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Orlando Sentinel

Hispanics Launch Protest

By Kelly Brewington

April 1, 2002
Copyright © 2002
Orlando Sentinel. All Rights Reserved.

Hispanic Democrats riled over the redrawing of a Central Florida congressional district have formed the region's first branch of the statewide Democratic Hispanic Caucus.

Last week, more than 40 people packed the inaugural meeting of the Orange County political group. Members plan to launch a letter-writing campaign against the state Legislature's redrawing of Rep. Ric Keller's district that reduces Hispanic voters from 23 percent to 18 percent.

The protest and the new group are signs of a Hispanic community that is not just concerned about losing clout but is making waves to do something about it, said Ayme Rodriguez Smith, one of the caucus organizers.

"We have a very active minority of community leaders who are involved and educated and understand what's going on," she said. "What we lack is something that is consistent and will bring people together."

Under the plan, Keller's mainly Orange County district would stretch into Lake and Marion counties, giving it a more solidly Republican base.

The plan still faces judicial review.

Those who attended the caucus meeting last week pledged their support for Keller's campaign opponent this year, former Orlando Police Officer Eddie Diaz, a Democrat who is Central Florida's first Hispanic candidate for Congress.

Beaming from ear to ear, Rodriguez Smith waved a blue cardboard flier that read "Viva el Partido Democrata!" ( "Long Live the Democratic Party!") at the sight of Diaz.

"Why when we increase in population do we diminish in representation?" she said. "We need to mobilize our community now."

Keller, R-Orlando, doesn't think the redistricting issue will affect the congressman's standing in the Hispanic community, a spokesman said.

"We understand that not everybody is going to be happy with the way the lines are drawn during redistricting," said Keller spokesman Bryan Malenius.

"But Ric Keller has been aggressively engaged in the Hispanic community since the beginning," Malenius said. "He has been hosting a Hispanic town-hall meeting and been on Hispanic radio and TV. I think the leaders in the Hispanic community recognize that."

Central Florida's Hispanic population grew by 152 percent in the 1990s, according to the U.S. census. Orange County is almost 20 percent Hispanic and Osceola County is nearly a third Hispanic.

The Puerto Rican and Hispanic Coalition for Fair Representation, another political group to which Rodriguez Smith belongs, represented a small band of Hispanics who got involved in last year's county, city and School Board redistricting battles. But few others joined their fight.

For years, Hispanic political groups in Orange County have had a tough time maintaining staying power, she said.

But with the backing of the Democratic Hispanic Caucus of Florida, she hopes the new group won't wither away.

"I think the process has to be ongoing," Rodriguez Smith said. "We need a group that has legs, that is going to be there and will have longevity. I think we have the staying power."

Political candidates seem to recognize the group's impending clout. About eight candidates, for offices from the School Board to the state commissioner of agriculture and consumer services, attended the meeting and made their pitch for votes.

Many said the number of Hispanic names on the ballots encouraged them this year. Besides Diaz, Evelyn Rivera, vice president of the Orange County Democratic Party, and real-estate agent Norman Quintero plan to run for School Board.

But getting Hispanics to the polls has been a challenge, even though registration efforts have been successful, said community activist Marytza Sanz, whose group, Latino Leadership, has worked to register voters.

"We need to wake up and let our voice be heard," she said.

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