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Orlando Sentinel

Orlando's Hispanics Won't Be Taken For Granted Again

By Myriam Marquez

August 5, 2001
Copyright © 2001 Orlando Sentinel. All Rights Reserved.

A collective gasp sucked the air out of the room just as one Democrat called President George W. Bush an "impostor who stole the election."

There were knowing glances among Democrats, mild amusement by independents and piqued Republican looks.

Until then, it had been all in la familia at the recent Political Salsa forum in Orlando. Democrats and Republicans on the panel pitched the virtues of their respective parties, and independent-minded types talked strategy and strength in numbers to create a powerful Hispanic voting bloc.

Central Florida, home to one in five unaffiliated voters and a growing Puerto Rican presence, stands at ground zero in the Democrats' fight to take back the White House.

But first, there's the Governor's Mansion.

Gov. Jeb Bush must contend with folks such as that blunt Puerto Rican Democrat who's still angry that Florida's botched-up elections resulted in Jeb's big brother setting up corporate shop in the White House.

Democrats, for their part, must face the reality that their favorite daughter, Janet Reno, carries way too much political baggage to ever win the governorship here. Right now, only 39 percent of Floridians would vote for her, and Jeb Bush would be re-elected hands down. The same Mason-Dixon poll suggests Bush might be vulnerable against two moderates -- former U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Pete Peterson of North Florida or state Rep. Jim Davis of Tampa.

Former Gov. Lawton Chiles knew how to charm Old Florida with moderation, but his lieutenant governor, Buddy MacKay, never was able to shake the liberal label.

Bush played up "compassionate conservatism" and whooped MacKay in 1998 with strong support from independents and a significant number of cross-over Democrats, including many Hispanics.

Florida's Democratic leadership may figure that Puerto Ricans -- Central Florida's Hispanic majority -- are easy pickings. That would be a miscalculation. Puerto Ricans who grew up in New York tend to vote Democratic, but about 20 percent of Central Florida's Hispanic voters do not identify with either party, and many of those arriving from the island are Republican.

Consider, too, that nationwide, most Latinos -- 59 percent of them -- give the president solid approval ratings (Gallup Poll), even though little more than a third voted for W.

Among the most pressing issues for Hispanics nationwide: discrimination in housing and on the job, the need for safe schools with solid teachers (not paraprofessional nannies), and the availability of jobs that pay a livable wage. Those findings, in a survey commissioned by the Republican National Committee of 1,000 Hispanics nationwide, might pose some challenges for Florida's Bush.

The governor missed an opportunity in Osceola County when Commissioner Bob Guevara, a Democrat, died last year and Bush named a white male to the post. The county, which is a third Hispanic, now has no Hispanic in any elected office to speak out on issues that disproportionately concern us -- such as discrimination. And we thought Jeb spoke our language.

On education, it's hardly comforting that Hispanic students have the highest dropout rate in Orange County three years into Bush's education reforms.

And a sales-tax holiday is nice, but if you don't have the money to buy your kid school clothes, big nada. Besides, Bush's three-year, billion-dollar-plus tax break went mostly to wealthy stock investors, corporations and large property owners. Meanwhile, pressing needs for schools, roads and social services keep mounting as growth soars -- a population boom fueled largely by Latinos.

The inequity in priorities seems evident -- even to many of those who voted for Bush the first time. With their hopes deflated, they will no longer be taken for granted.

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