In 2016, Oswald Feliz was a 25-year-old housing attorney working behind the scenes to help Rep. Adriano Espaillat win the 13th Congressional District and become the first Dominican-born lawmaker elected to Congress. Feliz oversaw operations for Espaillat’s campaign in the Bronx, the epicenter of the growing Dominican community in New York City. Now, five years later, the political base the two men built together has sent Feliz into public office.

Feliz—who held a swearing-in ceremony on Sunday—emerged victorious from a crowded field of candidates running after a special election for the City Council’s 15th District last month, beating rivals who had large donors and union endorsements with his own coordinated support from fellow Dominican legislators, including Espaillat, Bronx Assemblymember Victor Pichardo, and the political club they’ve formed which is now poised to bring even more Dominican New Yorkers into elected office.

Lawmakers and political analysts attribute this momentum to the steady population growth and high levels of community engagement. Among the five boroughs, the Bronx is increasingly a center of power for Dominican elected officials. Currently, 11 members of the state assembly are Dominican, as is Espaillat whose congressional district encompasses parts of Harlem and the Bronx. Plus, in the city council, Fernando Cabrera is of Dominican and Puerto Rican descent.

“There’s a growing Dominican population in the Bronx and I think that generally translates into political power,” Feliz told Gothamist. “They know that if they get involved they could truly make change and that their voice matters. And that people are in office because of them. They are the ones that elect the people.”

The Dominican population has grown steadily over the last decade, with 701,188 Dominicans now living in New York City, comprising 8.3% of the population, just edging out Puerto Ricans, according to the New York City Population Finder. In the Bronx, they represent 22% of the population, larger than any other Hispanic group in the borough. In the 15th Council District that just elected Feliz, Dominicans comprise roughly 40% of the population.

The raw numbers are significant but there is a hurdle to overcome in terms of the voting electorate, according to John Mollenkopf, a professor at The Graduate Center, CUNY, who tracks the Dominican migration in New York. He said Puerto Ricans still have a larger voting share, with Puerto Ricans making up nearly 24% of eligible voters in the Bronx compared to almost 19% of eligible voters who identify as Dominican New Yorkers.

"Puerto Ricans are still larger than Dominicans in the electorate in the Bronx, but Dominicans [have a] pretty darn substantial share of the potential voters now,” Mollenkopf said. “That's why you're seeing so many Dominican-origin candidates in these Bronx Council races at the moment.”

The next step, he said, is to increase the number of Dominican New Yorkers who are U.S. citizens, an effort that several groups have taken on.

“Often, our community doesn't feel included in the electoral process. And we're here to change that,” said Eddie Cuesta, national director for Dominicanos USA, a Bronx-based outreach group that helps lay a path for Dominicans to obtain their citizenship and subsequent right to vote.

For the last nine years, DUSA has waged an information campaign on the importance of voting, targeting Dominican communities across the city. By knocking on doors and distributing fliers, Cuesta said they’ve registered 125,000 New Yorkers to vote, with just over half of them Dominicans.

“It's a community that is here to stay,” Cuesta said.

Dominican influence is sweeping through the city. Mino Lora, who came a distant second in the special election for the 11th Council District, is attempting to unseat recently sworn-in Councilmember Eric Dinowitz in the June 22nd primary. And the impact of the community is being felt beyond the Bronx. In Brooklyn, Antonio Reynoso is campaigning to become the next borough president.

And while there still hasn't been a Dominican candidate for mayor of New York City, Republican Fernando Matteo, is vying to be the first Dominican nominee. Citywide, the Dominican community is sure to see plenty of mayoral candidates seeking support in the remaining weeks before the June primary. They're too big to ignore.

“Dominicans love politics,” Espaillat told Gothamist. “My father was very strict, and he wouldn't like us to speak about baseball, religion, or politics at the table because it would certainly turn into an argument at some point.”

Growing up in Santiago de los Caballeros in the Dominican Republic, Espaillat arrived to the country as an undocumented immigrant in 1964 during the Dominican diaspora, when dissidents fled the Caribbean country after the assassination of Rafael Trujillo, the infamous dictator nicknamed “El Jefe” (e.g. “The Boss”). It also coincided with the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, creating an easier path to immigration to the country.

Dominicans settled in New York City, mainly in Washington Heights in Manhattan, bringing an appetite for engagement that eventually brought Dominican representation to community boards and now-defunct local school boards for their first taste of New York City government.

"They're following the same path that the Puerto Ricans did 20 years ago. And they're following the same path that the Italians did 20 years prior. And they only did what the Irish did 20 years prior to that,” Anthony Rivieccio, the founder of the Northwest Bronx Democrats, which supported Feliz’s victory, told Gothamist.

Bronx Assemblywoman Amanda Septimo, representing the 84th Assembly District, said the need to get involved is baked into the Dominican culture.

"Part of it is like a culture, where you stand up for what's right, where you're not afraid to, kind of, challenge systems,” Septimo said. “That's something that I think is really ingrained in culture. And Dominican politics are kind of unwieldy because of it. Because people are constantly challenging power structures.”

In the 1980s, Espaillat was a member of the local community board and precinct council, embarking on a path that would lead to federal office. Serving as a district leader, he won his first race in 1996, becoming the first Dominican-born legislator elected to represent the 72nd Assembly District in Washington Heights, defeating Brian Murtaugh, a white, three-term incumbent by 196 votes.

Espaillat’s rise runs in tandem with another Dominican lawmaker in New York City, Guillermo Linares, the city’s first Dominican-born lawmaker elected in 1991 to the newly formed 10th City Council District, pegged by the media as the “Dominican District.” Mollenkopf, who helped draw the City Council lines, said the city deliberately drew the district lines to favor a Dominican legislator, given the growing population.

Espaillat went on to win a State Senate seat but had set his sights on Congress, winning, after a third try, the seat long occupied by Charles Rangel, the powerful chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and local kingmaker whose political base was rooted in Harlem’s African-American community. Before him, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. held the seat.

This 2016 victory—aided by the district’s 2012 re-apportionment that incorporated more Dominicans—served as a major milestone for Dominicans who now had representation for the first time at all levels of government. He did it by tapping into the Dominican population on the other side of the two-borough district and the political club that, in turn, helped Feliz secure a victory as the state committeeman for the 78th Assembly District.

“Espaillat is building his own political machine,” Mollenkopf said. “He's endorsing people for these different council seats. And he's a major political force in the community.”

Mollenkopf added that the successes are “not just pure demographics. It's also a community organization.”

But Nestor Montilla Sr., chairperson of the Dominican American National Roundtable warned that ethnic politics had its limits, with the ability to craft solutions for a broad base of the electorate ultimately mattering more.

Montilla pointed to several instances where Dominican legislators won public office through a plurality of non-Dominican voters such as State Assemblymember Arthur Eve, the first Dominican elected to public office in the United States in 1967. That was followed by Kay Palacios, the first Dominican woman elected to the Englewood Cliffs City Council in New Jersey in 1991, the same year Linares won his Council seat.

“While population growth and participation are sure factors in political enfranchisement, the future of the Dominican-American political empowerment lies in coalition building and appealing to all constituencies rather than to the ethnic silos confined to specific neighborhoods scattered across the Northeastern United States,” Montilla said.

Feliz himself emphasized he’s also not looking to represent the only interests of Dominican constituents but of all constituents in the 13th City Council District.

"This district has a Dominican population, but it's too mixed for that to be the only factor. I would say the biggest factor was the issues,” Feliz said. “And also talking about the issues that they care about, and also talking about how we could resolve the issues that they care about.”