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Orlando Sentinel

Parties Court Hispanic Vote

by Mark Silva

July 1, 2001
Copyright © 2001 Orlando Sentinel. All Rights Reserved.

Party animal.

Diego Melendez left Puerto Rico seven years ago and settled in Kissimmee to secure better medical care for an ailing grandchild. Both his daughter and son found work in Orlando.

The whole family votes Democratic.

"We vote all the time," said Melendez, 73, a retiree and Army veteran of the Korean War. "The Republicans keep the poor people and the middle class down. . . . The tendency of the Republicans is to help the rich people."

The face of Florida's Hispanic community -- along with its political identity -- is changing just as Democratic activists are planning a campaign to register a quarter-million new voters statewide by the next election. Although they will accept any voters, they are hungry for devout Democrats such as Melendez.

"My feeling is, let the chips fall where they may," said Francisco Sanchez, Tampa-based founder of a new nonprofit organization, Hispanics United. "I am not expecting to register only Democrats, but the numbers seem to suggest that there will be more Democratic registration than Republican."

The numbers are compelling for Democrats targeting an estimated 400,000 to 600,000 Hispanics in Florida who may be eligible -- but not registered -- to vote.

Long dominated by Cuban-Americans fiercely loyal to the GOP, Florida's population of Hispanics has grown dramatically more diverse in the past decade.

The state's population of Puerto Ricans and Mexican-Americans doubled in the past 10 years -- with even greater gains for Puerto Ricans in Central Florida. The two combined now outnumber Cuban-Americans in Florida, according to the latest census, and their political allegiance is solidly Democratic.

The 2000 presidential election demonstrated this. Orange County voted Democratic for the first time since the era of Franklin Roosevelt -- a vote for Al Gore at least partly attributable to the county's burgeoning Puerto Rican community.

"That group of voters, this emerging non-Cuban vote that is centered in Orlando and Tampa and to a certain extent in Southeast Florida, is becoming one of the most important political battlegrounds in Florida," said Sergio Bendixen, a seasoned Miami-area pollster and veteran of many political campaigns.

Al Cardenas, Havana-born chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, calls this "one of the most fascinating political stories in the foreseeable future of the state -- which party wins the support of this growing non-Cuban Hispanic vote."

A shift in demographics

This is the story by the numbers, from the 2000 census and Bendixen's surveys:

  • Hispanics have overtaken blacks as the largest ethnic minority in Florida. The census counted 2.7 million Hispanics, 16.8 percent of the state's population. Blacks accounted for 14.6 percent of all Floridians.
  • Florida's Hispanic population grew by 70 percent from 1990 to 2000. In Orange County alone, the population of 168,361 Hispanics represents a 159 percent gain.
  • The state's Puerto Rican population made a 95 percent gain in one decade, growing to 482,027, while the Mexican-American population grew by 125 percent, to 363,925. Combined, these two groups are slightly larger than the Cuban-American population of 833,120, which grew by just 24 percent.
  • At the polls, the Cuban-American vote accounted for 86 percent of the Hispanic vote in Florida's 1992 presidential election, when the state favored President Bush. By 1996, when Florida voted for President Clinton, the Cuban share of the Hispanic vote had slipped to 78 percent -- and Clinton was claiming more than one-third of a Cuban voting bloc that traditionally had voted solidly Republican.
  • In last year's election, according to Bendixen, the Cuban vote accounted for 65 percent of Florida's Hispanic vote. With Cuban-Americans returning en masse to the GOP after the Clinton administration's eviction of young refugee Elian Gonzalez, the Republican and Democratic candidates for president were held to a virtual tie.
  • By the next presidential election in 2004, Florida's Hispanic vote could be divided 50-50 between Cuban-Americans and others -- new arrivals from Puerto Rico, Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, and other Central and South American nations.

Numbers only part of story

If there is one flaw in these predictions, Cardenas suggested, it is American citizenship. With the exception of Puerto Ricans, who are already empowered to vote, many of the newest arrivals to Florida are not yet citizens and cannot vote. This may overstate the potential pool of new voters among Florida's non-Cuban Hispanics.

Nevertheless, Cardenas said, the GOP is attuned to the trend -- although it lacks, for now, any concerted voter-registration drive targeting this community.

Gov. Jeb Bush has stationed a Central Florida field director in Orlando who is Puerto Rican, Cardenas noted, and so has the state party. In addition to touting the political records of Bush in Tallahassee and his brother in Washington, the GOP can court this traditionally Democratic bloc of voters through the makeup of Florida's first family, with the governor married to Mexico-born Columba Bush.

Parties give their pitches

"They have a cultural tradition of Democratic leanings," Cardenas said. But "we've got political leaders that the community can identify with -- Bush, his wife and kids -- and we've got more resources to dedicate to the battle It's a battle of resources and leaders against the tradition of culture and will be played out along those lines."

While Democratic leaders struggle to rebuild bridges to an alienated Cuban community largely living in South Florida, Cuban-Americans have become a minority among Florida's Hispanic voters. Democrats are counting on the fast-growing majority of Hispanic voters, concentrated among 15 counties spanning from Tampa Bay to Central and South Florida, especially those not yet registered to vote.

For years, Bendixen said, Republicans viewed the Hispanic vote in Florida the way Democrats view the black vote today: "It was taken for granted."

No longer. In President Bush's decision to halt Navy bombing on the island of Vieques by 2003, some see a Republican strategy to court a solidly Democratic Puerto Rican community -- not only in Florida but nationwide. Some Democratic activists say the Republican Party is outgunning them.

"There is a totally new way of looking at the political equation here in Florida, and any political organization that doesn't do something about it will lose out in the end," said Jesse Trevino, a Hollywood-based, Mexican-American consultant who has provided the underlying research for the Hispanics United voter-registration drive.

GOP already mobilized

"The other party is moving aggressively," said Trevino, pointing to President Bush's stance on Vieques. "They are going so far as to have members of the Cabinet travel in Central America to bring back images for Hispanic groups here.

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez -- a former Orange County chairman and an immigrant from Cuba as a boy -- recently toured El Salvador for the administration. He also wielded a hammer at President Bush's side at a Habitat for Humanity house-raising in a poor, partly Hispanic neighborhood of Tampa.

Trevino, a speechwriter for former Florida Gov. Buddy MacKay when he served as an envoy to Latin America for Clinton, has circulated a memo to the Florida Democratic Party.

By Election Day 2002, he wrote, Florida's Hispanic population likely will surpass 3 million. The "pool" of potential Hispanic voters next year will stand at 1.5 million, about one quarter of the voters in a statewide election. But about 400,000 to 600,000 of those eligible are not yet registered to vote.

Democrats are fired up

Sanchez, who has settled in Tampa to spearhead voter registration, is a lawyer and Harvard-schooled specialist in Latin America. He served in former Gov. Bob Graham's administration and was assistant U.S. Secretary of Transportation for aviation and international affairs at the end of the Clinton administration.

"Most political folks have thought of the Hispanic voting population in Florida as a Republican voting bloc," Sanchez said. "It is a shifting, changing population."

As he raises money and recruits staff for Hispanics United, he will look toward labor unions, churches and other social organizations to help recruit potential new voters. He also is relying on computer software enabling his organization, once it finds financial backing, to make direct-mail appeals to potential voters.

"There is some significant work to be done," Sanchez said, "and that is what I am going to focus my efforts on."

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