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John Q., Jeb Make The Connection
November 7, 2002
John Quiñones did a Herculean job to win a state House seat -- just another wake-up call to the Florida Democratic Party that continues to take Central Florida's Hispanic votes for granted.
Two years ago, voters from Kissimmee north through east Orlando turned out strong for Al Gore. So how did Republican Quiñones snatch victory this time from Democrat Jose Fernandez?
Door to door, waving the Puerto Rican flag at the homes where it mattered and touching on conservative family themes that resonate with many in the blue-collar area he will now serve. This was the upset race in Central Florida -- and Spanish-speaking Gov. Jeb Bush helped tremendously, too. Quiñones made the case that it would be better for his district, in which only about one-third of the voters are registered Republican and another one in five are unaffiliated, to have him working with the party in power in Tallahassee. He vowed he could bring home more economic development and educational opportunities for all the people in his district -- the Puerto Rican Democrats, the unaffiliated voters, the non-Hispanic whites -- than a Democrat ever could.
On a Spanish radio show Wednesday, Quiñones offered an olive branch. "I know some Puerto Ricans voted for Fernandez. Now's the time to leave all of those divisions behind."
He said he hoped to tap Fernandez's business acumen to benefit the district. Fernandez, who runs the Hispanic Business Initiative Fund, has the skills and knowledge to have been an excellent representative, but the numbers just didn't work his way. Jeb Bush's big win in Orange and Osceola counties, where polls showed he swept the Hispanic vote, helped Quiñones even as Bush's coattails weren't able to take another popular Puerto Rican pol, Tony Suarez, to the Senate.
But Quiñones helped himself, too, in what the Rev. Luis Lopez, who heads the Hispanic Christian Church Association of Central Florida, calls "the work of humility. John Q. did the work of an ant, never stopping, building and building a base."
That base included conservative Christians of all ethnicities, as well as liberal-leaning blue-collar Puerto Ricans who didn't connect with Fernandez's Nicaraguan roots. "John Q. connected with the working-class people of this district, and Fernandez was seen as the downtown businessman," Lopez said.
To offset Quiñones' Puerto Rican passion play, Fernandez had to woo white Democrats and independents, particularly in Orange County where two-thirds of the district is located. But the turnout overall in District 49 was weak, at 45 percent, which may mean that many non-Hispanic voters skipped voting in that race. Yet turnout countywide was 55 percent in the governor's race.
A massive get-out-the-vote campaign by Puerto Rico's Gov. Sila Calderon, and the help that the Office of Puerto Rico in Orlando offered voters on Election Day to get many to the polls, helped Quiñones, too. The voter drive was non-partisan, but let's not kid ourselves. Quiñones and Bush were savvy enough to bring mayors from the island to campaign for them here, and an infusion of $50,000 from the Florida Republican Party for Quiñones to spend on a media blitz worked wonders.
After the close call of 2000, the Republican Party set out to court Hispanics, particularly Puerto Ricans who are by virtue of the island's commonwealth status U.S. citizens, to run for local offices. Jose Hoyos, secretary of the Osceola County Republican Party, said Hispanics share many of the Republican Party's values but had not felt welcome by the GOP before. "We courted John Q. to run because we wanted Puerto Ricans to know that they have a home in our party. And the party put its money where its mouth is, too," Hoyos said.
Dalis Guevara, whose late husband, Roberto, a Democrat, was the first Puerto Rican elected to the Osceola County Commission, said Quiñones "opened the doors for many others to follow, but he will have to remember who elected him, too. He won independent of party lines. He will have to represent all of us with dignity because what he does will reflect on all of us."
The Democratic Party always whines that it's broke and can't compete with the Republicans. But Quiñones' come-from-behind wins in both the primary and the general election showed it's not just about money. It's about making the connection, si.