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Jeb Bush, Speaks Their LanguagePursues Orlando's Hispanics

Jeb Bush, Hispanic Firms: He Speaks Their Language

Myriam Marquez

August 21, 2001
Copyright © 2001 Orlando Sentinel. All Rights Reserved.

Florida's governor was there to campaign for re-election. Lightning and thunder crackled over Central Florida, but not even a storm watch could prevent Gov. Jeb Bush from coming to Orlando Saturday to hobnob with Florida's top Hispanic business people.

His plane had to land in Lakeland, where he and his wife, Columba, and older son, George P., were driven to Orlando for the inaugural gala of the Florida State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

This was Bush's kind of crowd -- pro-business, big on family and bicultural -- and he easily switched from English to Spanish and back again throughout the evening. He joked that most of the women there -- about 300 people attended the event at the Portofino Hotel -- probably came to see son George, the up-and-comer of the Bush clan.

But make no mistake. The sex appeal of George P. aside, the governor was there to campaign for re-election. Having lost the inroads he made with the African-American community in 1998, Bush knows that the Hispanic vote will be ever more critical next year. And the Hispanic vote is diverse, particularly in Central Florida, where Puerto Ricans are the dominant group.

For their part, Democrats in the crowd, including state Rep. Bob Henriquez, a Florida Democratic Party vice chairman, were there to court Hispanic business people, too, and perhaps to keep the governor on his toes. The Tampa legislator told me later that the Legislature's Hispanic caucus needs to do more to rally behind issues that cross party lines. Henriquez's challenge is to get Republican Cuban-American legislators from South Florida to set aside party loyalty and push for policies that can help Florida's 2.7 million Hispanics get ahead.

In Central Florida, health care and education are important issues for a community that's made up of young, working families, many in low-wage jobs. Many can't afford medical insurance and the Hispanic high-school dropout rate is the highest among all other groups in several school districts.

Bush's speech focused on expanding hemispheric trade and increasing the work that minority businesses do for state government. He pointed out that one in eight Florida businesses is owned by Hispanics, according to a 1997 census report.

For Bush, Hispanic businesses have a natural synergy with the Republican Party's philosophy of less government is better.

It's not that simple, of course.

The tension between the needs of young, Hispanic families (for affordable health care, high-quality education) and the business community's demands for lower taxes in an already low-tax state will play out during the campaign.

Bush tried to tackle that tension by tying his education reforms to his administration's efforts to build a stronger business climate for Florida.

"A literate, knowledge-based work force is the home we build for our field of dreams," he said. "The thing that breaks my heart the worst is to go to a high school and see ninth- and 10th-graders that read at fourth- or fifth-grade level."

Social promotion hurts Hispanic students, he said. Ending social promotion "will do the most for our Hispanic students."

No doubt that promoting ill-prepared students, whatever their race or ethnicity, to the next grade rewards mediocrity. But what to do about the frustrated newly arrived Hispanic students who are dropping out of school because they haven't been able to master English and pass the state-required exams to graduate?

Bush has yet to articulate what he would like local school districts to do on that front.

For Raiza Tamayo, the president of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Central Florida, a top concern is getting small businesses to learn how to navigate the Internet, an entry point to a growing global economy. "Business is being made every day on the Internet, we need to be a part of that," she told me.

The new statewide Hispanic chamber, which includes Democrats and Republicans among its officers and its ranks, hopes to capitalize on the community's growing population to build political clout in Tallahassee. "It doesn't matter which party is up there," Tamayo said. "We have to be sure that we have good relationships with the powers that be. It's just smart business."

And smart politics for anyone who wants to be governor.

Jeb Bush Pursues Orlando's Hispanics

By Mark Silva | Sentinel Political Editor

August 24, 2001
Copyright © 2001 Orlando Sentinel. All Rights Reserved.

Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, approaching a hotly contested re-election contest next year, is courting support among unlikely quarters: Central Florida’s fast-growing and largely Democratic-voting Puerto Rican community.

Bush will stage a campaign fund-raiser today among Republican supporters in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where he has drawn financial backing.

Bush, who has assigned a Puerto Rican-born aide to run the Central Florida arm of the Governor’s Office in downtown Orlando, played host there Thursday to Tony Suarez, an Orlando attorney and former Democratic state legislator.

"It’s a growing force politically and economically in Central Florida," Bush said in an interview between meetings.

If his politics aren’t always philosophically aligned, the governor says, he feels a personal affinity based on his own life’s experiences. His wife, Columba, is Mexican.

"I have, I think, a certain affinity to the Hispanic communities of the state," Bush said. "Cultural sensitivity is important."

The Bushes have lived in Venezuela and Miami, and Bush spent part of 1980 in Puerto Rico as field director for his father’s first presidential bid -- victorious in the GOP primary election there. After election in 1988, then-President Bush issued an executive order that Puerto Rico be treated by the executive branch as a state, a move for which pro-statehood activists still are grateful.

Republicans in Puerto Rico hope to raise $150,000 for Bush at a dinner tonight at the Banker’s Club in San Juan’s financial district, Hato Rey.

More important for a governor hoping to become the first Republican re-elected in Florida is wooing a share of a traditionally Democratic voting bloc. In Bush’s 1998 election, campaign manager Karen Unger says, the governor carried 41 of 52 mostly Hispanic precincts in Orange County.

Suarez, a Bronx, N.Y., native of Puerto Rican descent, says Bush’s Central Florida operative is circulating throughout the community in a way the Democratic Party hasn’t matched yet. Waldemar Serrano, a native of Puerto Rico who moved to Orlando in 1983, runs the Governor’s Office in a restored funeral home on West Pine Street.

"He’s working hard. He’s everywhere," Suarez said. "Of course, he represents the governor here, but he also represents his party." The heavily Democratic Hispanic caucus of the New York Legislature is inviting Bush to a conference of Hispanic legislators in Puerto Rico in November.

"I don’t think the Hispanic community is hostile to the Republican Party," Suarez said before his meeting with Bush. "We’re waiting for a move."

President Bush already has made that move, Suarez says -- the new president is examining amnesty for Mexicans living illegally in the United States, and ordering an eventual end to Navy bombing practice on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques.

The governor can add his voice to the Vieques debate, Suarez says, but ultimately it will be issues of more immediate concern to the Puerto Rican community that make Bush’s case here: "Health care and education are the two big issues."

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