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[Jeb] Bush Has Edge with Hispanics
by Maria T. Padilla
of The Sentinel Staff
Published in The Orlando Sentinel, Oct 4 1998
A year and a half ago, a dozen Hispanic leaders from Central, West and
South Florida trekked to Coral Gables to meet with Jeb Bush.
Bush had called the meeting, though he was still a long way from declaring
a second run for governor. He spent 90 minutes with the group, called the
Puerto Rican Caucus of Florida, which now is endorsing Bush.
"It's felt that he's a better candidate for the Puerto Rican community,"
said Luis de Rosa, a caucus member from Miami.
In their race for the Hispanic vote, Bush and Democratic candidate Buddy
MacKay have employed different strategies. As the Coral Gables meeting shows,
Bush tapped the Hispanic vote early on -- going so far as to include Puerto
Ricans, who historically vote Democratic.
MacKay hasn't met with many Hispanic groups, reflecting a late campaign
start in the Hispanic community. MacKay didn't launch his Miami-Dade and
Central Florida efforts until last month.
Both candidates are after Florida's increasingly important Hispanic vote.
Hispanics make up 11 percent of Florida voters, though in Miami-Dade County
the figure is 38 percent.
In Orange County, Hispanics make up 9 percent of all voters, but that
percentage is growing: The number of registered Hispanic voters in Orange
County has doubled in the past four years.
Hispanics statewide favor Bush by 64 percent, according to the latest
Mason-Dixon poll conducted for The Orlando Sentinel. About 23 percent support
MacKay, and 13 percent are undecided.
Because the group of respondents was relatively small on this question
in the poll, the results have a margin of error as high as 11 percent --
much higher than the overall poll. Even allowing for the margin, however,
Bush seems to hold a solid lead among Hispanics. Some political experts
say Hispanic support for Bush is tied to his Mexican-born wife and his ability
to speak Spanish. And many Hispanics agree that those factors are appealing.
"One of the biggest reasons the Hispanic community is happy to help
Jeb Bush is that he expresses himself well in Spanish. There is a part of
him that is Hispanic. That is very important," said Frank Denis of
Orlando. Denis, a Panamanian, last year held a barbecue for Bush.
That argument, however, makes light of Bush's behind-the-scenes work,
such as the Coral Gables meeting and many others like it.
Participants in those meetings -- many of them prominent business and
civic leaders -- subsequently fanned out into Hispanic communities, lining
up votes for Bush. In Central Florida alone, Bush has benefited from several
Hispanic breakfasts, barbecues and lunches that began last year. MacKay
has not been as visible among Hispanics.
Despite earlier rallies in Broward and Hillsborough counties, MacKay
began courting Hispanics in earnest only in September.
In addition to launching the Miami-Dade campaign office last month, MacKay
also attended Mexican Independence Day festivities in Miami as well as a
Hispanic breakfast in Orlando that featured Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Rossello.
Last month, the Florida Democratic Party named Osceola County Commissioner
Robert Guevara vice chairman, a move designed to boost MacKay's standing
"I'm getting Central Florida organized so we can start moving,"
said Guevara, who is Puerto Rican, as are half of all of Central Florida's
With a month to go before the election, there's little time left to woo
"I do think there was a delay in launching the campaign here,"
said Alonso Rhenals, president of the Colombian-American Democratic Council
Rhenals, a lifelong Democrat because of the party's support of minorities,
says MacKay may be taking cues from the Florida Democratic Party -- and
the party seems to hold outdated assumptions about Hispanics.
For instance, Hispanics are not a monolithic vote, but it seems to Rhenals
that Democrats may have written off Hispanics in South Florida because historically
it's a Cuban Republican stronghold.
In South Florida, Colombians and Nicaraguans are beginning to rival Cubans
in numbers and influence. Colombians are the second-largest group in Miami
-- and they tend to vote Democratic.
"The party at the state level has to be more aware of what's happening
in the different counties, especially a county like Dade where things change
so fast," Rhenals said.
In contrast, Bush's network appears to have informed the campaign about
Hispanic differences. This allowed Bush to hone in on newcomers from Puerto
Rico, who are less politically established and whose votes may be up for
"We've put that kind of network together everywhere," said
Roland Marante, Bush's statewide Hispanic coordinator.
Many Hispanics, including MacKay supporters, say networking among Hispanics
is more important than advertising.
"For me, Hispanics have to know the candidate. That's very important.
Hispanics are very sensitive to that," said Guevara, who met with MacKay
for two hours before agreeing to endorse him.
Still, the Bush campaign has been heavy on ads, while the MacKay campaign
plans to launch its bilingual media soon, said campaign manager Robin Rorapaugh.
Hispanics are sensitive to certain issues in each campaign.
Some Hispanics criticize MacKay for a "poor record" of Hispanic
appointments under the two-term administration of Gov. Lawton Chiles.
"I don't know of too many appointments, no prominent positions,
no money set aside for increased trade between Puerto Rico and Florida.
I'm so dissatisfied," said de Rosa of Miami.
MacKay field coordinator Joe Pena said Hispanics hold 8 percent of positions
in Chiles' administration. The state awarded $50 million in contracts to
Hispanic businesses in fiscal 1997, he said.
Bush gets a negative reaction from some Hispanics for his school voucher
plan, which critics charge may hurt public schools.
"With Bush, the voucher issue doesn't convince me," Guevara
But overall, Bush is convincing to most Hispanics. As a Republican, Bush
is likely to benefit from the support of older Cubans in the Miami area.
They are staunch anti-Castro Republicans, and they are most likely to vote.
Among Democrat-leaning Puerto Ricans, former President George Bush's
close ties to Luis A. Ferre, patriarch of Puerto Rico's modern pro-statehood
party, may help his son Jeb. Puerto Ricans in the Orlando area tend to favor
statehood more than their counterparts in the Northeastern states.
Sentinel exit polling during the September primary underscores Hispanic
support for Bush. In Orange County, 67 percent of Hispanics favored Bush
-- higher than Bush's 62 percent support among non-Hispanic whites.
Guevara and others in the MacKay campaign maintain Hispanics haven't
heard MacKay's message against vouchers and for the disenfranchised.
"There might be a tendency to switch, but they haven't heard the
message," Guevara said.