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Orlando Sentinel

A Tale Of Stubborn Donkeys And The Puerto Rican Vote

By Myriam Marquez

July 23, 2001
Copyright © 2001 Orlando Sentinel. All Rights Reserved.

Oh, the political intrigue. The gossip. The name-calling.

Democrats now make up the majority of registered voters in Central Florida's largest county, yet some Democrats entrenched in the local party's minutiae fear a mutiny. They worry that Hispanic Democrats won't be loyal to their party if a Republican Hispanic runs for office in a partisan race.

That's what I'm hearing on the street. Not just from Republicans but from many Democrats, too. It goes like this:

Puerto Ricans, who tend to vote Democratic, will cut a deal with Orlando's well-connected Cuban-Americans, who tend to vote Republican and have lived here for decades.

Throw the explosive issue of race into this boiling pot of political poppycock, and it starts to smell worse than a fish kill in the Florida heat.

What we have here is a struggle not for the heart and soul of the Democratic Party, which surely could use a shake up at the state and local levels. No, what we have here is the so-called party of inclusion, the party that's supposed to stick up for the "little people" getting all hot and huffy about the possibility that any of its folks would dare rise up and do something about their lot that's not dictated by the party's out-of-touch leadership.

Donkeys sure can be stubborn.

Some middle-of-the-road Democrats realized this during the 1980s when they pushed for non-partisan elections for the Orange County Commission. Voter-registration numbers showed Republicans gaining, and Democratic moderates like Linda Chapin reached out to Republicans to get elected.

I've never supported non-partisan elections because I believe there are such things as Democratic potholes and Republican ones. We saw some of that difference in priorities when Mel Martinez, a Republican and a Cuban, won the non-partisan chairman's seat. He won thanks to a broad coalition that included support from Democrats and minorities, yet he pressed for tax cuts that disproportionately helped the biggest property owners -- something Chapin rightly refused to do in a cash-strapped county.

But non-partisan elections did help in some ways, we have to admit. Martinez pumped up money for youth programs and sought to better manage growth to alleviate overcrowded schools. He realized the only way he could govern responsibly in a large, diverse and growing county was to listen to those who helped elect him.

When he ran, Martinez had to overcome a big barrier with the black community, too. The 1980 Miami riots had ramifications way beyond South Florida. The violence had as much to do with blacks' frustration with police brutality of an innocent black man as it did with the Mariel boatlift, which brought 125,000 Cubans in a matter of months to Florida's shores. I know. I lived through it.

No doubt poor blacks were handed a raw deal as they tried to get work in a saturated job market. But that wasn't the intent of Cubans, who simply were trying to get to freedom .

And, yes, there are racist Cubans. There are racist whites and, gee, racist blacks, too.

Puerto Ricans, for their part, share their own checkered political history with black leaders. Many Puerto Ricans whose families fled poverty on the island grew up in New York's struggling black neighborhoods. Both groups worked to build coalitions, but Puerto Ricans discovered by the late 1980s that African-American leaders weren't too keen on sharing.

As Orlando grows ever more diverse, African-Americans and Hispanics should be working together to find common ground. Yet mistrust seems to be keeping them apart just as redistricting gets under way.

Meanwhile, the state party takes minorities for granted. In the 1990s, Florida's predominantly white Democratic leadership virtually ignored Hispanics and the state's growing Puerto Rican community. It was a wake-up call for Democrats when Jeb Bush ran for governor by aggressively courting blacks and Hispanics beyond the already supportive Cuban Republicans.

Only in 1998 did a Hispanic -- Osceola County Commissioner Bob Guevara, a Puerto Rican -- get tapped for the state party's No. 2 spot, sharing the post with U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek, an African-American. Guevara's unexpected death last year left a huge void.

Instead of filling that void, the Democratic Party's Old Guard puts up roadblocks of intrigue and distrust as if preparing for an implosion. No wonder some Hispanics are ready to bolt.

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