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Quiñones Uses Personal Touch To Press Ahead… He Wins State House Seat

Quiñones Uses Personal Touch To Press Ahead

Myriam Marquez

November 3, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All rights reserved.

State Rep. John Quiñones worked his district as if he were the new kid on the block. Day after day, the Kissimmee lawyer knocked on doors throughout the working-class neighborhoods that dot District 49, offering a personal touch to a race that received national and even international attention.

As District 49 goes, became the mantra, so will the presidential race. Perhaps. But it's clear that John Q.'s hard work may hand him a come-from-behind victory.

Months ago, polls were showing that the one-term legislator was losing. It appeared that his energetic challenger, Israel Mercado, would turn the race away from the Puerto Rican quotient (unlike in 2002, both candidates are Puerto Rican) and on to bread-and-butter issues that resonate with voters.

But then came Charley, Frances and Jeanne, and incumbency mattered. When those three hurricanes whacked his district covering parts of Osceola County and east Orlando, Quiñones went so far as to grab a pickup to help load debris from the homes of elderly constituents who weren't getting any help through their local governments.

Need orange juice, water or ice?

Quiñones called Latino Leadership offices in Orlando to offer whatever he could find for residents who were left without power for days.

It came down to constituent service.

Late Tuesday, Quiñones, the state's first Puerto Rican Republican to serve in the Legislature, was beating Mercado in a district the GOP-controlled Legislature had drawn expecting a Democrat to win in 2002. The numbers should have handed Mercado, a pastor and college professor, a solid win this year, particularly because the Florida Democratic Party was bankrolling a large part of that campaign, determined to capture a district that's predominantly, if certainly not overwhelmingly, Democratic.

Mercado could rattle off a list of votes in which John Q. voted the GOP party line and, by extension, Mercado said, against the best interests of blue-collar folks. But for every Q. vote Mercado pointed to, Quiñones could offer a law, budget item or resolution in which he sided with the little guy, even bucking his own party to join the Dems on issues such as workers compensation and phone rates.

It started out as a referendum on John Q.'s voting record. It may end as an indictment of Mercado's political inexperience, beginning with not registering to vote until last year.

Yet it would be foolish to write off Mercado. He has a lot of potential, though this may not have been the right race. A bid for County Commission or School Board might be just the ticket for this up-and-comer.

It wasn't so much that Mercado was too young or inexperienced, though that might have influenced some voters. To me, Mercado's heart didn't seem to be in this race. His young family (he just became a father a few weeks ago) seemed to consume much of his time, as it should.

While Quiñones was walking the district, Mercado seemed to be slipping behind.

Sure, it helped that Quiñones had lots of cash to run big ads, too. In the end, though, the soft-spoken Quiñones may have pulled it off the old-fashioned way -- with the power of incumbency.

Quiñones Wins State House Seat

The incumbent beat his rival Israel Mercado to represent a heavily Hispanic District 49.

By Erin Ailworth | Sentinel Staff Writer

November 4, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All rights reserved.

State Rep. John Quiñones.

Rep. John P. Quiñones' kids knew early on that their father would win re-election to state House District 49.

"Today, my kids had an election in their school, and well, I won," Quiñones, 39, joked in Spanish late Tuesday at his campaign party at Coco Bongos on South Orange Blossom Trail.

But the Republican incumbent, though confident, was not sure of his victory until early Wednesday.

Quiñones garnered 52.4 percent of the vote in District 49, a heavily Hispanic area that straddles south Orange and north Osceola counties. Challenger Israel Mercado, a Democrat, received 47.6 percent of the vote, with all 55 precincts reporting.

"I knew it was going to be a close race because of the large turnout, and obviously my district is heavily Democratic and most people would vote party lines," Quiñones said Wednesday by phone after his victory had been declared.

The race, a harshly fought battle between the two Puerto Ricans, was the House race in Central Florida most heavily funded by the state political parties. Some saw it as an indicator of how the presidential race would swing.

In recent weeks, the race heated up as each candidate took shots at the other. Mercado, 28, was called out for his short voting record. He first registered in July 2003 and had voted only once before Tuesday. Quiñones was criticized for living outside his district. He says he plans to move back after repairs to his hurricane-damaged house are finished.

Both campaigned to improve education and access to health care, as well as to diversify the district's tourism-heavy economy. Quiñones also focused on hurricane recovery and reform to the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, while Mercado spoke of a universal pre-K plan and expanding Florida KidCare insurance coverage.

On Election Day, both candidates engaged in some last-minute stumping in the district.

By 9:15 p.m., Quiñones' campaign manager had run through the batteries on two cell phones. The third of the day, a slim silver LG from AT&T, seemed an extension of Paul Ortigoni's ear as he continually checked election returns.

Quiñones led the race by a small margin throughout Tuesday night; Mercado often hovered within 1,500 votes.

Confident, Quiñones supporters partied on, sure their "Super Q" would carry the day.

"I knew he was going to win," Nicole Murillo-Rasch, 40, said late Tuesday, before the race was officially decided. The Kissimmee resident said she voted for Quiñones mainly because of his work to help Hispanic students.

The decisive results came in about 3 a.m. Wednesday because the Osceola County tally had been delayed by overwhelming voter turnout.

Both Quiñones and Mercado were asleep by then. Ortigoni had called it a night an hour earlier.

Quiñones expressed joy Wednesday, saying he already had gotten a call from Gov. Jeb Bush. He said he expects to attend soon a special session of the Legislature on hurricane recovery and had contacted Puerto Rican business owners about bringing jobs into the district in an exchange.

Mercado said he congratulated Quiñones via telephone message on Wednesday.

"I do feel very encouraged that we were able to receive 48 percent of the vote and start building that base with Democrats here," Mercado said of his defeat. "We will be running again; this is just the start."

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