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THE ORLANDO SENTINEL
Newcomer Luis Pastrana Challenges City Hall Veteran
Betty Wyman has had her Orlando council seat for 12 years; now Luis Pastrana wants it.
By Melissa Harris and Walter Pacheco | Sentinel Staff Writer
February 19, 2004
It is difficult for any candidate to unseat an incumbent -- much less one like Orlando City Commissioner Betty Wyman, who has held public office for 12 years and personally knows at least a handful of people in every neighborhood in her district.
Constituent services is the forte of Orlando's longest-serving City Council member. In 2001, she bailed out a failing homeowners' association with city money that she could have spent on her own travel.
She bought bingo prizes for seniors in a housing authority complex when a federal check to pay for the awards didn't arrive on time.
When a man ripped through one of her east-side neighborhoods robbing residents, she visited or called many of the victims.
With more than $35,000 in Wyman's campaign chest, almost 100 percent financed by the development and tourism industries, her opponent is facing an uphill battle. As of Jan. 1, Luis Pastrana had raised $3,500.
Political experience and money aside, Wyman's campaign could be overshadowed by what critics call neglect of Hispanic residents -- 32 percent of the 13,709 registered voters in her district -- and key missteps on citywide issues.
For example, in December, Wyman was the only commissioner to sign a confidentiality agreement preventing her from telling the public about a multimillion-dollar incentive deal scheduled to be voted on three days later.
She also has changed political parties twice in four years -- she is now a Democrat -- and flip-flopped on light rail, casting a vote first for it and then later against it.
David Blackwood, president of the Dover Estates Homeowners Association, says those decisions won't sway his vote.
"I wouldn't agree with everything she has done on citywide issues," he said. "But none of those votes affected our neighborhood. She attends neighborhood meetings and shows deep concern for residents."
Of all of the city districts, none claims more Hispanics and seniors than District 2. A retiree herself, Wyman, 72, has never had difficulty bringing seniors to the polls. Many of them have attended picnics, ice cream socials and parties that Wyman has put on.
Some Hispanics, however, say it is time for them to get the same attention.
"I've had a law office in this district for 21 years, and she has never once knocked on my door," said Luis Gomez, a Pastrana supporter. "We need to see a few Puerto Ricans in office in this vicinity."
The criticism seems to have registered with Wyman. She is promising to hire a Spanish-speaking aide, after her current assistant, an Asian-American, leaves her post in May.
She also announced the creation of a Hispanic outreach office in her district last month with Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer. The office, called HOLA, will help Hispanic immigrants become familiar with English, computers, rental-assistance programs and health services.
Critics, however, say the program panders to voters during an election year.
"She announced it before her re-election just to get our votes, but I don't think so," said Evelyn Rivera, an Orlando Hispanic activist.
On the day Wyman announced the office's creation, Pastrana went on Spanish-language television arguing that the program was his idea. According to Pastrana, he came up with the idea for the service center after visiting a similar program in Atlanta.
At the press conference, however, Dyer credited transition-team member Eddie Diaz for developing the idea. "I met with Luis during the campaign and said, 'Here's what Eddie suggested. What do you think?' " Dyer said.
In 2001, Pastrana moved to Central Florida to serve as director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration -- an appointment made by the island's governor. Similar to an embassy, the office helps Puerto Ricans living in Florida. Under his tenure, the office registered more than 10,000 Puerto Ricans to vote.
Pastrana left the office in 2003 because he said he was getting pressure to turn the nonpartisan office into an arm of the Democratic Party. "Offering any help to Republican candidates was frowned upon," Pastrana said.
Pastrana, 68, who considers himself an independent, has been courted by local Republican Party chief Lew Oliver, but says that he will not accept an endorsement or money from any party.
Pastrana has been involved in politics in Puerto Rico since his youth. His father played a role in founding the Popular Democratic Party, and Pastrana himself served as the party's finance director for more than two years.
Puerto Rico's comptroller, who audits government programs, raised questions about Pastrana's ability to manage public funds while he served as president of the board of North Eastern Recovery Corp., a nonprofit company, from 1991 to 1993.
According to the audit, NORECORP received more than $3 million in public funds to build a waste disposal system for the San Juan suburbs of Guaynabo and Carolina but did not complete the project.
Of the funds, $623,769 was used to pay consultants who were Pastrana's associates, and $37,457 was spent on travel without any receipts to justify the expense, according to the audit. Also, his son was paid another $18,000 to install a computer system.
Pastrana argues that he had no control over NORECORP and says that the bank assumed responsibility for all financial decisions, including the hiring of consultants and his son.
NORECORP "did not have the power to contract anyone, keep receipts or pay any salaries," Pastrana said. "All of that was up to the Banco Gubernamental de Fomento," which oversees major infrastructure projects on the island.
A lawyer by training, Pastrana says he took on more than 100 pro bono cases during his career in Puerto Rico and oversaw and coached children's athletic leagues.
Although Pastrana has a long history of service in the Hispanic community -- the Puerto Rican community, in particular -- Wyman says he has had little interaction with neighborhood associations and non-Hispanic groups in District 2.
Wyman has lived in the district for about 30 years; Pastrana for two.
Both candidates address similar issues. Both want to make State Road 436 safer for pedestrians and bikers. Both also say that crime is a critical concern, even though drug-related arrests in the district were at the lowest in four years in 2003.
Pastrana also says he wants to create a district task force to gather suggestions from constituents and provide adequate lighting and traffic-calming devices.
Experts say, however, the race could come down to funding and name recognition. "I'm running this time because I feel like I can do more for the district," said Wyman, who promised this would be her last campaign for city commissioner. "I don't think there's anyone out there running who knows the district better than me."
Sentinel staff writers Vanessa Vazquez in Orlando and Ray Quintanilla in Puerto Rico contributed to this report.
Luis R. Pastrana
Sentinel Staff Writer
Copyright © 2004, Orlando Sentinel
February 19, 2004
Occupation: Attorney; part-time professor at Metro Orlando University Center, an affiliate of Puerto Rico's Ana G. Mendez University system
Education: Law degree, University of Puerto Rico Law School; master's in business, Fairleigh Dickinson University; bachelor's, University of Puerto Rico
Political or civic experience: Central Florida regional director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, 2001-03; board member, Hispanic Health Initiative; board member, Puerto Rican Association.
Family: Married, five children
Key issues: Increase police presence; improve lighting; open an office in the district; create citizens task force; improve State Road 436.
Quote: "I have no problem with millions of dollars being spent on downtown, but don't leave my district stagnant. It is totally and completely stagnant, and now we have to catch up."