Esta página no está disponible en español.

House Race Pits Ethnicity Vs. Party Loyalty For Hispanics…Candidates Emphasize Experience

House Race Pits Ethnicity Vs. Party Loyalty For Hispanics

By April Hunt | Sentinel Staff Writer

October 11, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved.

Inside the Kissimmee grocery, where Goya products line the shelves and salsa music softly permeates the air, the mostly Hispanic crowd can't quite agree on the issue that has both political parties on edge:

Does ethnicity trump party loyalty?

That question is central to the battle being played out for Central Florida's new Hispanic opportunity state House district that includes parts of Orange and Osceola counties. Drawn by this year's Legislature to be heavily Democratic and nearly 40 percent Hispanic, it should be a cakewalk for Democratic candidate Jose Fernandez.

Except that Fernandez is Nicaraguan. His Republican opponent, John Quiñones, is Puerto Rican -- as are most of the Hispanic voters in the district. That's why people are talking.

"Everyone wants to elect their own people," said Orlando Figueroa of Kissimmee, a registered Democrat and Puerto Rican who said he hasn't made up his mind.

But another Puerto Rican Democrat, Israel Davila, said that what a candidate stands for is paramount.

"It's wrong to vote for someone just because he's Puerto Rican," said Davila, who has supported candidates from both parties in the past.

As the fall election approaches, Hispanics are being wooed as never before. Once seen as solidly Democratic, the Hispanic vote is up for grabs, especially in Central Florida.

Unprecedented race

The House District 49 race is unprecedented in Central Florida -- it's the first time Hispanics have gone head to head in a state legislative race. The fact that Quiñones is a Republican wooing Puerto Ricans inclined to vote Democratic adds another wrinkle to the campaign.

Quiñones has an important ally in the Spanish-language media that caters to the district's burgeoning Hispanic population, which is overwhelmingly Puerto Rican.

Letters to the editor in Spanish-language newspapers and callers to AM talk-radio stations have urged Puerto Ricans who are registered Democrats to cross party lines and go with the native son, Quiñones, on Nov. 5.

As a talk-show host for radio station 1140 AM (WRMQ) put it, "Vota por el puertoriqueño." ("Vote for the Puerto Rican.")

Said Roberto Suro, director of the Pew Hispanic Center at the University of Southern California, "National loyalties can be extremely powerful, more powerful than party."

This blunt appeal to Puerto Rican nationality comes on the heels of a study that found Hispanics are likely to be Democrats but the tie is weak. How else to explain the popularity among Puerto Ricans of both 2000 Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore and Republican Gov. Jeb Bush?

10,000 more Democrats

For Democrats, who got a boost when Central Florida's Hispanic voters overwhelmingly supported Gore two years ago, it would be an embarrassment to lose a House district that has 10,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans.

For the GOP, which benefits from Jeb Bush's appeal to Hispanics, winning the district that covers south Orange and parts of Kissimmee and Buenaventura Lakes in Osceola County would be a coup. Party officials even predict a win could push most Hispanic voters to be loyal to Republicans for generations.

Quiñones is not bashful about playing up his background, saying he knows Puerto Rican culture because he has lived it. Now an attorney, he moved from the island to Florida when he was a boy.

"I believe the Puerto Rican community as well as the Hispanic community are looking for a leader who can understand their culture and be sensitive to their specific needs," said Quiñones, who has made education his top priority for the campaign.

Florida Republican Party Chairman Al Cardenas said Quiñones is part of a "triple threat" that includes Bush, who speaks Spanish, and Democrat-turned-Republican Anthony Suarez, who is vying to become Central Florida's first Hispanic state senator.

"The other party doesn't have a Hispanic Senate candidate, a bilingual governor candidate, and [it] has a House candidate that does not reflect the majority of the Hispanic community," Cardenas said.

But state Democratic Party Chairman Bob Poe dismisses such talk as divisive and desperate.

"Jose has got the edge in this race, because he is right on the issues," Poe said.

Fernandez counters that, as a Nicaraguan, he has been a minority within a minority yet has managed to help create 1,100 jobs -- most of them for Puerto Ricans -- as founder and president of the Hispanic Business Initiative Fund.

But he also knows he cannot change that he was born in Nicaragua and lived there until his family fled civil war when he was 9.

"All I can do is run on my record of service to the community and focus on my message of creating jobs and improving our schools," Fernandez said.

Candidates Emphasize Experience

By April Hunt | Sentinel Staff Writer

October 11, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved.

KISSIMMEE -- The race between Eddie Lorenzo and Ken Smith is a view of Osceola new and old.

Both men vying for the Osceola County Commission District 4 seat are folksy. Both are relying on homespun charm to attract votes. Lorenzo and Smith, who square off Nov. 5, avoid negative talk about each other.

Lorenzo, a Democrat, instead tells stories of his community involvement and belief for the need of a stronger and safer community. Smith, the Republican incumbent, wavers between plain-spoken country boy and stern teacher, both of which he once was.

The difference is that Lorenzo, who is originally from Puerto Rico, has lived in Osceola for about a decade and is comfortable speaking in Spanish and English when he campaigns. Smith, who has lived in Osceola for more than 30 years, represents more of the county's small-town past. It has made for a race in which the two men can sometimes seem to be talking about entirely different places.

"Crime is not out of control, but it could be if we keep not doing anything," said Lorenzo, whose campaign cornerstone is increasing public safety by boosting funding for the Sheriff's Office and Fire Department. "We are growing so much and we are so diverse, but people are pulling away instead of coming together."

Smith, who was elected to a two-year term in 1996 then re-elected to a four-year term in 1998, said residents have been receptive to his ideas for planned growth in neighborhood-style developments and his pledge to keep working with the school district to factor schools into growth.

"This race has forced me to meet more with the Hispanic community," Smith said. "What I've found -- Hispanic, black, white, Democrat or Republican -- is people want the same things for their family."

Underscoring the genial nature of the campaign, the candidates haven't even taken issue with each other's issues. Lorenzo calls Smith a "good man," and Smith calls his challenger a "nice young man" whom he is happy to see getting involved in politics.

Such niceties have paved the way for new outreach into the county's Hispanic community, which represents nearly a third of the population.

Lorenzo said he was asked to run by business leaders who wanted to see more Hispanic candidates. He has campaigned door to door in the heavily Hispanic areas of Kissimmee and Buenaventura Lakes, but he also has attended community functions such as a Kissimmee/Osceola Chamber of Commerce debate. Friends are helping him to pass out fliers, a bilingual list of his background and accomplishments.

Smith said his eyes have been opened to the needs of the growing Hispanic population, and he plans to call on church leaders and business leaders in that community to help him do better in representing them. He has also pledged to encourage more residents, especially Latinos, to seek advisory board positions.

Because of that agreement, the two men are left to emphasize the role they play as Osceola is in transition.

Lorenzo, who has never held public office, points to his enthusiasm in various community organizations such as Crime Watch to his grass-roots appeal and willingness to dirty his hands to get the job done.

"I like to help people. It is as simple as that," Lorenzo said. "A commissioner is supposed to be a leader. Somebody has to step up to the plate."

Smith is a former teacher who can point to ex-students in board meetings and social gatherings as a way to show his experience and familiarity with much of the county.

"There won't be any on-the-job training with me," Smith said. "I can't say that my skirt is clean, but I've tried. I have the experience and vision to keep doing the work."

Self-Determination Legislation | Puerto Rico Herald Home
Newsstand | Puerto Rico | U.S. Government | Archives
Search | Mailing List | Contact Us | Feedback