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St. Petersburg Times

Groups Rally To Boost Hispanic Turnout


September 19, 2003
Copyright © 2003 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved. 

A word of advice to politicians: Make friends with Latinos now. The Hispanic community's traditionally low voter turnout in Hillsborough County is about to change.

A task force of national organizations is coming to the Tampa area to increase voter education and registration among Latinos. Latin Americans make up about 20 percent of Hillsborough County's population, and the number is quickly growing.

The groups are scheduled to open offices throughout the city between now and March. Among them: the United States Hispanic Leadership, the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, the League of United Latin American Citizens, People for the American Way Foundation, Mi Familia Vota 100% and La Raza.

Helping them will be Anthony Morejon, the county's Hispanic affairs liaison. In June, he started the Latin Voter Project, a local non-partisan group that meets weekly in West Tampa. The mission: register all eligible Latinos to vote.

Morejon has invited leaders from different ethnic Latino backgrounds to participate in the hopes of uniting Florida's largest minority group. "This opens the door for vital communication,'' he said.

The Latin Voter Project plans to partner with the national organizations and help them get involved locally.

"The more organizations working together, the better our efforts will be,'' said Guillermo Nicasio, the senior organizer for Hispanic projects at the People for the American Way Foundation. In November, a year from the presidential election, the group will hold a press conference to announce its initiatives.

Christian Leon, a member of the Latino Voter Project, said that if Latinos would start voting as a block, people in Tampa would start recognizing the Hispanic community's needs and appreciating the city's own unique multicultural history. Politicians would also have to make more of an effort to communicate with Hispanics because of their wild card voting patterns.

"Latinos are morally conservative, but are also aware of community needs,'' he said. "They could be a major swing vote in our county.''

But the challenges are big. In 2002, only 39,025 Latinos were registered to vote countywide and, of those, less than half made it to the polls.

Rodney Ortiz, a community activist and voter registration officer for the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, said that Latinos are more apathetic about voting here than in other places. Many come from highly politicized countries and may be fed up with politics. Others do not understand the United States' electoral process and feel disenfranchised.

"Hispanics would rather buy lotto tickets than vote,'' Morejon said. "But we're going to change that.''

- For more information about the Latin Voter Project call Anthony Morejon at 276-8622.

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