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Political Salsa Pumps Up Hispanics To Get Involved

By Myriam Marquez

July 20, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE MIAMI HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

What do you get when you put three Democrats, three Republicans and three non-affiliated, indendent-minded voters in a big room and invite 200 Hispanics to watch? Political Salsa. It's happening, baby.

There were no bongos or guirospumping up the crowd Tuesday night at Barry University's law school, but the air was charged with anticipation.

Some folks came to the Latino Leadership forum bracing for the worst. Suspicion about the forum organizers' purposes, distrust of the group's goals and political divisions among the panel's participants had people fearing a coup of sorts.

Would one political group trump the other?

Would the questions to each participant be meant to embarrass a particular political philosophy or simply to inform the voters about the differences?

Turned out there was nothing to fear.

The well-attended event, which included Hispanic community leaders as well as several elected officials, was informative, at times humorous, and often telling about the complex relationship between ethnicity and voting trends.

I was invited by the group to join former state Rep. Tony Suarez and Dora Tora, the editor of La Prensa, a Spanish-language weekly, to ask questions of the panelists. Latino Leadership's questions were tough but fair.

Marytza Sanz, who worked last year on the U.S. Census project to encourage Hispanics to be counted, and Suarez hope Latino Leadership can mobilize Hispanic voters to make a difference in Central Florida.

I expected Suarez's Democratic credentials would make Republicans suspicious. But the distrust seemed highest among his own Democratic colleagues. Perhaps that's because Suarez split with his party several times during his one term in the Legislature. On parental notification for minors who want abortion and on Gov. Jeb Bush's One Florida plan, Suarez sided with Republicans.

Those positions actually are more in sync with most Hispanics' thinking.

Not that Latinos are monolithic in their voting patterns.

The percentage of non-affiliated voters keeps growing. The challenge for each party is to get to the issues important to independents, who won't be pigeon-holed as conservative or liberal.

For Puerto Ricans, who tend to vote Democratic, the status question for the island's future remains unresolved, and the U.S. Navy's unwelcome presence in Vieques has stirred up a lot of pent-up frustration.

Most Cubans, by contrast, vote Republican. But in the 1996 presidential election almost half of Miami's Hispanics backed Democrat Bill Clinton because of a Republican-led Congress' anti-immigrant bent. Republican George W. Bush captured nine of 10 Cuban votes last year, though, after the Clinton administration's poor handling of the Elian Gonzalez debacle.

Closer to home, what Hispanics should care about is the abysmal high-school dropout rate among Latino children. Discussion centered on that, too.

The most pressing issue for Hispanics, of course, is representation. Should Latinos vote for Hispanics, regardless of those candidates' positions?

Absolutely not. What should matter is a candidate's qualifications, his or her knowledge of the issues and links with the community.

Several panelists, particularly the non-affiliated ones, such as Victor Alvarado and Raul Ramos, said Hispanics need to find the issues that unite us and focus on candidates who will fight those battles.

Republican Marcos Marchena noted that he doesn't agree with everything on his party's platform, and he has supported Democrats who care about issues important to Hispanics.

Democrat Evelyn Rivera also distanced herself from some positions her party has taken, but said, as several Republicans pointed out, too, that the only way to make changes in a party is to do so from the inside -- not as an unaffiliated voter who can't vote in Florida primaries.

Republican Jimmy Jimenez said his party is not just for the rich. He grew up poor, Jimenez pointed out, but his family's faith and hard work made many things possible. "Both parties need to move to the center," he said.

Yes, they do, because Hispanics in Central Florida don't fall easily into any category -- whether income, lifestyle or political beliefs. What does unite Hispanics is the uneasy feeling that too many people aren't voting, giving elected officials an easy out to ignore us.

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