Velázquez, Nydia: 1953

views updated

Nydia Velázquez: 1953: U.S. Congressional representative

The first Puerto Rican-born woman elected to the U.S. Congress, Nydia Velázquez has served New York State's 12th District since winning election in 1992. She has also, however, served as an able advocate for the interests of her Puerto Rican home-land. In this mixed deployment of her energies Velázquez was perhaps an ideal reflection of her constituency, for New York's Puerto Rican population has long divided its time fluidly between island and mainland metropolis. A veteran of many years in New York's political trenches, Velázquez has never lost touch with her roots in rural Puerto Rico.

Velázquez was born on March 23, 1953, in the village of Yabucoa in Puerto Rico's sugar-cane country. Trying to support his nine children, her father worked variously as a cane-cutter, butcher, cockfighting promoter, and construction materials salesman. Velázquez's own later interest in the problems faced by small businesses came from her own observations of her father's experiences. "He didn't have the capital, the equity or the sophistication of information to be successful," she told Crain's New York Business. Her father was also a local political leader who instilled in his daughter a lifelong belief in social justice.

Earned Master's Degree

Though no one in her family had ever finished high school, much less college, Velázquez excelled in school from age five onward. She graduated early from high school and enrolled at the University of Puerto Rico's Río Piedras campus at 16, majoring in political science and graduating in 1974 with honors. Velázquez went to New York for a master's degree at New York University, but then returned to Puerto Rico for several years. In 1981 she took up residence in New York once again to become an adjunct professor of Puerto Rican studies at the City University of New York's Hunter College unit.

Part of the reason for her bipolar career was that Velázquez, like so many other Puerto Ricans in New York, maintained strong ties with her family members, who had been reluctant to see her leave in the first place. But Velázquez also had brushes with the conservative administration of Puerto Rico's New Progressive Party, which made it clear that her own brand of progressive politics was unwelcome. More and more her career became centered on New York, where she married and began to become involved in politics.

At a Glance . . .

Born March 28, 1953, in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico; married Paul Bader. Education: University of Puerto Rico, B.A., 1974; New York University, M.A., 1976. Religion: Roman Catholic. Politics: Democrat.

Career: University of Puerto Rico, instructor, 1976-81; Hunter College, New York, adjunct professor of Puerto Rican Studies, 1981-83; special assistant to New York U.S. Rep. Edolphus Towns, with responsibility for immigrantion and Hispanic affairs, 1983; served on New York city council, 1984-85; Migration Director, Puerto Rico Dept. of Labor & Human Resources, 1986-89; Secretary, Puerto Rico Dept. of Community Affairs in the U.S., 1989-92; U.S. Representative, New York 12th District, 1992-.

Address: Office 2241 Rayburn House Office Building, Washington, DC, 20515.

Served on New York City Council

Velázquez first entered the political arena in 1983 as a special assistant to Brooklyn U.S. Representative Edolphus Towns after her temporary position at Hunter College ended. She worked on immigration legislation and gained enough contacts that when a New York city council seat became available after its holder was convicted on attempted extortion charges, she was appointed to fill it. Velázquez lost the seat in the 1986 council election and worked in Puerto Rico as a divisional director in the commonwealth's Department of Labor and Human Resources from 1986 to 1989. Then she returned to New York once again to take a high-level liaison position representing the Puerto Rican government on the mainland United States. One of her first tasks was to direct aid dollars to Puerto Rican communities devastated by Hurricane Hugo. The job also stoked her political ambitions. Spearheading a voter-registration campaign financed by the commonwealth's government, Velázquez was able to place her name and face before New York's Hispanic voters.

In 1992 Velázquez was one of several candidates who angled for New York's new 12th District seat, created in the 1990 congressional redistricting to promote the election of a Hispanic candidate. The district encompassed parts of Brooklyn, Queens, and Lower Manhattan and was dubbed the "Bullwinkle" district in reference to its bizarre shape. Facing charges that she was too entwined with Puerto Rico to represent New Yorkers effectively, Velázquez's faced incumbent congressman Stephen Solarz, who for his part insisted that a non-Hispanic was qualified to represent a predominantly Hispanic district. Velázquez defeated Solarz and another Latina candidate to win the fall primary election, tantamount to election in the largely poor and heavily Democratic district. Her victory was celebrated enthusiastically in her Puerto Rican hometown.

The fall campaign was marred by the anonymous release of medical records showing that Velázquez had attempted to take an overdose of sleeping pills in 1991, depressed over her mother's illness and a broth-er's drug abuse problems. "It was a painful time," she told Time. "But I've learned I can't be a robot trying to solve everybody's problems without paying attention to my own needs." Velázquez faced the issue head-on; it did her no damage and may even have helped her with district voters, who gave her 77 percent of the vote in the November 1992 election.

Re-Elected Despite Reduced Latino Percentage

Velázquez cruised to re-election in 1994 and 1996. The following year the boundary lines of her district were ruled to have been impermissibly based on racial categories (although Hispanics can be of any race), and the new district that resulted contained a sharply reduced Latino proportion of 49 percent. The sometimes outspoken Velázquez also wrangled with local Democratic party leaders, and she faced unfavorable demographic trendsby the late 1990s most of New York's Hispanics came from places other than Puerto Rico. For all these reasons, observers speculated that Velázquez might face a primary challenge in 1998. But by that time she had built a formidable grass-roots and fundraising organization, and the potential challenge evaporated.

In Congress Velázquez has continued to work on behalf of immigrants and to take an interest in Puerto Rican affairs. Velázquez supported the island's commonwealth status rather than statehood or independence from the United States. She was among those arrested during protests that eventually brought an end to military exercises at the U.S. Navy's Vieques bombing range in the year 2000. Her influence rose sharply when she became the ranking Democrat on the House's Small Business Committee in 1998. That post helped Velázquez grease the wheels for legislation aiding small business owners hurt by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and put her in line for a powerful committee chairmanship should the Democrats manage to regain their House majority in the 2002 elections.

Velázquez had lobbied former president Bill Clinton to increase Hispanic representation in his adminstration, but became a bigger thorn in the side of President George W. Bush. She pushed for tax relief for small business owners (including tax deductions for health insurance for the self-employed) as Congress debated Bush's tax cuts in 2001 and 2002, telling the Boston Business Journal that "Bush says the economy is in trouble and that tax cuts are the main solution to the problem. Yet he neglects the prime force in this economysmall businessinstead favoring big business and the richest people in the country." Velázquez faced redistricting once again as a result of New York's loss of a congressional seat after the 2000 census, but seemed likely to emerge unscathed. She seemed a rising political star whose influence could only grow as Hispanic representation in the United States showed its inevitable increase.



Barone, Michael, and Richard E. Cohen, The Almanac of American Politics: 2002, National Journal, 2001.


Boston Business Journal, February 16, 2001, p. 31.

Campaigns and Elections, April 2000, p. 18.

Crain's New York Business, November 15, 1999, p. 24; July 24, 2000, p. 4.

Time, November 2, 1992, p. 44.

US Newswire, October 3, 2001.

WWD, July 11, 1996, p. 2.


James M. Manheim

About this article

Velázquez, Nydia: 1953

Updated About content Print Article