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Quionnes Campaign Draws National Attention… Orange County Registration Gains Please Democrats

Quionnes Campaign Draws National Attention

Jason Garcia, Tallahassee Bureau

April 24, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved.

TALLAHASSEE -- Technically speaking, rookie Rep. John Quinones is simply running for re-election this year in a small Florida House district that straddles Orange and Osceola counties.

So why are political strategists talking about spending massive amounts of money to win a slice of Florida where fewer than 30,000 people voted two years ago?

Republican and Democratic insiders alike are convinced that whether the soft-spoken lawmaker nicknamed "John Q" wins a second term in Tallahassee could be key to whether President Bush returns to the White House.

"It's going to be national," said state Rep. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, who is organizing the state Democrats' election strategy for the state House.

The president's brother agrees.

"There is more at stake here than his [Quinones'] election," Gov. Jeb Bush wrote in a letter urging GOP faithful to contribute to Quinones' campaign. "My brother, President George W. Bush's re-election is equally at stake."

The first Puerto Rican ever elected to the state Legislature, Quinones, R-Kissimmee, has become a major player in the Republican Party's Hispanic outreach effort in Florida. In particular, Republicans see Quinones as a foothold into the state's burgeoning -- and highly independent -- Puerto Rican population.

Quinones says Hispanics, especially Puerto Ricans recently arrived from the U.S. commonwealth, are just beginning to learn the process and have little political allegiance. That gives both parties incentive to court them.

"My mom, we came here, she registered as independent," said Quinones, 38. "It's a great time in history for the Hispanic community. We're kind of like the fresh blood being injected into the melting pot."

More than 240,000 Puerto Ricans moved to Florida between 1990 and 2000, according to the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, more than any other state in the country. The agency estimates that there are now more than 650,000 Puerto Ricans living in Florida.

Although the majority are registered Democrats, the party allegiance isn't strong. They supported Vice President Al Gore during the 2000 presidential race. But they backed Jeb Bush in his gubernatorial win in 2002.

"That's a group that both the Republicans and Democrats are really fighting for," said Aubrey Jewett, a University of Central Florida political-science professor. "That's considered to be a group that's really in play."

In addition, more than 400,000 of the state's Puerto Ricans live in Central Florida, the heart of the Interstate 4 corridor. It's the region many analysts are convinced will decide whether Florida's 27 Electoral College votes -- one-tenth of the total needed to win the presidency -- will go to President Bush or his presumed Democratic opponent, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts.

And in a state where the 2000 presidential campaign was decided by just a few hundred votes, both parties know they may only need to wrest a few supporters away from the other side to win. It's as if the perfect political storm is brewing in Quinones' District 49.

"It's very reflective of the major themes of the presidential race in Florida," Jewett said. "It is a really important race."

But Quinones wasn't even supposed to win his House seat in 2002. The state Legislature essentially created House District 49 for a Democrat. Designed as an "Hispanic opportunity" seat, it is nearly 40 percent Hispanic, the bulk of whom are Puerto Ricans.

Many Democrats think they lost the seat two years ago simply because they ran the wrong candidate -- a Nicaraguan named Jose Fernandez -- not a Puerto Rican. Spanish-language media urged Puerto Ricans registered as Democrats to cross party lines for Quinones.

Quinones won 54 percent of the vote in a district with nearly 10,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans.

Now that they have a hold on the district, Republicans vow not to let go. They have promoted Quinones heavily, tapping him for key committee assignments and handing him high-profile issues. Quinones has been interviewed by CNN and Newsweek in the past two months.

He also has been given the kind of access to Gov. Bush that's unheard of for a rookie lawmaker. When the governor visited Universal Orlando two weeks ago to unveil a National Hispanic Steering Committee to aid his brother's re-election bid, Quinones stood right by his side.

Then there was that fund-raising letter Bush penned on Quinones' behalf.

"By targeting John Q for defeat, the Democrats ultimately are targeting our President for defeat," Bush wrote, adding that Quinones "can help the Republican Party win the Hispanic Vote, not only in the next election but for years to come."

Quinones has used his influence to produce tangible results. He managed to persuade Bush to go along with a plan that allows students who fail their attempts at the FCAT to use SAT or ACT scores in its place -- a helpful tool, particularly among students just learning English.

To defend Quinones, said Lew Oliver, the chairman of the Orange County Republican Party, the GOP will put up a "world-class fight."

"John Q is the symbolic representation of the battle for an important, new swing bloc," Oliver said. "It has symbolic significance and real significance both."

Democrats say they're ready for a battle, too. They're touting a Puerto Rican candidate of their own, Israel Mercado, a 27-year-old pastor and professor from south Orlando. A second Puerto Rican, Juan Bruno, a retired federal worker who also ran in 2002 but lost in the primary, also is in the race.

"This race is going to be a crucial race. It's going to set a precedent, I believe," Mercado said. "The Hispanic people here are more aligned with Democrats."

Republicans "want to push them [minority candidates] out front," said Smith, the incoming House Democratic leader. "But you've got to look at who's standing behind them."

Democrats hope to paint Quinones as little more than a lockstep Republican. And they vow not to let Republicans outspend them. They even have talked of spending as much as $4 million in three districts, including Quinones'.

Perhaps the biggest beneficiaries of the heightened stakes in the Quinones campaign are Puerto Rican voters, said Zulma Velez-Estrada, who is managing the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration's voter-registration effort in Florida. The group has registered more than 30,000 Florida Puerto Ricans to vote since May.

