Herman Badillo, the first U.S. congressman born in Puerto Rico, died this week at the age of 85. Badillo represented New York’s 21st District in the House of Representatives from 1971 to 1977. He was known for his support of New York’s Puerto Rican community as well as broader human rights and the concerns of all underrepresented groups, including the urban poor and ethnic minorities.
Badillo was born on Aug. 21, 1929, in Caguas, Puerto Rico. He came to New York to live with relatives after losing his parents to tuberculosis as a preschooler. He attended New York City public schools, and then went on to graduate from City College of New York. He earned his LLB from Brooklyn Law School, graduating first in his class.In 1966, he was elected Bronx borough president, a position he held until 1969. In 1968, he served as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention.
In 1970, Badillo became the congressional representative for the South Bronx, the first person born in Puerto Rico to become a Congressman. He was one of the founders of the Hispanic Congressional Caucus. He spoke up for the people of Puerto Rico, pointing out that they were subject to the draft, but were not included in social programs such as food stamps and school milk programs.
Badillo left Congress in 1977 to become Deputy Mayor of New York, a position which he held until 1979. Badillo had run for mayor repeatedly, first as a Democrat and then as a Republican, but was not successful in his campaigns. He continued to work for the city, in positions including Special Counsel on education policy and Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the City University of New York, until he returned to private law practice in 2005.
Education was of particular importance to Badillo, who was known for encouraging higher standards in public schools from elementary school to college. CUNY in particular was a priority for Badillo.
Badillo was not only the first Congressman from Puerto Rico, but the first Bronx borough president and the first to run for mayor of a major mainland city. He called himself “the first Puerto Rican everything,” and a large and loyal community mourned his passing on Wednesday.