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Orlando Sentinel

Politically Speaking, Where Is The Hispanic Community?

By Myriam Marquez

November 27, 2001
Copyright © 2001
Orlando Sentinel. All Rights Reserved.

The Miami backlash and the Puerto Rico blues have combined into some kind of bad karma. From Deltona to Kissimmee, Hispanics have lost political ground this year.

In Orlando's black and white communities, many look at Miami and fear brash ethnic politics and upheavals are on the way here. So the backlash against Central Florida Hispanics keeps growing, with the redistricting lockout a prime example.

Many in the Puerto Rican community, for their part, will tell you they're not interested. They've left behind their political passions on the island, where an 85 percent voter turnout is not uncommon. They've left behind the divisive racial politics of New York, where Hispanic voters this month were so turned off by black/Hispanic tensions that huge numbers of Latino Democrats bolted to the GOP's candidate.

So when local redistricting came up in Central Florida this year, what did Hispanics do? A few got involved, but it was nothing like the kind of fuss the African-American community created this summer in an effort to protect Corrine Brown's congressional district.

And when mayoral elections came up this month in Deltona, a city that's one-fifth Hispanic, what did voters there do when they had a chance to elect Joe Perez, a Puerto Rican with six years experience on the council? They stayed away.

"Hispanics didn't go out and vote," Perez told Democrats in Orlando on a recent Saturday. "They told me, 'Jose, we're behind you. We're there for you.' But when the time came, where were they?"

Perez, who left the Republican Party earlier this year, was among a group of several dozen prominent Hispanics who met recently at Brisas del Caribe restaurant in east Orlando to hear the Democratic National Committee's pitch to energize the Latino vote.

Andres Gonzalez, the DNC's Latino Affairs point man, acknowledged the obvious: Central Florida will be at the center of presidential elections to come. "We realize that either party, to be dominant in the future, must have the Latino vote," he said.

Juan Jose Rosario, a Puerto Rican who came to hear Gonzalez, hit a raw political nerve when he asked: "What are the Democrats doing for us?"

His question prompted Orange County Democratic Party Vice President Evelyn Rivera to challenge the audience. "If nobody wants to work -- to run for precinct leaders, to volunteer in campaigns -- then we can't complain," she said.

Round and round we go.

The Democratic Party locally hasn't done enough over the years to gain credibility with Hispanic voters, which is probably why so few Hispanics feel connected to it. In Osceola County, Dalis Guevara and Armando Ramirez, among others, fight for fair representation for Hispanics. In Orange County, Rivera's very active on education issues. Belinda Ortiz is an up-and-comer with economic-development credentials who lost to an out-of-touch incumbent in Orlando's District 2 last year. Norberto Katz and James Auffant, both lawyers, have a long list of community service. Others come and go.

The Florida Republican Party, meanwhile, aggressively courts Hispanics to run for local offices, and will put good money behind those candidates.

By contrast, when Democrat Tony Suarez ran for a state House seat in a majority Republican district in a special election in 1999, the state Democratic leadership resisted spending a penny until the very end. Suarez won that election in spite of the party.

And so we've come to this: The area's highest ranking Hispanic elected official is Orange County Commissioner Mary Johnson, but the Democrat doesn't stick her neck out for anyone. At the DNC meeting, she told the crowd that they must unite to elect Hispanics. Yet her policy is not to endorse candidates for local offices -- no matter how qualified they are or how hard they've worked for her own campaigns. So much for unity or loyalty.

This year, Suarez and community activists Marytza Sanz, Carlos Guzman, Edwin Nieves and others formed Latino Leadership in an effort to get Hispanics politically informed. So far, the organization has held several well-attended forums, and it's shaking things up. The test will be a year from now when voters will pick the governor and other key officials. Will Hispanics make a difference?

Call it a backlash, the blues or bad karma. Whatever may ail the Hispanic community this year is no excuse to stay put and not vote in 2002.

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