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Orlando Sentinel

Hispanics Bid For Election In Record Number

By Maria T. Padilla

July 31, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved.

It was only a matter of time, and now that time has come.

A record number of Hispanic candidates are running for office: 17 candidates in Central Florida have qualified to run for national, state, county and local posts.

Not bad for a group that currently is all but invisible in terms of elected officials, even though it makes up about 18 percent of the region's population.

A bumper crop of candidates, of course, doesn't mean all will be elected. Primaries will eliminate some, leaving only a handful in the general election. And few of them will make it.

This is not at all unusual. Few candidates of any color or ethnicity win an election the first time out.

A greater point is to be made, however. Today many Hispanics envision themselves as community leaders, and they are likely to try again.

It also means their presence on an election ballot may encourage others to follow in their footsteps. And it's about time, especially for the Puerto Rican community, which makes up more than half of area Hispanics.

Puerto Ricans are relative newcomers to Central Florida, having arrived beginning in the late 1970s. A good chunk migrated directly from the island, with the majority coming from other states. Unfortunately, island people tend to be disengaged from local politics and much more engaged in island politics. Over time, though, this was bound to diminish.

Puerto Ricans comprise the great majority of the 17 candidates running for office. People who run for office are engaged in the here and now, not in the there and then. Perhaps the record number of Hispanic candidates also will bring greater numbers of Hispanics out to vote.

For Puerto Ricans, there is no excuse for sitting out an election because each and every Puerto Rican is an American citizen and can exercise the right to vote in Florida. Let's hope that the record number of candidates marks a critical political turning point, and that there is no turning back.

Hispanics have generated a lot of publicity because of census figures showing the group is on the threshold of becoming the nation's largest minority. Latinos already have crossed that threshold in Florida. On a daily basis, however, Hispanics are shortchanged at nearly every government level in Central Florida.

Hispanic communities struggle to get the same resources as other communities. Hispanic employees are under-represented in state and local governments. Orange County schools have made a mess of bilingual education, a recent state audit showed.

It doesn't take a Hispanic to address these issues. But often it takes a Hispanic to point them out, and demand change.

Several years ago, the Orlando region counted about six elected officials, including Orange County Chairman Mel Martínez, although Martínez was an "insider," making him a big exception to how most Hispanics gain entry into politics. Slowly, the numbers diminished as death, higher office and election losses took their toll.

That said, Hispanic candidates shouldn't base their political credentials on being Hispanic. An 18 percent Hispanic population is a lot, but it's not enough to win an election. More important, it's also a sign of a lack of ideas.

So now that the candidacies are finalized, it's time for the campaigns to begin. Onward and forward. Or as they say in Spanish slang, pa'lante.

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