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The Boston Globe

In Florida, Different Latino Group Now In Mix


October 30, 2000
Copyright © 2000 The Boston Globe. All Rights Reserved.

In the fight for Florida, the presidential race may well hinge on a group of Hispanics often ignored by those campaigning in the Sunshine State: Puerto Ricans.

Overshadowed by the state's most vocal Latino constituency, Cuban-Americans, Puerto Ricans are a new target vote for the Bush and Gore presidential campaigns, both of which are scrambling to win over the "other Hispanics'' in and around Orlando.

With the race excruciatingly tight in this critical state, it is a swing vote that could decide not only which party runs the White House, but also whether the Democrats retake control of the House of Representatives.

"It's a battleground within a battleground,'' said Leo DiBenigno, the Florida spokesman for the campaign of George W. Bush.

"It's been the Cuban community, for the last 40 years, that has been in the news,'' said Bob Poe, chairman of the Florida Democratic Party.

But "a lot of changes have taken place'' in the state's demographics, he said. "It's a little bit of stealth information.''

The fight for the pocket of Puerto Rican voters in Florida is emblematic of how close this election is, with a small voter group potentially having a dramatic impact on the race.

Arab-Americans in Michigan, for example, could turn the state - and with it, perhaps, the election - should they throw their 4 percent of the vote behind one candidate.

Supporters of the Green Party candidate, Ralph Nader, who are a small segment of the electorate in Washington, could swing that state by deciding either to back Al Gore, giving him a victory, or to stick with Nader, perhaps handing a win to Bush.

In Central Florida, the influx of Puerto Ricans, now numbering more than 350,000, has changed the dynamics of the state's Hispanic vote, long considered a solid Republican block.

Orlando, the city best known as home to Walt Disney World, is now peppered with Spanish-speaking neighborhoods. The strip malls on the main drag of Semoran Boulevard feature such storefronts as Banco Popular and Cafeteria Latina.

Puerto Ricans are arriving from both the island itself and from the Northeast, said the Orange County Democratic Committee chairman, Doug Head, and the migration is expected to continue.

Puerto Ricans in New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts are becoming increasingly middle class and are choosing to retire in Florida, often bringing their families with them, Head said. In Puerto Rico, billboards advertise affordable property in Central Florida, drawing people north from the island.

Unlike Cuban-Americans, Puerto Ricans tend to vote Democratic. And, unlike Cuban immigrants, Puerto Ricans are already citizens and can vote right away.

Gore supporters hope that this Orlando-area community could provide the critical edge to deliver the state - and perhaps the presidency - to Gore.

The Puerto Rican community also plays a potentially strong role in the battle for control of the House.

While the 8th Congressional District in Florida is majority Republican by voter registration, the Democratic candidate, Linda Chapin, is slightly ahead in the polls against her Republican opponent, Ric Keller, in part because of her support among Puerto Ricans.

A Chapin win is one of the keys to the Democrats' uphill struggle to gain the additional seven seats needed to take the majority.

"The Hispanic vote in Central Florida can make the difference and will make the difference,'' Head said.

Democrats have undertaken a massive voter-registration effort among Puerto Ricans in the last few years, bringing Latino voter registration in Central Florida from 15,000 to 90,000, local party officials say.

In 1998, Central Florida elected its first Puerto Rican to the Florida Legislature, sending lawyer and radio personality Tony Suarez to the State House.

Both Bush and Gore are sending Latino surrogates to campaign in the area. Both campaigns are also planning a strong presence at the yearly Hispanic festival in Orlando, called "Calle Orange'' (Orange Street), next Sunday, an event expected to draw 50,000 people.

"We are going to every bodega, to every radio station and every TV station,'' said Marytza Sanz, a Puerto Rican aide recently hired by the Gore campaign. "We are motivating the community to come out and vote, and we are going to be doing activities directed at the Hispanic community.''

The Bush campaign isn't fazed by the heavy Democratic registration among Puerto Ricans. Governor Jeb Bush of Florida is using his popularity among Florida Latinos to help his brother, recording Spanish-language phone messages urging Puerto Ricans to vote for Bush.

"In Florida, I think it's extremely doable to bring in more Democratic Hispanics'' to Bush, said DiBenigno, the Bush campaign spokesman.

The Gore effort, local Democrats complain, may be too little, too late to rally the Puerto Ricans for the vice president.

Only recently has the Gore campaign hired a Puerto Rican political aide to galvanize the community, they said, while the campaign of George W. Bush has been working the area longer and more aggressively.

"It has been extremely hard for the Gore campaign to realize the potential of Florida and move on it in ways that are effective,'' said Head, the Orange County Democratic chairman.

Evelyn Rivera, the Puerto Rican vice chairwoman of the Orange County Democratic party, has been getting taped phone messages for months from people like Barbara Bush, the candidate's mother, urging her to vote Republican.

She has received no such calls from her own party.

Puerto Ricans are a natural Democratic constituency, said Suarez, the legislator.

"The question is, what are we going to do to mobilize them and get them out to vote?'' he said.

Head noted that President Clinton's campaign in 1996 had staffers working the Central Florida Hispanic community several months in advance of Election Day, sending such Latino luminaries as Cabinet secretaries Henry Cisneros, Bill Richardson, and Federico Pena to woo voters. Clinton won the state.

Gore aides say Florida came into play in the presidential race only very recently. With the Florida contest now too close to call, Sanz said, the Gore campaign will be out in full force.

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