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In Central Florida, Hispanics Try To Crash Good Ol' Boy Party, Church Sanctuary Is Center Of Political Battleground

In Central Florida, Hispanics Try To Crash Good Ol' Boy Party


August 10, 2002
Copyright © 2002 ASSOCIATED PRESS. All rights reserved.

KISSIMMEE, Fla. (AP) - Fed up by what they see as indifference from the white, "good ol' boy" political establishment, Hispanics in Central Florida's Osceola County are flexing their political muscles like never before.

Hispanic candidates are running for county commission, Kissimmee City Council and the school board, and the Hispanic community is becoming better organized politically.

Community leaders say it's absurd that Hispanics make up almost a third of the 182,000 residents in this county located south of Orlando, yet no Hispanic currently holds public office.

"This county has been dominated by the same people for decades, cattlemen and businessmen, and they want to keep it the same," said Luis Montanez Jr., a political activist. "It's up to us to make a wake-up call."

What's happening in Osceola County is going on in other parts of the state, and across the nation as Hispanics push for more political power in areas previously unfamiliar with ethnic politics.

Hispanics in Florida increased by about 70 percent from 1.6 million to 2.7 million in the 1990s and now make up 16.8 percent of Florida's 16 million residents, according to the 2000 U.S. Census.

"You can probably extend what's going on there throughout Florida, from Key West to Tallahassee," said Luis Pastrana, regional director in Orlando of the Puerto Rican Federal Affairs Administration.

Traditionally known for its rodeos and cattle ranches, Osceola County in recent decades has succumbed to budget motels and mom-and-pop tourist attractions due to its proximity to Walt Disney World. The resulting service-industry jobs have in turn attracted large numbers of Puerto Ricans from the island during the past decade.

Even Osceola County Commissioner Ken Smith, who describes himself as a "good ol' boy, Florida cracker, Southerner," has taken notice.

"It has changed the whole atmosphere, the whole prospect of politics in this area here," said Smith, a Republican facing a challenge from Democrat Eddie Lorenzo, who is Puerto Rican.

Many of Osceola's Hispanic leaders say the county's current leaders have been slow to respond to their demands of making government functions easier for Spanish-speakers, expanding public transportation in Hispanic neighborhoods and in hiring more Hispanics as school principals and for managerial jobs in city and county government. Until this month, Osceola County did have a county manager of Cuban descent, but Robert Fernandez's contract wasn't renewed.

"I'm not seeking their love but their respect," Armando Ramirez, a candidate for Kissimmee City Commission, said of Osceola's political leaders. "Respect comes from when you perceive that person has some kind of power."

Osceola County Commission Chairman Chuck Dunnick said commissioners have tried to be sensitive to the needs of the Hispanic community. He noted that they just approved funding to create a government liaison for the Hispanic community and have funded a small business office through the local chamber of commerce where Hispanic and minority businessmen can use computers and get advice from accountants and lawyers.

But Dunnick conceded, "There are some things that unless it's brought to my attention, I'm not going to think of."

Political power has been slow in coming to Osceola's Hispanic community because of language barriers and other reasons.

Many of the Hispanic workers in the service industry work more than one job to support their families and can't find the time to get politically involved, said James Witt, a political science professor at the University of West Florida.

In addition, Osceola County voters in 1996 approved switching to an at-large system from a single-district system for electing county commissioners. The single-district system, in which commissioners were elected only by voters in their district and not all county voters, allowed Robert Guevara in 1996 to become the only Hispanic ever elected to the county commission.

The grandfatherly Guevara's unexpected death from a heart attack two years later created a political vacuum from which the Hispanic community has yet to recover.

"It was very traumatic when he passed away," said Ramirez, who also is the vice chairman of the Osceola Democratic Party.

Hispanics here have other gripes.

The Florida Legislature this year refused to create a U.S. congressional district favorable to central Florida Hispanics, and the county elections office this year was investigated by the Department of Justice for failing to provide enough assistance to Spanish-speaking voters.

Under a settlement, Osceola County denied violating the Voting Rights Act but agreed to hire more Spanish-speaking poll workers.

Members of Osceola County's Hispanic community are holding unprecedented voter registration drives and candidate meetings.

The community was helped by the recent launch of a $6 million campaign by Puerto Rico's government to get Puerto Ricans on the mainland to vote. The nationwide effort was motivated by data that shows Puerto Ricans have more than 80 percent voter turnout on the island but only about a 40 percent turnout on the mainland.

