Rose Birtley challenges Joe Crowley for Congress

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Rose Robles Birtley, a Republican and Hispanic American, ran for Congress four years ago and lost. Her competition was fierce - Thomas Manton, the Democratic incumbent and current Queens party leader.

A lot has changed since 1996. Hispanic Americans now comprise over 40 percent of the 7th Congressional district, whose boundaries were redefined two years ago. And this, Birtley reasons, may give her the sharp edge she needs to defeat U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-Jackson Heights), the incumbent, in November's election.

"Crowley always says, 'No one is going to take my job. That's my job and no one is going to take it,'" Birtley, imitating the voice of a petulant child, told supporters last Thursday during a fund-raiser where she announced her candidacy for his seat.

"I have news for you, Joe Crowley. I'm not taking your job. These people are going to fire you on Nov. 7," she said.

Birtley, 60, appears to have a devoted Latino following, if the scores of Hispanic Americans who turned out for last week's fund-raiser at the Grand Bay Marina Restaurant in Flushing are representative of her support. But Republican strategists and politicians say that Birtley's voter appeal extends well beyond Hispanic Americans.

State Sen. Serphin Maltese (R-Glendale), for instance, described Birtley's politics as middle of the road, an ideology that he says jibes with views held not just by Latinos but by all Queens residents in the 7th District, which stretches from Bayside through Whitestone and Flushing to Astoria, Long Island City and Sunnyside.

"I think, by and large, that people are not comfortable with extreme left, extreme right," said Maltese, the chairman of the Queens Republican Party, in an interview. "They vote for the person, not the party, and I think that is her secret."

Throughout the evening, Birtley jumped from table to table, each adorned with a beamish flag from a different Latin country, to chat with supporters. Interestingly, most of them hailed from the same background - they weren't politicians.

"I share her diversity vision," said J.C. Bravo, taking occasional swigs of beer from a Budweiser bottle. "Diversity is the reason why I'm here. Unless you stand up to be counted, how do you expect to make a difference."

Bravo, who emigrated from Guatemala 12 years ago, spent four years of his life in the Marine Corps before joining the Army Reserves. His life experiences have inculcated him with a strong sense of patriotism - which is what so strongly draws him into the Republican party.

At Rolando Tomas Infante's table, Spanish intermixed with English was flying back and forth in dueling conversations. Infante, though, managed to extricate himself from the lively chatting sessions to explain, succinctly, why Birtley is his candidate.

"Electing Rose will bring a symbol of diversity to the 7th District," he said, "instead of just being a bullhorn for minority positions. Being Republican and Latino is a common denominator that will stretch across all boundaries."

Perhaps Birtley's dogged pursuit of success throughout life is what attracts so many Latinos to her, allowing them to ignore political allegiances traditionally defined by ethnicity. As a 20-year-old in Cuba during the time when Castro rose to power, Birtley's life was becoming ever so precarious. Her father had just lost his job, and Birtley was straining to make ends meet by selling magazine subscriptions. Birtley took in a paltry $120 a month.

In America, she would find greener pastures. A job selling advertisements at El Diario, a Spanish-language daily newspaper in New York, would serve as a springboard for her extensive career in business. Birtley parlayed her experiences at El Diario into an executive position at Scandinavian Airlines, overseeing Latin American sales, as well as opening a travel agency in 1974.

Still, for some, a Republican and Latino combined in one candidate is considered a contradiction in terms, a notion that bucks conventional political wisdom. Birtley knows that, which is why she chose to explain her choice of politics before discussing anything else.

"The first thing people ask me - and especially the press - is why I am a Republican," she said. "I guess because I'm Latino, I can't be Republican. I refuse to be a Democrat not because the Democratic people are bad people. I am referring to the leaders."

Later on in her speech, she accused modern-day Democrats of hijacking the founding principles of Republicanism - what Birtley described as the party of Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan in dovetailed sentences - and then eased into an attack on her Democratic opponent, Crowley, but without mentioning his name.

"The only thing that he takes advantage of are pictures," she said, repeating her comment moments later in Spanish. "Photo opportunities, he loves that. And he loves the mosquitoes, because that's something he has to talk about."

Updated 7:05 pm, October 10, 2011
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