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Orlando Sentinel

Hispanic Candidates Center Stage

By Myriam Marquez

April 4, 2002
Copyright © 2002
Orlando Sentinel. All Rights Reserved.

These are promising times for Orlando area Hispanics. Politically, things are getting hot, and they're bound to get messy.

Hispanics who have announced for public office are counting on firing up Hispanic voters, who for too long have sat it out on the sidelines, uninspired by candidates who don't speak to them and their issues.

Democrat Jose Fernandez is the most recent arrival on the political scene. He kicked off his campaign Tuesday for a state House seat in a district that runs from heavily Hispanic Buenaventura Lakes in Osceola County, north through east Orange County, where many Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Colombians and other Latinos live. That's familiar territory for Fernandez, who grew up in east Orlando and graduated from Colonial High School.

His is a compelling story of overcoming great odds to live the American dream. As a boy, Fernandez fled the communist Sandinistas with his family to a Costa Rican refugee camp before eventually arriving in Orlando. His college-educated father took a job as a short-order cook. His mother cleaned hotel rooms. Fernandez studied hard, learned English, got a business degree from Rollins College and went on to run the Hispanic Business Initiative Fund, which uses public and private funds to help small businesses grow and contribute to this region's wealth.

The personal is the political, and that's certainly true for Hispanic candidates. The recent flip-flops in the party affiliations of former cop Eddie Diaz and former state Rep. Anthony Suarez highlight the battle both major parties are waging.

Diaz, an Operation Desert Storm veteran who later was injured in a shootout in Orlando and retired from the city's police force in November, is tough on crime but no longer Republican. Last year he became disillusioned with a party he believes hasn't done enough for working people in general and Orlando's Hispanic community in particular. "At the end of the day, I felt I could make a difference, and the best fit for me was the Democratic Party. I haven't had anything sour my experience," he told me Wednesday. Now Diaz hopes to take on Republican Rep. Ric Keller for Congress. Some call that leading the lamb to slaughter, particularly because Keller has worked hard to reach out to Hispanic constituents.

Suarez, for his part, left the Democratic Party because his experiences during one term in Tallahassee soured him to Democratic leaders who put party loyalty ahead of what Suarez believes is in the best interest of the disenfranchised -- particularly Hispanics. "There's no tolerance in the Democratic Party up there," he said. Suarez, a hardscrabble lawyer and military veteran, plans to run as a Republican for a state Senate seat. His switch has caused many who backed him before to balk now, but he's not worried. Suarez is counting on swaying the growing number of Hispanics who are registering as independents and on moderate Democrats. The number of Hispanics with the potential to vote in a unified block and get politicians to pay attention has grown to critical mass.

But numbers don't matter if people don't vote. In the end, the intrigue of party switches or the battles for Hispanic votes are sideshows.

The main event will come on Election Day. Then the real stars will be Hispanic voters -- if they bother to seize the stage.

*?Many readers have asked how they can help the work of a Catholic priest in Santiago, Cuba, I wrote about in the March 10 Insight section. Tax-deductible donations can be made to the Mision Apostolica Cubana, P.O. Box 561512, Orlando, FL. 32856. Note the check for Father Jose Conrado Rodriguez. There will be a reception for Conrado, who arrived this week for a short stay, after the noon Spanish Mass at St. James Cathedral in Orlando on Sunday.

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