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Suarez Dumps Democratic Party
By Jon Steinman
March 29, 2002
In January, former state Rep. Tony Suarez, a prominent Hispanic Democrat in Orange County, walked out of the Supervisor of Elections Office as an independent. The Bronx-born attorney had shed his lifelong party membership with little regret before taking his first steps toward another possible run -- as a Republican.
If all goes as Suarez plans, he will replace outgoing Sen. Buddy Dyer, D-Orlando, in Tallahassee next year. The race to fill Dyer's District 14 seat already includes two Democrats -- including State Rep. Gary Siplin of Orlando.
"Inexplicable," said Orange Democratic Party Chairman Doug Head.
County Commissioner Mary I. Johnson, Orange's highest-ranking Hispanic Democrat, said Suarez's move is baffling. "I think the Democrats were good to him, but I guess he's got his own agenda," she said.
So, apparently, do others. New friends in high places who encouraged Suarez's change of heart include Gov. Jeb Bush and Florida Republican Party Chairman Al Cardenas. Both have promised financial and personal support if he runs as a Republican.
"They said I would have all the resources I'd need," Suarez, 48, of Orlando, said.
Bush's office referred all calls to the state Republican Party.
"I know the Republican Party would be willing to put resources behind him, whatever it takes to win the seat," Cardenas said. "The commitment, if he does this, is to help him do what he needs to win."
Only one prominent Democrat has called Suarez to voice disappointment -- U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson. "But he didn't try to coax me back," Suarez said.
The time was apparently ripe for the Republicans to lure Suarez, who said he was fed up with the Democratic Party. He said he was repulsed at having been shunned by its leadership in the capital for failing to vote the party line on issues like parental notification for youngsters seeking abortions. Suarez said his support for Bush's One Florida program, which eliminated affirmative action from the state university system's admission process, further alienated him from the Democratic establishment.
"I didn't see eye to eye with Lois Frankel," he said, referring to the state House's Democratic leader from West Palm Beach.
It's unclear much his decision was affected by the Democrats' wooing of former Orlando police officer and Hispanic Eddie Diaz to run for a new U.S. House seat destined for Central Florida.
But Suarez denied his ongoing transformation is fueled by political opportunism.
"They said I wouldn't have to vote the party line if I joined. That I would be accepted voting my conscience," he said of his conversations with Bush and Cardenas.
Suarez said his pro-choice position on abortion may make him something of a moderate in the GOP but that his strong support of gun-ownership rights and his increasing openness to school vouchers make him a natural.
He said he'll make the transition complete within two weeks.
Though Suarez is not aboard -- yet -- Cardenas said he has high hopes.
"My opinion is Tony Suarez is the leading Hispanic public figure in Central Florida," Cardenas said. "His consideration of becoming a Republican candidate for state Senate speaks volumes about how far the Republican Party has come for Hispanics."