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El Sentinel

Candidates In No Rush To Woo Hispanics

By David Damron

'The Hispanic community is becoming a political force.'

-- Luis Pastrana, Office of the Government of Puerto Rico

March 9, 2002, 2002
Copyright © 2002
El Sentinel. All Rights Reserved.

The Office of the Government of Puerto Rico is a pivot point for political concerns and community outreach to one of the fastest-growing segments of Central Florida's burgeoning Hispanic population.

Yet with major City Council elections just ahead on March 12, only one City Council candidate, Tom Levine, has knocked at this door so far.

"Either they think they know us or they choose to ignore the fact that the Hispanic community is becoming a political force," said Luis Pastrana, who heads the office.

As City Council candidates school themselves on Orlando issues and listen to voters, it's clear Central Florida's Hispanic community is not being treated like a top political player, most community leaders and activists say.

Pastrana says major issues -- such as a lack of community centers in Hispanic neighborhoods and low representation on city and county advisory boards -- will likely not make it on to politician's radar screens.

Others say that the city has made some strides. Mayor Glenda Hood boosted bilingual city documents and information on-line, and the city does aid small Hispanic businesses. But a general political neglect still exists, most say.

"I don't know why they're not reaching out," said Marytza Sanz, president of Latino Leadership, a Hispanic advocacy group. "It's very disappointing."

Recent U.S. Census data show that the Hispanic population in Central Florida numbers roughly 323,000 people, with more than 33,000 in Orlando alone.

And this steadily-growing presence is impacting the political makeup of the community.

Orange County, long a Republican stronghold, now has more registered Democrats than Republicans. The recent shift is largely due to the Hispanic influx. Yet, although one of five Central Floridians is Hispanic, none hold even one of the region's 18 state House, seven state Senate or five congressional seats.

In Orlando, a group of vocal activists recently failed to convince city leaders to redraw new political boundaries to allow for more Hispanic influence. Perhaps some of the inattention can be explained away because this election involves three City Council district seats with two of the lowest concentration of Hispanics.

But the winners of these races will make decisions for the whole community, critics say. And District 1, now held by incumbent Don Ammerman, holds the second largest group of Hispanics in the city, at roughly 8,000.

Ammerman, who faces Levine and Diamond at the polls, believes "the Hispanic community is not neglected at all." Diamond countered that Hispanic voters feel "disenfranchised," and he did not support the redistricting plan crafted by city leaders.

Now, City Council candidates are nearing the homestretch of the March 12 elections.

Sanz predicts this election will follow past patterns where few newspaper, radio or TV political ads will be aimed at Hispanics until the last minute, if at all. Few candidates will attend political or community forums in Hispanic neighborhoods until the last minute.

"It looks like you're going to watch them come in and shake the maracas at the last minute," Sanz said. "It's very sad."

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