"Everybody knows the Puerto Ricans are the most important swing vote," Velez-Estrada said. "This is an opportunity for us to let people know we are a political power."

Quinones says he welcomes his party's expectations. Puerto Ricans should look at his status as a sign that Republicans are serious about taking care of minorities, he said.

"I'm flattered," Quinones said. "To me, that sends a message."

John Quinones Republican from Kissimmee Age: 38 Job: Attorney Committees: Subcommittee on Workforce and Economic Development, chairman; Commerce; Future of Florida's Families;, Judiciary; Subcommittee on Claims; Subcommittee on Commerce and Local Affairs Appropriations; Subcommittee on Elder Affairs and Long-Term Care. Address: 1101 Capitol 402 S. Monroe St., Tallahassee, FL 32399-1300, 850-488-9240.

Registration Gains Please Democrats

Independents are also growing on rolls along the I-4 corridor.

By Mark Schlueb | Sentinel Staff Writer

June 5, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved.

The Democratic Party is registering thousands more voters in Orange County, a place once dominated by Republicans, according to the latest voter-registration numbers.

The same holds true in three other counties along the Interstate 4 corridor -- the area coveted by both presidential contenders. Voters also are registering as independents at a faster clip.

But GOP registrations are lagging.

"The Republican Party has been standing still in Orange County for four years; I don't care how much they thump their chests," said Doug Head, leader of Orange County's Democrats.

Political experts attribute the Democrats' growth to widespread registration drives and division over the war in Iraq.

The key to a Democratic win in November will be getting out the vote. Democrats are traditionally less likely to show up on Election Day. And Central Florida's Hispanic voters often cross party lines to vote Republican.

"We like our chances," said Lew Oliver, chairman of Orange County's Republican Executive Committee. "We control the vast majority of the partisan elected offices in Orange County, and we're not in danger of losing any of them."

Democrats held a healthy lead in Orange County for generations. But for much of that time, the party tended to vote conservative in national races.

When it came to the presidency, Orange County residents consistently voted for Republican candidates from 1952 until 1996.

GOP's reign in Orange

In 1988, Republicans pulled ahead of Democrats in voter registration for the first time. They kept a healthy margin until the fall of 2000, when the battle between George W. Bush and Al Gore spurred the Democrats to work harder to get out the vote.

The list of registered Democrats surpassed Republicans in that race, but only by a few thousand people. Still, Gore won Orange County.

Since then, the Democratic Party has added 26,232 voters in Orange, while the Republicans added 10,635. Democrats now outnumber Republicans by 19,170.

Democrats also hold the lead in Osceola, Volusia and Polk counties, and in Florida overall. Republicans outnumber Democrats in Seminole, Lake and Brevard.

The list of new Democrats includes people such as Nadeem Battla, a self-employed businessman from southwest Orange County who is upset about Bush's handling of the Iraq war and the Middle East.

"I've been a registered Republican since I was 18 years old. And I still consider myself a conservative," Battla said. "But I switched my party to Democrat in December."

Growing even faster is the list of people who are joining minor parties or forgoing any affiliation. In 1996, there were 51,351 Orange County residents in that category; today there are more than twice that number. Other Florida counties -- even those with Republican majorities -- have shown similar strong gains in no-party and minor-party voters.

That trend is perhaps most noticeable at the other end of the I-4 corridor. In Pinellas County, the GOP has the most members. But the Republican and the Democratic parties have lost voters every year since at least 1996.

There were more than 266,000 Republicans in Pinellas in '96; now there are slightly fewer than 225,000. Independent voters jumped from 90,669 to 122,310 in the same period.

Political experts say gains by Democrats and independents are in part because of divisions about Iraq and hard feelings over President Bush's contested win in 2000. But it's also because of voter-registration drives by a variety of groups that have one thing in common: They tend to lean left.

They range from the massive America Votes, a new consortium of environmental organizations, labor unions and liberal-advocacy groups, to the grassroots, which aims to register 500,000 anti-Bush voters.

"The fruits of their labors are paying off," said Susan MacManus, a political-science professor at the University of South Florida. "What's surprising is the rise in people not choosing a political party. Most of these registrants are young, and they tend to register independent. They don't really know what a Democrat or a Republican is."

It is these independent-minded voters that both Bush and John Kerry must win to carry Florida, where polls show them neck-and-neck.

Independent committees working to unseat Bush are spending big money -- all of it unregulated by federal election law -- to knock on doors in critical swing neighborhoods. They're after a large turnout among Democrats, who have historically voted in lower rates than the GOP.

Republicans say they also hold the advantage because Democrats are more likely to cross party lines.

"Virtually no Republicans ever vote Democrat," Oliver said. "But huge numbers of Democrats regularly vote Republican."

Democratic deserters

A case in point: Central Florida's Hispanic voters. The large concentration of voters from Puerto Rico, Latin America and South America are more likely to join the Democratic Party.

But that doesn't mean they vote that way. Hispanics don't have strong ties to any party and are less likely to vote along party lines. Orange County's Hispanic precincts voted for Jeb Bush in the 2002 governor's race, for instance.

In that way, Hispanic voters have much in common with Arab-Americans, Battla said. He and many other Muslims fret about what they see as the Bush administration's anti-Muslim stance and the Patriot Act's infringement on civil rights.

That doesn't mean the Democratic Party will hold onto them easily, though.

"The Democrats should not take us for granted," Battla said. "We certainly have no loyalty to one party or another."

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