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South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Hispanics Watching New State Districts

By Jennifer Peltz and Brittany Wallman

January 13, 2002
Copyright © 2002
South Florida Sun-Sentinel. All Rights Reserved.

Their numbers have grown steadily in South Florida throughout the years, but now the challenge for Hispanics is to get election districts that will put more of them in office.

New Census figures show that though 16.7 percent of Broward County's population is Hispanic, none of its 18 state senators and representatives is Hispanic.

In Palm Beach County, which has one Hispanic legislator out of 16, 12.4 percent of the population is Hispanic.

"I see African-American legislators before me, but I see no Hispanics," Georgette Sosa Douglass, of Fort Lauderdale's Hispanic Republican Alliance, told legislators at a redistricting forum earlier this year.

That may be difficult to change. With the exception of Cubans in Miami-Dade County, many South Florida Hispanics say they have a long way to go to become a formidable political force.

Every 10 years, with the new census figures, lines for elective office at all levels are redrawn to make the districts as equal in population as possible. It's also an opportunity to create districts that could boost minorities into office.

Yet Hispanics are guarded about their chances for drastic change as legislators redraw state legislative and congressional districts in 2002, admitting they lack the unity and the organization to bring about immediate change. Rather, they see it as evolution.

The strongest force is in Miami-Dade. It has the largest Hispanic population -- 57.3 percent, or 1.29 million people. Thirteen of its 27 state legislators are Hispanic, all Cuban-Americans.

Statewide, Hispanics are 16.8 percent of the population.

"You have to admire the way Cubans got to where they are," said Rhadames Peguero, president of the League of Latin American Voters in Miami. "They worked hard for this. They understand the system."

Hispanics have won seats elsewhere. Palm Beach County has a Hispanic state legislator, Democratic Rep. Susan Bucher. Broward County has had several Cuban-Americans in local elective office, including former sheriff Nick Navarro, Weston City Commissioner Barbara Herrera-Hill, and Broward County Commissioner Diana Wasserman-Rubin.

But local Hispanics want more than an occasional win. They want high voter registration, high voter turnout. They want to strike fear in candidates, forcing them to cater to Hispanic issues lest they lose the Hispanic vote.

Broward Hispanic groups only recently resolved to work together, forming the Broward Hispanic Leadership Roundtable.

"It's no secret we've had our problems coming together," said Alex Arreaza, president of the Broward Hispanic Bar. "We're tired of everyone saying we're not united, that we can't get it together. We can."

For now, local leaders in Palm Beach County acknowledge that, like in Broward, a Hispanic-dominated statehouse or Congressional district is unlikely -- by political calculus, if not raw numbers.

Palm Beach County's Hispanic population totals about 141,000. A state House district totals about 133,000, and a state Senate district about 400,000. But also similar to Broward, the Hispanic community is fairly dispersed throughout the county -- and, leaders say, somewhat disconnected from politics.

Legally, map-drawers cannot pack districts with people of a particular race or ethnicity. The maps must be approved by the state Legislature, the state Supreme Court and the U.S. Justice Department.

The fact remains that while Hispanics are from many backgrounds and many have a tradition of voting Democrat, Republicans are in charge of redistricting.

To avoid the chances of creating a district with a strong Democratic registration for instance, legislative Republicans could take southwest Broward County -- the area most rich with Hispanics -- and add a wedge of northern Miami-Dade County, where Republican-voting Cuban-Americans are plentiful.

"That's what they want," said Linda Albert, president of the Latin American Democratic Club. "We don't have very many Republicans in Broward County. The only way for them to get elected is to unite us with Hialeah."

Henry Saldaña, president of Palm Beach County's year-and-one-half old Latino Leadership Institute, is pressing state legislators to protect the seat of Bucher, a Lantana Democrat of Mexican descent.

She is the only Palm Beach County Hispanic in state office and represents the county's most heavily Hispanic statehouse or congressional district.

"Right now, it's pretty much a coincidence" that her ethnicity reflects that of more than a quarter of her constituents, Bucher said. "But we'd like to make sure that 10 years from now, it's on purpose."

The Institute, together with local Haitian and Jewish leaders, mapped its own proposed districts for school board and West Palm Beach City Commission districts. Although the city commission did not adopt the group's exact suggestion exactly, it did end up with a Hispanic-majority district on the city's south end.

Another group of Hispanics has formed a political action committee, HISPAC, to work on voter registration and, potentially, recruit and back Hispanic candidates.

"Silence is not golden in politics," explains HISPAC Chairman Manuel Farach. "If you're not standing up and being counted, then people are going to think that you don't care, or your issues are not important."

Broward's largest Hispanic groups are Puerto Ricans, who are 20.2 percent of the Hispanic population, and Cubans, with 18.7 percent. Other large Hispanic immigrant groups include Argentinians, Colombians and Peruvians, particularly in south Broward.

Their greatest concentrations are in Weston, which is 30.2 percent Hispanic, according to the Census; Pembroke Pines, at 28.2 percent; and Miramar, at 29.4 percent. The Census also found strong concentrations of Hispanics in Hollywood and Hallandale.

Alvaro F. Fernandez, Florida director of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, said all Hispanics are lumped together, even though they have unique cultures and concerns.

Fernandez said the reason Hispanics have gained congressional representation in Miami-Dade County and not other counties is because the Hispanic community had the population necessary in Miami-Dade. That could change with the latest redistricting effort. Miami-Dade looks like it will gain another Hispanic-majority congressional district, one that could include parts of Broward.

"There has been tremendous growth in Southwest Broward County," he said. "It'll be interesting to see how it all plays out."

Yet with redistricting looming, concerned Hispanics say they are not doing much more than talking about it. Many showed up at redistricting hearings in the fall. The idea is new to many Hispanic groups, who haven't been heavily involved in elections and politics -- much less redistricting -- in the past.

"Is it an organized, overarching effort? I don't believe we're pursuing it in that fashion," said Carlos Reyes, a Republican activist and chairman of the South Broward Hospital District. "But it's still evolving. As you start seeing some of [the Legislature's] preliminary maps, I think we'll see some leadership from the Hispanic organizations."

Jose "Pepe" Lopez, a Cuban active for many years in Broward, said Hispanics don't want to file lawsuits or be too aggressive about redistricting. In the end, he said, a good candidate can win in the existing system.

"Do your work, you'll get elected," said Lopez. "Trying to create a Hispanic district that cannot be created will probably create more bad blood than anything else."

And there is other work to do in all three counties: As important as the percentage of Hispanics in a district, said Lopez and others, is the percentage of those who vote. Among Hispanics, that can be low.

"Hispanics have not shown a tradition of voting yet in Broward County. If they will, certainly those who wish to get elected would have to pay attention," said Dan Lewis, a Fort Lauderdale political consultant. "If I were counseling a person and they wanted to get the Hispanic vote, I'd say, `That's good, can you turn them out?' And that's going to be the issue."

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