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Orlando Sentinel

Puerto Rican Mayors Stump For Bush, Their Goal Is Statehood For The Island

By Letitia Stein | Sentinel Staff Writer

August 3, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved.

KISSIMMEE -- Mayor Jorge Santini of San Juan, Puerto Rico's largest city, can't vote in Florida. But he hopes his message will influence the governor's race, the next presidency and even his island's future: Vote Republican.

It is a refrain that Puerto Ricans living in Central Florida will hear often this election. Thirty-three of the island's mayors have promised to make frequent visits to the campaign trail, recruited by local Republicans to lure Puerto Rican voters from Democrats.

On Friday, Santini and four island mayors campaigned at a shopping plaza in the heavily Hispanic Buenaventura Lakes neighborhood of Osceola County. Register to vote, the mayors urged Puerto Rican patrons in their native Spanish.

And vote for Bush.

"We are here to support the re-election of Jeb Bush," Santini said. "He can do a lot of things for the people of Puerto Rico and the people of San Juan."

In a state where elections are won by a few hundred votes, the votes of the nearly half-million Puerto Ricans living in Florida could be up for grabs this fall. Nearly one in three lives in Central Florida.

Most Puerto Ricans are registered as Democrats, but they have shown an independent streak. They supported the Republican governor in 1998, then backed Democrat Al Gore in the 2000 presidential race.

So this election, Republicans enlisted friendly mayors from the island for help.

"Puerto Ricans are not strong Democrats or Republicans, but they are strong on island issues," said attorney Anthony Suarez, a Republican candidate for State Senate District 14. "I think what the Republicans are doing in my race and others is more in the long-term strategy. They realize demographically that they cannot lose this group."

Suarez would know how seriously Republicans have courted Puerto Rican votes. He was a Democrat when he won a 1999 special election to become the first Hispanic from Central Florida in the Legislature. This election, he was persuaded to switch parties.

It is the kind of coup that Republicans seek to repeat statewide in November. And the party's new strategies worry Democratic candidate Eddie Diaz, a Puerto Rican who is running for the U.S. Congress.

"As Democrats, we need to get our act together, and we really need to look at the landscape and make correct and right choices concerning the Puerto Rican community," said Diaz, a former Orlando police officer who was a registered Republican when shot in the line of duty in 2000.

"If it takes doing the same tactics, bringing the mayors, then bring them over."

But there is a catch. The mayors campaigning for Republican candidates come over with their own controversial agenda -- they want to create a 51st state on the island.

"Jeb Bush, we can help him and he can help us," said Mayor Carlos Mendez Martinez of Aguadilla, vice president of the Federation of Puerto Rican Mayors. "The main reason that I am here is that I want Puerto Rico to become a state."

Bush was grateful for the mayors' help -- and supportive of their cause.

"I do believe in the right of Puerto Ricans to make that decision for themselves," the governor said. "Were I living on the island, I would be a supporter of statehood. But it's their decision."

In Puerto Rico, politics do not fall neatly into Republican and Democratic camps. Partisan lines are drawn on whether Puerto Rico should become a state, remain an U.S. commonwealth or become independent.

The Republican and Democratic parties both have a presence on the island. The 33-member mayor's federation consists of Democrats and Republicans who support statehood. Its members include the leaders of Puerto Rico's largest cities.

They have pledged to pay their own way to Central Florida throughout the election season to rally votes for Republican candidates and Bush, who supports statehood if the islanders were to chose it.

At the same time, Puerto Rican Gov. Sila Calderon, who belongs to the party advocating commonwealth status, has launched a $6 million voter-registration drive targeting U.S. cities with large Puerto Rican populations, including Orlando.

Although Calderon's registration drive is nonpartisan, the mayors campaigning here said their presence was needed to ensure Republican voters were registered. In so doing, the mayors aimed to rally support for the statehood cause.

"Their frustration is they cannot vote for president," said Jose Hoyos, the secretary of the Republican Party of Osceola County, whose idea it was to bring the mayors to Central Florida. "It's kind of ironic they can kind of buy statehood with an $250 airplane ticket."

Some Republican candidates find the strategy too risky. Suarez has asked pro-commonwealth politicians from the island to campaign with him, as the statehood supporters have, to keep from alienating the other side.

But nobody asked 19-year-old Melissa Acevedo of Kissimmee about statehood during a surprise visit from the mayor of her hometown in Aguadilla. Her mayor reminded her to vote for Bush.

"It's exciting to meet him, because I never had a chance to meet him before," said Acevedo, who met Mendez while having her hair done at a beauty parlor. "That's good that they are going an extra step to come over here to get the vote out."

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