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Suarez Path To Race Was Filled With Twists Politics Takes The Stage At Festival Calle Orange
Suarez Path To Race Was Filled With Twists
By Henry Pierson Curtis | Sentinel Staff Writer
October 23, 2002
(CASSANDRA SHIE/ORLANDO SENTINEL)
Tony Suarez grew up a Democrat in the tenements of South Bronx but has left his poverty and party far behind.
Running as a Republican for Florida Senate District 19 against Democrat Gary Siplin is the latest change for a man who has reshaped himself during the past decade.
Gov. Jeb Bush personally wooed Suarez this year to switch parties. Republican lawmakers, who created the new district as a minority-access seat in Orange and Osceola counties, wanted someone such as Suarez who could get Hispanic Democrats to cross party lines.
As a young lawyer, Suarez opened New York City's largest Latin nightclub in 1990. The club closed, and he moved on to become Central Florida's most-recognized Hispanic activist.
That status helped him get elected as a Democrat to the Florida House. Celebrity upended his personal life, however.
His transformation included falling in love with a drug dealer who was moved secretly to Orlando by Puerto Rico's witness-protection program.
"We're still friends," Suarez said of Nilda Diaz. "She never, ever said that she was a drug dealer. Her words to me were that she was a witness to a drug crime."
Until they met, Suarez, 49, acknowledges he was the sort of second-generation "Nuyorican" who had moved to the suburbs, spoke Spanish poorly and didn't know green peas from gandules -- pigeon peas served in Puerto Rico.
Pushed into a change
His ignorance of his parents' native island started to change in late 1996. About 5,000 people turned out that fall to march in a protest that Suarez organized against the Orlando Sentinel's coverage of drug smuggling from Puerto Rico.
"All of a sudden things started happening to me that I didn't know. People started asking me why I was doing this, saying, 'You're not really Puerto Rican.' I wasn't Puerto Rican enough," Suarez said last week in his law office that overlooks Lake Dot on West Colonial Drive. "I realized, 'You know, they're right.' My Spanish was horrible. I didn't know that Puerto Rico had three parties."
That was when he bought a Spanish-English dictionary and decided to learn Puerto Rico's history.
He met Nilda Diaz within weeks of the 1996 protest, he said. She had been featured in several stories in the Sentinel about Puerto Rico's witness-protection program, which had been granting immunity and relocating criminals to Florida without notifying local authorities.
Upset, Diaz asked Orlando radio personality Miguel Negron on 1140 AM (WPRD) to introduce her to Suarez so she could sue the newspaper, Suarez said.
By January 1997 Suarez and his wife, Genevieve, separated for reasons he said were unrelated to Diaz. More than a year later, Genevieve sued for divorce, accusing Suarez of adultery with the woman she knew as Karen Rodriguez -- Diaz's alias in the witness-protection program, according to interviews and court papers.
Friend in witness program
Diaz, now 43, had run a drug ring that earned $30,000 to $50,000 a week selling heroin, cocaine and marijuana in Caguas, a city 20 miles outside of San Juan, according to a sworn statement she signed for Puerto Rico's Department of Justice.
Then, some of her colleagues committed a mass murder on March 13, 1994, that became known as the Cayey Massacre. Diaz agreed to trade her eyewitness account for relocation to Orlando and immunity from prosecution, records show.
The killers all worked for Exel "Negri" Torres, the same drug kingpin Diaz told prosecutors she paid $6,000 to $10,000 a week as his 20 percent cut of her sales, records show.
Diaz testified how she had watched as the four victims were beaten, forced to drink gasoline and set afire, according to news accountsof the trial.
Asked why he did not check Diaz's past more thoroughly -- given his background as a military police officer for 14 years and a prosecutor in New York City -- Suarez said he could not find anyone in Puerto Rico to discuss specifics of her past.
Suarez acknowledged that he hired Diaz as an investigator for his law firm and gave her business cards that identified her as "Karen Rodriguez." She no longer works for him, and they no longer date. The only tie they have is a car loan he co-signed for her in April 2000, he said.
Endorsements from sheriffs
"To me she was this woman in distress. I saw her as a woman in distress, and I tried to help her," said Suarez, who has been endorsed by Orange County Sheriff Kevin Beary, Seminole County Sheriff Don Eslinger and the Central Florida Police Benevolent Association. "Nilda was a wonderful person. It's sad to hear she went through all that stuff. I still keep in touch with her."
