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Orlando Sentinel

Why Won't Democrats Dance The Salsa Like GOP?

Myriam Marquez

October 10, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved. 

There among a predominantly Puerto Rican crowd Sunday -- a group whose voter registration is 2-to-1 Democratic and contains a huge chunk of independents, too -- the crowds chanted in Spanish, "Jeb, tranquilo. Hispanos estan contigo."

It loses the rhyme in the translation, but the message is clear: "Jeb stay calm. Hispanics are with you."

Polls back up that rhyme chanted Sunday while Gov. Jeb Bush and his Mexican-born wife, Columba, marched in the annual Puerto Rican parade.

Meanwhile, Bill McBride believes it's the issues that will make the difference in his bid for governor, and that those issues -- the need for better schools, a living wage, and health care for seniors -- resonate with Hispanic voters. So why does Bush enjoy a strong lead among Hispanics?

Here is where symbolism trumps political issues.

Bush salsas in Orlando while McBride's nowhere near Central Florida. He sent his running mate, Tom Rossin, to walk the parade. Big nada, zero.

Jeb knows how to add. The governor's race, like the president's race in 2000, will be decided along the Interstate 4 corridor, and by Hispanics, now energized by several Latino candidates on the ballot.

Republicans have crafted a very specific, long-term strategy to get Hispanic voters. Al Cardenas, Florida's GOP chief, has spent the past two years scouting for Orlando Hispanics, particularly Puerto Ricans, who have political potential.

One was Eddie Diaz, a Gulf War veteran and former Orlando cop injured during a shooting. Cardenas had hoped Diaz would run for a state House seat. But Diaz switched to the Democratic Party when Washington leaders promised him the moon with a congressional district. Now he's between a moon rock and a hard place -- badly trailing Rep. Ric Keller in a heavily Republican district.

Florida's Democratic Party leaders say they have a strategy to energize Hispanics, but it's still a mystery to me.

Jose Fernandez, a Democrat who is vying for a state House seat, certainly has his own clear strategy to get out the vote. He's pursuing Hispanics, moderate GOP women and business people in his district. It's an inclusive campaign that highlights his business credentials and years of community service crossing ethnic lines.

Fernandez's opponent, Jose Quinones, seems to be counting on crossover votes from Puerto Rican Democrats and on religious-right Republicans to bridge the GOP gap in the predominantly Democratic district. Beyond the "divide and conquer" strategy to take Puerto Rican voters away from Fernandez, Quinones also has the help of GOP cash. The governor has included him and Tony Suarez in Spanish radio campaigns.

Suarez, a former Democratic legislator, switched to Republican and is running against Rep. Gary Siplin in a state Senate district where white, black and Hispanic voters have no clear majority. "I don't believe that Latinos are voting down party lines," Suarez told me Wednesday. "They want leaders who speak to them."

Cardenas admits his party is "walking a tightrope" when it comes to the Puerto Ricans' one explosive issue: the island's status. Bush recently brought several pro-statehood island mayors to Kissimmee to stump for him. Did he alienate commonwealth supporters? Nah. Bush says he wants Puerto Ricans deciding for themselves what's best for their island.

Not only can Jeb dance the salsa, he knows how to waltz around all-consuming island politics.

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