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Latino Victories Signal Growing Clout At-Large Voting System Penalizes Hispanic Candidates
Latino Candidates: Victories Signal Growing Clout
November 7, 2002
The election that will put a Republican in the Governor's Mansion for the first time since Reconstruction was historic for another first as well: Three Latino candidates were elected to the state Legislature.
Their election, from Fulton and Gwinnett counties, is a sign of growing political power for a group that is contributing to Georgia's increasing diversity. The U.S. Census Bureau says the state Latino population increased 300 percent in the '90s, to about 435,000.
Voters in Gwinnett elected Republican David Casas, a high school teacher of Cuban ancestry, and Democrat Pedro Marin, a native of Puerto Rico who is executive director of the Mexican Center of Atlanta. They won seats in the Georgia House of Representatives. Casas defeated a Libertarian challenger. Marin ran unopposed.
In Fulton, Democrat Sam Zamarripa won a seat in the state Senate. He is an investment banker whose grandfather was born in Mexico. He defeated an opponent in the primary and ran unopposed in the general election.
Casas, Marin and Zamarripa won with the support of white and black voters. Less than 3 percent of Georgia's electorate is Hispanic, but politicians say that number will increase as more Hispanics become U.S. citizens.
The lawmakers said they will focus on broad issues, such as education, transportation and public safety, but also on areas mainly of interest to Hispanics.
Among them: Whether the state should grant driver's licenses to illegal immigrants and offer HOPE scholarships to academically qualified teenagers whose parents brought them into this country illegally when they were young.
Marin and Zamarripa have said the state should grant driver's licenses to illegal immigrants because the immigrants drive every day but are prevented by Georgia law from obtaining licenses that would let them buy insurance and learn the rules of the road. They also support the granting of HOPE scholarships to high schoolers who were brought into the United States illegally when they were young.
Casas said he opposes granting driver's licenses and extending HOPE scholarships to people whose presence in the state violates federal law.
All three victorious candidates, however, agree that their presence in the Legislature puts them in a unique position. "I need to educate my fellow legislators as to what the Latinos are about," Marin said.
Hispanic Calls For Narrower Voter Field
By Mindy Hagen | Sentinel Staff Writer
November 10, 2002
KISSIMMEE -- Before Tuesday's election, Hispanics held no elected positions in Osceola County. Nothing changed after the votes were counted.
That outcome has renewed the call to change the county's at-large voting system. Some activists see that as the only way Hispanics, who make up nearly a third of Osceola's population, can win representation to match their numbers as residents.
"There's a good-old-boy network down here," said Armando Ramirez, who lost his race for Kissimmee's City Commission. "The only way a Hispanic or minority will ever win in Osceola County or Kissimmee is if we have single-member districts."
Ramirez, a retired New York City police officer, saw that Hispanics accounted for 42 percent of Kissimmee's 50,000 residents and felt confident about his chances of becoming the first Hispanic to win a commission seat.
It was not to be. He blames racism -- and the at-large system -- for his loss to incumbent Wendell McKinnon, who got 55 percent of the vote.
County Commission candidate Norman "Eddie" Lorenzo, the only other Hispanic in a local race, also lost. He received less than 40 percent of the votes against incumbent Ken Smith.
The losses, plus the ouster of incumbent County Commissioner Mary Jane Arrington and School Board member Judy Robertson, mean that the County Commission and School Board will be made up of 10 white Republican men.
The results raise questions of whether elections would turn out differently if candidates ran in districts representing groups of residents rather than running countywide or citywide.
"This controversy is a typical occurrence in American ethnic politics," said David Romero, a political science professor at Florida International University. "As counties become more urban and more developed, a power struggle emerges."
Counties' systems vary
Of Florida's 67 counties, 32 offer an at-large voting system while 27 employ single-member districts. Eight counties, including Orange and Volusia, have a mixed system, with some at-large seats and some single-member districts.
Romero said single-member districts and mixed systems are found in the state's largest and most diverse counties. Even when minorities make population gains, they can still struggle to get elected in an at-large system, he said.
"Even prominent members of the minority community have trouble getting elected at first."
It's a situation Dalis Guevara knows only too well. In the 1996 election, her husband, Robert, received the most votes in a heavily Hispanic district, which included the community of Buenaventura Lakes.
But on the same day voters elected Robert Guevara as the county's first and only Hispanic commissioner through the single-member district format, they voted to return to an at-large system.
When Robert Guevara died in April 2000, Dalis Guevara ran for his seat. Like her husband, she received the majority of support from Hispanics in her district but lost the tight countywide race.
"Osceola is so diverse, and that should be reflected in all of our levels of government," Guevara said. "But we continue to not have a voice. Single-member districts are probably the only vehicle for any minority to be elected."
Her opponent in the 2000 election, County Commission Chairman Paul Owen, said he doesn't favor a return to single-member districts. The ethnic background of a commission candidate is far less important than whether the candidate will do a good job, he said.
"I don't look at whether a person is Hispanic, black or white," Owen said. "I look at their qualifications and if they have the ability to bring the best ideas to the office. If the people in power aren't serving the community, voters have the opportunity to remove them in four years."
Owen also argued that commissioners should be elected to serve an entire county or city, not just one group.
"It isn't reasonable to elect somebody from one district but have them vote on things that will influence the entire county," he said. "An at-large system gives citizens the best representation because every commissioner is responsible to every citizen."
Some of the county's Hispanic leaders said they agree with Owen. Lorenzo, who lost a City Commission bid two years ago, said limiting his latest campaign to one district might have been easier than running countywide. But he doesn't necessarily think it would have been better for the community.
"I like the at-large system because I want to help everybody, not just Hispanics," Lorenzo said.
Jose Hoyos, secretary of Osceola's Republican Party and co-chairman of Gov. Jeb Bush's local re-election effort, said Ramirez's insistence on single-member districts shows a lack of confidence.
"He's shortcutting the value and the good traits of Hispanic candidates by saying they aren't fit to be candidates for the at-large population," Hoyos said. "If a Hispanic candidate is knowledgeable about the issues, they will win and get support from the Anglo community as well."
Challenge may bring switch
The debate about a return to single-member districts may not be solely up to Osceola residents. The U.S. Justice Department can order a move to the single-district format under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act if officials feel the county's election procedures are racially discriminatory and dilute the voting strength of minorities.
Romero, the FIU professor, said most counties switch because of such a challenge.
"People only give up power if they are forced to by the courts," he said. "The court cases are drawn-out, technical and expensive. But they work."
It may not come to that. During a debate last month, three Kissimmee City Commission candidates said they would support a switch to single-member districts. Osceola's charter allows voters to consider another change through referendum.
Ramirez plans to form a political organization and lobby for a return to single-member districts and for term limits. The group also will work to identify potential minority candidates.
"A change from the at-large system to single districts will be beneficial not just to minorities, but to good people who aren't affluent enough to afford a countywide campaign," Ramirez said.