The couple stayed together during Suarez's successful campaign for the Florida House in 1999 and his unsuccessful campaign for circuit judge, according to interviews.
"I had heard the rumor she was in the witness-protection program and that she had a criminal record and there were all kinds of problems with her. But I only know her by the other name, Karen," said Orange County Democratic Party Chairman Doug Head.
Diaz did not return a message left at her home.
Until the protest march, Suarez's most visible activity had been serving as the first Hispanic chairman of the Democratic Party in Seminole County. He made a living handling real-estate closings and court-appointed cases. In 2000, The Florida Bar cited Suarez for misconduct for failing to handle a client's case in a timely and conscientious manner.
Suarez said he became a Republican largely because Democrats didn't want him to vote his conscience when he served in the Legislature.
"They wanted a minority they could control," he said. "I really threw a monkey wrench into their plans." Talking over dinner in a 1950s-theme restaurant, he pointed out early rock 'n' roll music playing on the jukebox and said it was the sound of his youth.
South Bronx shaped life
Hispanics, blacks and whites mixed together back then in the South Bronx, he said. The experience shaped his life and makes him the ideal candidate for building coalitions in Central Florida's racially diverse District 19, he said.
Just a year before Suarez moved to Central Florida in 1991, Crain's New York Business journal named him one of the city's 40 outstanding lawyers under 40.
Besides his own law firm, he had opened the Circle Dinner Club in the Bronx, billed as New York City's largest Hispanic nightclub and home of the Latin Music Hall of Fame. The business soured in September 1990 when one of the club's bouncers drew an unlicensed pistol, fired on a crowd outside and wounded a teenager.
"Life has its ups and downs. I've had a wonderful life; I can't complain," he said. "It's had its sad moments. It's had its wonderful moments."
Politics Takes The Stage At Festival Calle Orange
By Melissa Harris | Sentinel Staff Writer
October 28, 2002
Armed with jingles, balloons, fliers, cardboard fans and popcorn, candidates hoping to woo Hispanic voters in Central Florida turned out en masse at Sunday's Festival Calle Orange.
With only eight days left before the Nov. 5 election, more than 100,000 people were expected to eat pinchos, sip pina coladas and listen to bands on five stages at the region's celebration of Hispanic heritage and diversity.
But the sheer size of the event also offered candidates an ideal opportunity to boost their name recognition among Hispanic voters.
Given that Central Florida is home to many swing voters from Puerto Rico, Central America and the Dominican Republic, the candidates wanted to send the message that they take everyone's interests to heart.
"Orlando is the new melting pot in the United States," said Circuit Court Judge candidate Alan Apte. "As a judge, it's important that I represent the entire community, not just one group."
Apte's campaign created a Spanish jingle -- a popular campaign strategy in Puerto Rico -- to perform on stage at the event.
Hispanics hold more than 10 percent of the vote in Florida, and their allegiance to a party is never secure.
They range from heavily Republican Cuban voters centered in Miami to Puerto Ricans in Central Florida, who are decidedly Democratic-leaning.
Tony Suarez's campaign handed out more than 500 balloons and 2,500 cardboard fans, a perfect weapon against the 90-degree heat. Suarez, who is running for a Florida Senate seat in District 19 against Gary Siplin, switched his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican earlier this year.
"I'm liberal, but I believe Suarez is best for us," said Jaklyn Colon, 20, who spent Sunday afternoon tying ribbons to "Suarez for Senate" balloons and passing out campaign literature. "He moved to the Republican party because he believes they really support him."
But the stickers, hand-outs and schmoozing disappointed some of the partiers.
"This shouldn't be political," said Santos Cruz, 58, who is Puerto Rican. "They should separate all of these fliers from the fiesta."
The political hobnobbing, though, didn't stop most people from enjoying themselves.
The lobby of Tabu, a downtown nightclub, turned into a salsa party as two men ran around in Speedo bathing suits decorated with the Puerto Rican flag. On the next block, revelers could hear a Mexican mariachi band, and on Church Street, hip-hop music blasted as visitors checked out award-winning cars, souped up with flashy wheels, turbo engines and even video-game consoles.
John Quinones, a Puerto Rican running as a Republican for House District 49, said he came out to do a little bit of campaigning, but mostly to enjoy himself.
"I just wanted to have a good time," Quinones said as he ate a pincho, which most non-Hispanics would identify as a pork kebob. "The people need to see me with them, and it can't be all politics. I have to have fun, too."