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John Quinones: 'A Rising Star' In GOP Ranks

By Letitia Stein | Tallahassee Bureau

April 27, 2003
Copyright © 2003
THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All rights reserved. 

New view.

Rep. John Quinones

Hometown: Kissimmee

Age: 38

Occupation: attorney and mediator

Education: Lake Howell High. Associate degree, Valencia Community College. Bachelor of business administration, University of Central Florida, 1988. St. Thomas University School of Law, Miami, 1991.

Personal: wife, Jacqueline; daughter, Natalia, 6; son, Alexander, 4.

TALLAHASSEE -- An access card swinging from his neck, the Central Florida lawmaker who calls himself "John Q" looks every bit the lost freshman at the state Capitol.

Except that leading Republicans hold doors open for Rep. John Quinones. The governor visits his 11th-floor office. Quinones is chairman of a key House committee, and his ideas attract influential help.

The first Puerto Rican Republican in the Statehouse, Quinones is being groomed to carry the party's banner to the nearly half a million Hispanics from the island who live in Florida.

"They have given me the opportunity to shine as a leader, and I have taken advantage of that," said Quinones, who speaks with a soft Spanish accent.

Quinones is a powerful messenger for Republicans courting the independently minded voting bloc. Most Puerto Ricans are Democrats, but they backed Republican Gov. Jeb Bush in 1998, then supported Democrat Al Gore for president in 2000. About one-third of the state's Puerto Ricans live in Central Florida.

Al Cardenas, former chairman of the state Republican Party, called Quinones "a key player in our being able to continue to convert the Puerto Rican community to the Republican cause."

"John Quinones can campaign alongside Gov. Bush and President Bush when he comes to our state," Cardenas said.

Fast track upward

It's a rapid political ascent for the Kissimmee attorney who turned 38 on Saturday. Six months ago, he was a long shot for the new "Hispanic opportunity" seat carved out of Orange and Osceola counties.

In fact, he didn't even live in the district until after the election.

Last year, Quinones played up his island connections to upset Jose Fernandez, a better-known Democrat from Nicaragua.

Quinones won the generally Democratic district with a savvy, grass-roots campaign bolstered by a Republican media blitz.

No one, especially the Puerto Rican mayors who flew in to campaign for Quinones, saw the race as strictly local. The mayors' agenda was to advocate statehood for the island to Jeb Bush and the president.

Democrats optimistic

"The [Puerto Rican] vote is in play, in general," said Larry Gonzalez, Washington director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.

"What's happening in many Latino communities is that they are willing to listen to those who approach them and talk to them about issues."

But Democrats think they'll be able to unseat Quinones when he seeks re-election next year in the blue-collar district.

"It's nice to have a guy who will invite you in for arroz con pollo [rice with chicken] and say, 'Yo te amo,' [I love you], but it doesn't cut it when it comes to public policy," said Doug Head, leader of the Orange County Democratic Party. "Puerto Ricans, like most Floridians, want good schools, decent infrastructure, jobs -- and they're not getting them with these Republicans."

To Democrats, Quinones' decision to campaign last fall as "John Q" could backfire in 2004.

While his ads displayed a Puerto Rican landmark, the Anglo-sounding name "John Q" may have attracted the votes of non-Hispanic whites.

Polishing his message

"When John is up for re-election, I am sure they are going to find out his track record," said Dalis Guevara, whose late husband, a Puerto Rican Democrat, was the first and only Hispanic elected to the Osceola County Commission.

She said Puerto Ricans would not be taken for granted.

"I don't know if we will vote for George W. Bush," she added.

In the meantime, though, the GOP and Quinones will have had two years to polish their message.

Quinones has climbed the ranks fast in Tallahassee. When circumstances left the House panel overseeing work force and economic development without a chairman, Quinones, then vice chairman, landed the top job.

Quinones, one of the only freshman lawmakers with a leadership position, had to learn a difficult role quickly. At panel hearings, staff members whispered chamber rules to him.

"I've had to learn the process very quickly so I could make an impact," Quinones said.

Controversial proposal

Most first-year lawmakers would not have stood a chance with a controversial idea to exempt high-school seniors who are still learning English from a new required graduation exam.

Then Hispanic Republicans looking to forge a political alliance with Puerto Ricans in Central Florida helped Quinones fine-tune the proposal.

"All we're doing is putting our energies for the same common cause," said Rep. Ralph Arza, R-Hialeah, a teacher instrumental in crafting a couple of versions of the legislative proposals. "It's a good thing when good public policy and politics merge."

But the proposal threatened the governor's "A-plus" accountability plan, a potentially tense situation for a politician courting Hispanic voters.

Gov. Bush says he considers the Puerto Rican lawmaker "a good friend and a rising star."

Quinones' influence was key to a face-saving compromise for both sides that would do away with the special exemptions for recent immigrants but bolster English-language classes for seniors who failed the exam. And it would allow the students to advance to community colleges.

If it passes, Quinones will come home to cheers from many Spanish-speaking parents in his district.

Different experience

Meanwhile, his Tallahassee next-door-neighbor, freshman Rep. Larry Cretul, R-Ocala, had a far different experience.

While Cretul also holds one of the few seats that Democrats think they could win in the next election, he has not received any special treatment.

"All they have said is, 'Work hard, pay attention to your constituents and the proof will be in the pudding,' " Cretul said.

Quinones received the same advice but with a lot more help. And he acknowledges his advantage as a Republican messenger to Puerto Ricans.

"I'm willing to take that role because it could translate to benefits for Central Florida," he said.

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