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THE ORLANDO SENTINEL
Close Contest Reveals Cultural Rift In Osceola
By Willoughby Mariano | Sentinel Staff Writer
November 12, 2004
KISSIMMEE -- A race to become a county commissioner in Osceola County that turned on the slimmest of margins has become an example of the cultural divide between old and new in Central Florida.
Tempers are flaring over vague suspicions that election irregularities caused Democrat Peter Olivo to lose out on his chance to be the second Hispanic elected official in this heavily Hispanic county. Republican Bill Lane won by less then one-half of 1 percent.
Distrust runs so high, critics pushed election officials to count certain ballots up to three times. Olivo lost the recounts. Defenders of the process -- including officials who oversaw the counts -- are frustrated that critics are second-guessing their hard work.
Between them lies a gap that has shaped life for more than a decade in this evolving county.
"I hate to call it a cultural divide, but when you have an influx of people from different regions, it kind of creates that," said Julio Diaz II, 23. Diaz has lived in the county's heavily Hispanic Buenaventura Lakes since 1986 and works for the Democrats as a consultant.
Such criticism raises the ire of Atlee Mercer, 62, a Republican county commissioner and member of the county's canvassing board, who calls them "political theater."
Osceola has a well-known gap between an established cowboy culture and newcomers who make this the fastest-growing county in Central Florida, said Democrat Armando Ramirez, 70, who moved here from Puerto Rico in 1989 and once served as the county party's vice chairman.
Osceola's Hispanic population tripled in the past decade, according to the 2000 census. Yet all of its commissioners are white Republican men, Ramirez notes. He said he thinks that's a result of efforts against election reforms that would help minority candidates.
Even local Democratic Party rulers hail from the old-style cowboy culture, rather than the growing, Democratic-leaning Puerto Rican population.
"Diversity is not reflected within the county's leadership," Ramirez said. "The consensus [among Hispanics] is there is discrimination."
The county was the focus of a U.S. Department of Justice investigation that concluded that election officials in 2000 failed to adequately aid non-English-speaking voters. There was no finding of discrimination. In 2002, Osceola County Supervisor of Elections Donna Bryant staved off a voting-rights lawsuit against the department by agreeing to hire Spanish speakers and meet with the Hispanic community.
Critics say this history fuels their suspicions.
"How can we say things are better than four years ago, when we still have problems?" said Marla McNear, 35, a Democrat who moved to St. Cloud 10 years ago. She said some elections workers were so disorganized they may have affected the outcome of the race.
Others argue those problems are in the past.
"What is there to distrust?" said Lane, who won the commission contest. "Everybody filled out their own ballots and put them in the machines."
This election was a study of the county's cultural divide. Democrat Olivo, 55, a Disney core trainer and decorated Vietnam veteran, is known as a free-thinker who is attuned to the county's grass-roots efforts and unfettered by special interests. Lane, a county insider, served as vice chairman of the Tourism Development Council and is a board member of the 192 Redevelopment Council. He runs a construction-consulting company.
These differences collided during a canvassing-board meeting Tuesday. Diaz, McNear and others accused election officials of disorganization.
Seven-term incumbent Bryant, a long-established Democrat, objected as one critic suggested elections workers accepted some absentee ballots after the 7 p.m. Election Day deadline. The absentee tally handed Olivo a loss. Up until then, he led by a slim margin.
"I will bet my life I never accepted anything after 7 p.m.," Bryant said. "Never had, never will."
Olivo said he has plans to challenge the election in court. Democrats may lodge official complaints.
Olivo has never felt that he was treated differently because of his ethnicity, he said.
"Maybe, just maybe, now it's starting to surface," Olivo said.