ ascent to Congress, Jiménez said, does not happen only as a process of enculturation of a group. “Political institutions, parties and electoral contexts create different layers of power that affect lives and decisions of individuals who run for office,” she said.

PHOTO CAPTION: Ethnic breakthroughs—The first book by SUNY Oswego political science faculty member Miriam Jiménez, “Inventive Politicians and Ethnic Ascent in American Politics: The Uphill Elections of Italians and Mexicans to the U.S. Congress,” uses a multidisciplinary approach to trace the paths to the nation’s legislature for ethnic politicians over a 130-year span.

(Posted: Nov 21, 2013)

Tags: political science, miriam jiménez, faculty publications, ethnic studies