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Orlando Sentinel

Primary Was Election Lesson For Hispanics

By Maria Padilla

September 18, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved. 

The defeat of Republican José Mantilla in the primary election for District 49 of the Florida House, which covers parts of Orange and Osceola counties, spoke volumes about Latino voters.

More than anything, it said that Hispanics support candidates who are "of the people" and from "down home."

Mantilla was reared in Orlando, but doesn't appear to know Orlando Hispanics. He was an aide to Orlando Congressman Ric Keller, and had raised three times more money than his competitor, John Quiñones, who beat him in the Republican primary.

Having worked in Washington, Mantilla has more insider political experience than Quiñones, who had previously run unsuccessfully for public office.

With all his advantages, Mantilla couldn't pull off a victory in the district, which recently was created by the Legislature and is about 40 percent Hispanic.

Perhaps Mantilla let his money and political connections do the talking -- two factors that didn't appear to hold sway with voters. It's also possible that the conservative wing of the Republican Party that Keller represents doesn't impress Hispanics, many of whom are moderate.

Mantilla complained to a reporter that there aren't enough Hispanic Republicans, but that doesn't make sense.

He was in a Republican primary and another Hispanic Republican beat him for the chance to compete against Democrat José Fernández in the November election.

Unlike Mantilla, Quiñones and Fernández (who beat Democrat Juan Bruno) conducted their campaigns closer to the man on the street.

For several years, I have seen both Fernández and Quiñones at numerous community events and activities, which would give you a sense of the Hispanics who are out there.

Quiñones didn't have much money, and had no choice but to knock on doors. But it served him well.

At the same time, Fernández's parents and sister were involved in his campaign. At his victory party, Fernández offered guests arroz con gandules, or rice with peas, and fried plantains, which I bet went over well. Hispanics like those kinds of touches.

Now, there are other Hispanic candidates in races for local, state and national offices.

For example, Republican Anthony Suárez is campaigning to be the first Hispanic state senator from Central Florida, representing District 19. It's worth mentioning that several years ago Suárez was the first Hispanic state representative from Central Florida, winning a special election as a Democrat with a grass-roots campaign and a big boost from absentee ballots.

Suárez may have switched political parties, but he hasn't changed his campaign style.

I saw him recently campaigning on a downtown Orlando street corner. He is up against Democratic incumbent Gary Siplin.

Last week's primary election left a total of nine Hispanic candidates in Orange and Osceola counties in the running for the November election. All of the races are important.

But it's fair to say that the race between Quiñones and Fernández for District 49 is the one to watch.

With its all-Hispanic slate, it's guaranteed that Central Florida once again will send a Hispanic to Tallahassee.

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