Political placards of Dominican Republic presidential candidate Hipolito Mejia hang...

Political placards of Dominican Republic presidential candidate Hipolito Mejia hang from a lighting pole near the headquarters of the PRD party in the Inwood section of Manhattan. The country's election will possibly be settled by Dominicans who will vote but live outside their home country. (May 18, 2012) Credit: Craig Ruttle

In New York's Dominican communities, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama aren't the presidential candidates people are talking about.

Instead, the focus Sunday is on who will govern the Dominican Republic, a closely fought battle between Danilo Medina of the incumbent centrist Dominican Liberation Party and Hipolito Mejia of the center-left Dominican Revolutionary Party.

Tens of thousands of Dominicans living in Long Island, New York City and Westchester and Rockland counties were expected to participate in the Dominican Republic's elections Sunday, and their votes could be pivotal to the outcome.

Carmen Pineryo, a Freeport trustee and chief of staff for State Assemb. Phil Ramos (D-Brentwood), said Dominicans here are watching the election closely because of rising concerns about crime, drug trafficking and economic stability in their homeland, where most still have relatives. Dominicans here "want a democracy and a safe democracy" there, she said.

The 300,000 Dominicans who live abroad but are registered to vote comprise 5 percent of the total electorate, and "the importance of the Dominican vote here in New York is tremendous," said Ramona Hernandez, director of the City University of New York's Dominican Studies Institute. "Elections are usually decided by 1 to 3 percent of the vote."

Both candidates have personally campaigned in the New York metropolitan area, including Long Island, seeking support and contributions, said Teddy Acevedo of Bay Shore, a longtime community leader and writer. "This is where the money is."

Throughout Washington Heights in upper Manhattan and in parts of the Bronx, purple flags with yellow stars in support of Medina are never far from Mejia's white posters that bear the phrase "Llego Papa" (Daddy's here). Mejia is know as Papa.

The scene is much the same in Long Island's Dominican enclaves including Brentwood, Copiague and Freeport, where interest in the elections are strong, Acevedo said. "This is a very crucial moment in our country," he said.

Dominicans abroad also voted in the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections, but for the first time this year they will also choose their own representatives in the Dominican Congress, including three from the U.S. Dominican community, said Dominican Vice Consul Tamayo Tejada, tan appointee of Medina's ruling party.

The previous elections drew a turnout of 50 percent of those registered. People with Dominican or dual U.S.-Dominican citizenship are eligible. Miguel Melenciano, who oversees the elections in New York for the independent agency conducting them, predicted a turnout as high as 90 percent Sunday.

There are 103,000 registered voters in the city, Long Island and the northern suburbs. Votes were cast at scores of polling places in the metropolitan area, including Freeport, Copiague, Coram and Brentwood.

Political passions have been on display in upper Manhattan's Dominican neighborhoods.

Fausto Reyes, 48, a construction worker, wore a hat last week that bore the name Papa. Reyes said of his preferred candidate: "He is the best answer for my country. On education and jobs, Papa works for the people. The other guys have had years to make it right, but have done nothing for the country."

Medina's party has been in power since Mejia was defeated for re-election in 2004. Critics backing Mejia complain the PLD hasn't done enough to boost education funding and combat high juvenile delinquency. Its defenders credit the ruling party with improving the nation's infrastructure and economy.

"Danilo's [Medina] party has created more jobs for Dominicans at home," said Jose Batista, 57, a retired teacher who is volunteering for the Medina campaign. "The PLD has the best programs to help people to improve the country."

With Newsday reporter Bart Jones

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