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Jeb Bush Seeks Support From Florida Puerto Ricans

By Rober Becker

August 9, 2002
Copyright © 2002 PUERTO RICO HERALD.
All Rights Reserved.

KISSIMMEE - It was here, in an Aug. 2nd campaign rally in sweltering Florida summertime heat and humidity at Archie Gordon Park, that Gov. Jeb Bush showed his deft touch with Puerto Rican supporters.

Bush had traveled to this Orlando suburb to receive the endorsement of the 33-strong Mayors Federation of Puerto Rico. Among those present were Aguadilla Mayor Carlos Mendez Martinez, the president of the Federation; Bayamon Mayor Ramon Luis Rivera Cruz; and San Juan Mayor Jorge Santini, who was supposed to introduce Bush on the platform but somehow got elbowed aside.

Bush made the most of it, and displayed the stump style that has won him strong support within Florida's Latino communities, rock solid with Cuban-Americans and more recently strengthening with Puerto Ricans.

Speaking easily in fluent Spanish and then switching to English, Bush reminded the crowd of his experiences in Puerto Rico dating back to 1979, when he campaigned there over a period of months on behalf of his father's unsuccessful bid for the 1980 Republican presidential nomination. He recalled his initial stage fright at giving a speech in Spanish to 2,000 people at a campaign rally.

The event demonstrated Bush's understanding of the dynamics of Puerto Rican voting, in which endorsements from elected officials of one's own party carry more weight than endorsements routinely delivered in most stateside elections. In Florida and elsewhere, Puerto Ricans do not vote in the same high participation rates as islanders do, which typically approaches around 85 percent in important contests. The endorsement of the mayors, which was arranged through island Republican strategists, seemed geared to activating Puerto Rican voters in Orlando and its suburbs, which has become one of the major Puerto Rican population centers in the nation.

According to the Puerto Rican Federal Affairs office in Orlando, an estimated 800,000 to 900,000 Puerto Ricans and other Hispanics are eligible to vote in Florida, of whom 400,000 to 600,000 are not registered. Many of those apathetic citizens are the target of Gov. Sila Calderon's $6 million voters registration campaign, which has been bitterly criticized by island statehooders as a transparent attempt to sign up voters who will support her political agenda.

That did not stop island statehooders from riding into Florida on the coattails of Calderon's mainland voter registration campaign. The New Progressive Party mayors felt they were killing two birds with one stone: persuading Florida Puerto Ricans to vote for Bush would help a valued Republican ally while strengthening their own statehood agenda on the island, as Bush has made no bones about his pro-statehood leanings.. Florida's Puerto Ricans do not fall within the Democratic camp as predictably as they do in other parts of the nation. According to PRFAA, 26 percent of the state's Hispanics identity with the Republican Party, 24 percent identity with the Democrats, 15 percent consider themselves independents and 35 percent don't identity with any political party.

Bush, indeed, seems to be crafting his appeal to Puerto Rican voters on a personal, rather than ideological, or party level.

Florida Hispanics, Puerto Ricans included, hold warm feelings for Bush because he speaks their language and because he has married into the Latino family. His wife Columba was born in Mexico. Bush's family ties to island Republicans are long-standing. He was a house guest of Sen. Miriam Ramirez de Ferrer when he campaigned there in 1979, and his father, former President Bush, is a regular visitor to the island for fund-raising,. Jeb Bush keeps up regular communications with island Republican activists, a recent one of which was a June 4 letter to Puerto Rico's Mr. Republican, former governor and industrialist Luis A. Ferre.

In that letter, Bush asked for the support of all Puerto Ricans in his reelection, regardless of party or ideology, and thanked island Republicans for their support for his reelection bid.

Bush is trying to fashion the broadest possible appeal to Florida Puerto Ricans, a task that is complicated by the community's divisions over status, a rift that is just as steep stateside as it is on the island.

Meeting with reporters after his speech, Bush was careful to say that the status issue was for Puerto Ricans voting on the island to solve. But Bush also offered something for his pro-statehood supporters in the Republican ranks by adding that if he lived in Puerto Rico he would vote for statehood.

"Puerto Ricans have to make that decision themselves. It's hard to be half a citizen."

Bush underlined his identification with the Hispanic community in an interview with me after his campaign appearance. He said he has appointed Hispanics to statewide boards and commissions, has created a Hispanic Involvement Board to foster business development and has helped Hispanics gain university admissions.

"I have a bond with Hispanics in general and it is very powerful. You have to recognize their presence. My wife is Hispanic, my kids are Hispanic," he said.

Robert Becker, Charlotte County bureau chief for the Sarasota Herald Tribune, lived in Puerto Rico from 1991 through 2001.

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