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Justice A Matter Of When, Not If, In Kissimmee, Osceola
September 29, 2002
On Main Street and Vine, just past the gray-haired cowhands spinning old tales outside the coffee shop, right before the kitschy gateway topped by a metallic rodeo scene, I experienced a quintessential Kissimmee clarion call.
A pickup truck blared a country tune. Two teenage boys in a little car jammed to Puerto Rican rap. Just ahead, a smartly dressed thirtysomething woman crossed the street in a rush.
To think that, back in 1965 when Osceola County Commissioner Ken Smith moved to Kissimmee, it was a sleepy little town, about 95 percent white and 5 percent black. "Who would have ever thought?" he pondered last week, as if coming out of a trance to discover just now that Osceola County has turned into a multicultural, multihued mecca.
Only 239 people still farm.
Most people now work for businesses spun off from The Mouse. Hispanics are 42 percent of Kissimmee's residents, the majority of them Puerto Ricans, and 30 percent in the county. African-Americans are 9 percent of the city.
Non-Hispanic whites are the city's minority. They don't seem to want to share power even though Hispanics and blacks own homes, run businesses and pay taxes. Share political power?
Not when all elected city and county posts are at-large, which makes it ever more difficult for grass-roots candidates to compete with a white power structure that gets big money from developers and others that feed off the government trough. Some cowboys' piggish habits are hard to break.
It explains why in a county that struggles with too many low-paid tourism and service jobs, where the poverty rate has doubled for children, elected officials have opted to spend millions of dollars to build an agricultural center/rodeo -- yahoo! -- and, of course, a convention center to "diversify" a saturated tourism economy.
Meanwhile, residents are clamoring for a living wage, better schools and fire service, quicker bus service, after-school programs to keep teens out of trouble, and safer neighborhoods with police patrols.
Those are the things residents tell Armando Ramirez as he goes door to door in Kissimmee -- talking to rich and poor, white or black or Hispanic or Vietnamese or Filipino. City Hall seems deaf to their concerns.
What does Ramirez's opponent, City Commissioner Wendell McKinnon, hear?
"To be frank, I'm not hearing anything, and I'm glad that I'm not hearing anything. That means that we're doing something right," he said last week.
To prove that he is quite comfortable with "multicultural peoples," McKinnon pointed to Deputy Editorial Page Editor David Porter, who is black, chuckled and said that the first time he met my bespectacled, neatly dressed colleague, "I didn't know if you were going to pull a gun and shoot me."
Asked if the city should seek trade opportunities in Mexico or other Latin nations, or court businesses in Puerto Rico to expand into Kissimmee, the commissioner seemed confused. "You might could take agricultural stuff to Peru. You talking trade or charity?"
"Might could" residents be just a tad frustrated?
At La Placita grocers last week, I got an earful. Customers complained about rude government workers, crowded schools and insensitive teachers who hold back bright kids only to have the parents find out after testing the children independently that they are "gifted" and simply need a little more time to learn English.
As a city commissioner, Ramirez couldn't solve all those problems, but he could steer constituents to the right agency. The retired police officer, community activist, school mentor and current city planning advisory board member doesn't share McKinnon's deafness. "I want to be here for everyone," he said. "Leadership requires action."
Kissimmee and Osceola County are stuck in the political muck of inaction. They don't have one elected official who is Hispanic or black. Neither does the County Commission. The commissioners rarely appoint Hispanics to advisory boards. Hiring of Hispanics in the city police and the sheriff's office has been suspiciously slow.
The School Board? A blank slate. This month, Ana Maria Mendez captured 27 percent of the vote in a three-way race -- not bad for a novice. Most of her support came from Hispanic voters desperate for a voice.
So, too, did Dalis Guevara lose a County Commission seat after her husband's death. Bob Guevara was the first Hispanic commissioner in Osceola's history. That same year voters -- predominantly those outside his district -- chose to switch back to countywide elections.
"Might could" Dalis Guevara have won countywide if the elections supervisor had the bilingual ballots and poll workers that federal law requires? A Justice Department probe found all sorts of hostility toward Osceola Hispanics in 2000.
Hispanics should call Justice back. There's a strong case for the federal courts to demand single-member districts. The cowboys -- and girls -- must answer the clarion call of justice denied.