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Orlando Sentinel

Martinez's Move Gets A Big Ho-Hum

by Maria Padilla

December 27, 2000
Copyright © 2000 Orlando Sentinel. All Rights Reserved.

Apart from Orlando’s small Cuban enclave -- which rightfully is proud of a son who has done well -- there isn’t a lot of buzz among Hispanics in general about Mel Martínez’s appointment as secretary of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Getting tapped by President-elect Bush for a Cabinet position didn’t merit a cover story in one Spanish-language newspaper. The headline inside stated, "Martínez gets a new job."

On Spanish-language radio, a caller asked a program host, "Do you think he’ll remember us in Washington?"

The host replied, "He didn’t remember us here. Why would he remember us in Washington?"

Not exactly fireworks on the Fourth of July.

This could be a case of delayed reaction. After all, the news came in the middle of the busy holiday period when most people are distracted.

It’s also apparent that many Hispanics simply don’t care. Rightly or wrongly, Central Florida’s Hispanic community -- which is mostly Puerto Rican -- believes that Orange County Chairman Martínez didn’t stand by them.

Much of this can be attributed to old tensions between Puerto Ricans and Cubans. Some Cubans place themselves at the top of the pecking order among Hispanics.

Naturally, Puerto Ricans chafe.

A few Puerto Ricans have complained that Martínez had become a no-show at many Hispanic events, a big no-no.

In the Hispanic community, appearances count for a lot.

At a recent Orlando health conference about the needs of Hispanic elders, many in attendance were livid, saying they get the "run-around" from county health services. For a personable and affable man -- one whom the Hispanic community wanted to embrace -- Martínez didn’t cultivate the grass roots.

It has been said in jest that Martínez could use the grass-roots touch of Anthony Suárez, the first Central Florida Hispanic elected to the state Legislature.

Suárez, who didn’t run for re-election and then lost his campaign for a circuit judge post, could have benefited from Martínez’s network of establishment money and ties.

No politician is a perfect combination of sophistication and common touch. However, Hispanic officials get hit with a few extra whammies.

Hispanics cannot get elected on the strength of the Central Florida Hispanic vote. However, once in office, the Hispanic community not only will place great demands on them, but will require that they speak in a clear voice about Hispanics.

It was up to Martínez to make the case. If he did, many Hispanics didn’t hear it. As a result, if Martínez had stayed, he might have faced a tough re-election.

In 1998, Martínez won in a 60 percent landslide that attracted white, black and Hispanic -- Republican and Democrat -- voters. Even Martínez was surprised.

Hispanics made up 6.6 percent of all voters then. In this year’s election, the number of Hispanic voters soared 50 percent, thanks to voter registration campaigns.

Many of the new voters are Puerto Rican Democrats who may not be crazy about voting for Republican Martínez -- at least, judging by the complaints.

The complaints underscore a main theme: Martínez hasn’t found his public voice. With two years in office, Martínez was just beginning to discover his true self. Now Martínez is off to Washington. His will be the much harder task of honing his voice amid the din of the Beltway.

Maria Padilla can be reached at 407-420-5162 or at

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