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Orlando Sentinel

Hispanic Church Pews Wide Open For GOP

By Myriam Marquez

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

It was a lemonade crowd -- good folks who work hard, skip the booze and live to praise the Lord. The kind of grass-roots believers the Republican Party courts with a passion.

But this lemonade crowd had a twist. Virtually everyone who belongs to the group spoke Spanish. And if they didn't, they had special earphones that translated what was being said at the event into English.

Language, a barrier to political empowerment?

It was evident Thursday night at the Hispanic Christian Church Association of Central Florida's awards gala that Republican politicians don't think so.

It's starting to look a lot like an election's on the way.

Gov. Jeb Bush was the featured speaker but had to cancel at the last minute because the Legislature was wrapping up in Tallahassee. Our techno-gov knows the GOP can't miss an opportunity to reach out to Hispanic ministers as he heads into a re-election campaign, though. It's particularly important after two bruising special sessions in which the Legislature had to cut more than $1 billion from the state budget, affecting schools and social services during tough economic times.

Brother Jeb delivered remarks by videotape, lauding the Christian group's efforts to help fill the void that a strapped state government now can't. He praised them for helping feed the poor, finding jobs for the unemployed and nurturing their flocks' souls. Speaking entirely in Spanish, Bush asked for their prayers to guide public officials to do right. The ministers are no stranger to this governor. He has met with them before, and so has his brother, President Bush.

The comfort level was evident when Orange County Sheriff Kevin Beary gave several bear hugs to ministers as he walked up to the podium to receive an award for encouraging Hispanic chaplains at the jail. He praised their work.

U.S. Rep. Ric Keller, who also received an award, was in Washington. He, too, sent a videotaped message. Keller has hired a bilingual staffer, Joe Mantilla, who helps Hispanic constituents, particularly with immigration issues. By contrast, former GOP Rep. Bill McCollum helped pass laws that hurt elderly and disabled immigrants and lost votes for Republicans in 1996.

Orlando Mayor Glenda Hood sent a proclamation, and Orange County Chairman Rich Crotty, who's running for the job next year, sent a taped Feliz Navidad message. Crotty seems to be singing from the same hymnbook as his predecessor, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez, who first sought out many of those ministers when he ran for chairman in 1998.

Back then, the ministers made up an ad-hoc group representing a variety of Protestant churches, mostly smaller ones. Today, the association has 200 member churches in six counties working together on numerous projects -- a food bank that feeds 2,000 families monthly, a jobs program that works with the Greater Orlando Chamber of Commerce and the state to train people for work, tutoring for schoolchildren, the jail ministry. These are the kinds of good deeds that the president hopes will be replicated nationally with taxpayers' support through his faith-based initiative.

The Rev. Luis Lopez, the association president, said the group's work is geared to spreading the word of God and not pushing the agenda of one political party over another. "What we are emphasizing is civic responsibility," he said. "We encourage people to register to vote, for whatever party they wish. That's between them, God and their conscience."

All of this civic activism bodes well for Central Florida's Hispanics, particularly because so many are church-going, family-values people. The union of church and state in matters of social policy is nothing new. The Democratic Party has a long history of reaching out to black churches, but it seems to have little experience in Central Florida reaching out to Hispanic churches.

One thing about last week's event: The bartenders didn't do well with the lemonade crowd. The GOP sure did.

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