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Orlando Sentinel

Parties Stumble On Their Path To Woo Voters

by Maria Padilla

July 11, 2001
Copyright © 2001 Orlando Sentinel. All Rights Reserved.

The state Democratic and Republican parties each are playing a game of Weakest Link.

The Democrats are running to South Florida to shore up support among Cubans, who are predominantly Republican. And the Republicans are trying to strengthen ties with Central Florida's Puerto Rican community, which tends to vote Democratic.

Each party needs a chunk of these voters to make a go of it in Florida, a hotly contested political battleground. But each Hispanic group dominates a different part of the state.

Cubans long have been a stronghold in Miami-Dade, while Puerto Ricans are the main Hispanic group in this region, where the swing vote is very pronounced. This being Democrat-leaning Central Florida, let's focus on the Republicans. The party can shorten its learning curve if it stops treating every Hispanic as if he or she were Cuban.

Hispanics have much in common, but each group has different concerns. To ignore that is tantamount to talking over the heads of Puerto Ricans.

It already has happened. During last fall's presidential election, the state GOP held a Hispanic rally in Orlando and then proceeded to ignore the large Puerto Rican contingent in the audience.

It happened most recently in April, when the state GOP kicked off an outreach to Hispanics in Orlando that drew about 150 people, and then proceeded to ignore Puerto Rican issues.

Not once did the GOP's VIPs address the subject of Vieques, which is foremost on the minds of most Puerto Ricans. To draw a parallel, it's unlikely that state GOP Chairman Al Cardenas would speak to a Miami group and not mention Fidel Castro.

In addition, Puerto Rico Sen. Edison Misla Aldarrondo, who spoke at the meeting, addressed the audience in barely understandable English, while everyone else spoke Spanish. Why did he do that? Ironically, Aldarrondo's talk also ignored Puerto Ricans, focusing on vouchers, faith-based initiatives and tax reductions.

At the end of the hour-long meeting, members of the audience remained in their seats, as if they were expecting something more. Finally, a coordinator said, "That's it. The meeting is over."

The state GOP thinks there's no reason it can't capture 50 percent to 75 percent of the nation's Hispanic vote. Not if it continues on this route. Party leaders believe that personal contact can overcome local resistance, and that is true. But only if they acknowledge who you are and address your concerns. Perhaps what is needed is a political equivalent of a locator map.

Since the GOP reception, the state party has hired an outreach coordinator for Central Florida. Word is that he's good. If the GOP can get that right, it can get other things right. After all, Puerto Ricans from the island who lean toward statehood have a stronger connection with Republicans than do Puerto Ricans born in the states.

Meanwhile, as Democrats mend fences with Cubans, as they should, the party also runs the risk of taking Puerto Ricans for granted. Puerto Ricans are aware of how Democrats ignore black voters, the party's most loyal constituents. They are worried about receiving the same treatment.

Fortunately, there's a solution: Become an Independent or nonaffiliated voter. Guaranteed, both political parties will be begging for your vote.

That's how all Hispanics can become a strong political link.

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