Hispanics in central Florida, a majority of whom are Puerto Rican, have long been overshadowed by South Florida's Cuban community when it comes to political clout in the state. But 17 Hispanic candidates this year have qualified to run for public office in central Florida, a record for the region.

"The party that turns their backs on the Hispanic community," said Smith, the Osceola County commissioner, "will be the party that's going to get turned out of office."


Church Sanctuary Is Center Of Political Battleground

By Mark Silva | Sentinel Political Editor

August 13, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved.

In a massive new suburban sanctuary where mainly Spanish is spoken, whitewashed walls display multicolored flags of the many Latin American nations that helped fuel Central Florida's growth.

Gov. Jeb Bush and his Mexican-born wife, Columba, came to this thriving evangelical church east of Orlando on Monday to collect a potent endorsement for his re-election. They also shared a prayer for their own family's travails -- Bush pushing back tears as he spoke of his daughter in drug treatment.

The prospects of more than one political leader are at stake in the 900-seat sanctuary of the Centro Cristiano Restauración on Chickasaw Trail. Here and in the more than 200 churches of the Hispanic Christian Church Association of Central Florida, which endorsed Bush, the Republican Party of Florida is attempting to secure a generation of support for the GOP among a fast-growing Hispanic community that traditionally votes Democratic.

"The explosive growth has been among evangelical Christian churches," said Ralph Gonzalez, a Republican campaign operative mingling with parishioners at the Christian Restoration Center. "When you segue that into politics, it makes them more Republican, or more conservative, anyway."

Bush's own campaign polling has found an advantage for the Republican governor over his Democratic rivals among Central Florida's Hispanics. But Democrats are hardly conceding the territory. Janet Reno, the former U.S. attorney general seeking the Democratic nomination, has campaigned in Orlando with Eddie Diaz, a Puerto Rican former police officer running for Congress.

Their campaigns offer starkly contrasting pictures of their strengths in this community: Bush basking in the endorsement, prayers and applause of several hundred churchgoers and dozens of visiting pastors touting plans for voter registration; Reno stumping Sunday night in an Apopka community center where 100 farmworkers revealed the hardships undocumented immigrants face.

If Bush speaks the language -- addressing a congregation in fluent Spanish for 15 minutes Monday morning -- Reno still struggles en español.

Her father could not speak English when he immigrated from Denmark, Reno explained in Spanish to Apopka's farmworkers, but four years later he was editor of his school paper.

"For as long as I have anything to say about this country, I want to maintain this country's tradition as a nation of immigrants," said Reno, acknowledging she cannot do much for undocumented immigrants seeking government aid. "I can plead your case," the ex-Justice chief said, "but your problem rests with the Justice Department, and I don't anticipate I could have much influence."

Bush's lingual link to the Latin voters is only a door-opener.

"I hope it helps," Bush said. "But I think, more importantly, it's what I said that matters, and sensitivity to Hispanic issues that would matter."

In the pulpit, Bush spoke passionately of the most important "political organization" -- the family. He spoke intimately of his own, with his wife seated to the side as he spoke of their daughter, Noelle, undergoing treatment for drug addiction at a center near Orlando.

"I want to thank all of you for your prayers," Bush said in Spanish.

"I'm also grateful for the thousands and thousands of prayers that we received as mother and father, parents. You know that we have a beautiful, precious daughter."

With this, Bush paused, his eyes tearing and his audience rising with applause.

"I hope that you continue praying in Orlando to help Columba and I stay strong as parents, because it's not the easiest thing in the world to have a situation like this one," said Bush, taking a seat and wiping an eye with a suit sleeve.

It's not the first time Bush has choked up in public.

"I'm not sure there was an official tear that left my eye," he said outside the church. "But every time I think about my daughter, it's very hard."

There was no need to explain this on Chickasaw Trail.

"I put myself into his shoes," churchgoer Lydia Yera said. "I'm a mother, and I have a son who drinks a lot. I have been praying for him, too, so he leaves the liquor."

The audience was primed for Bush's arrival, with people collecting red campaign bumper stickers from a church table: Estamos con Jeb! -- "We're with Jeb!"

Bush's supporters included people such as Maria Fonseca, a retiree who was born in Puerto Rico and moved to Orlando six years ago, via Connecticut.

"I'm supporting him 100 percent," Fonseca said of Bush. "He's a fantastic governor. I like his wisdom."

Another supporter was Rachel Colon, a fellow churchgoer who aids the homeless: "We are working to get people to vote."

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