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Orlando Sentinel

Anyone But A Hispanic? Road Blocks Will Tumble Some Day

By Myriam Marquez

December 9, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved.

They'd elect a cow if they could. Anything, anyone but a Hispanic in Kissimmee.

If you think those are fighting words, just wait when the inevitable happens and Osceola County's largest city turns solidly Hispanic. Its population already is 50% Hispanic, which explains why city leaders seem to have set up every type of road block imaginable to keep Puerto Ricans and other Latino newcomers out of the political power base.

When Hispanics finally get elected to a majority of the commission -- and by hook or crook, that day will come -- they will have absolutely no reason to include non-Hispanic whites in the city's agenda.

Share power? Why should Hispanics bother when Kissimmee's good old boys and gals never have?

First, the politicians refuse to consider single-member districts -- a way to keep a growing Hispanic population, now more than one-third of the county and half of Kissimmee, from having even one representative in those political bodies.

Poor Roberto Guevara must be spinning in his grave. He was the only Puerto Rican ever elected to the county commission in the 1990s during a small window of opportunity when single-member districts still existed. Not one Hispanic has been elected in Osceola since Guevara's death.

Forcing citywide or countywide elections, which require candidates to raise more campaign cash to get their message out, isn't the only way to make it more difficult for minorities to gain office.

Other examples of exclusion jump out after Kissimmee's runoff elections Tuesday for two city commission seats in which a Hispanic candidate for each seat lost by huge margins.

One trick: Delay runoff elections so that apathy sets in. In 2002, the city extended the time in which a runoff can be held to as much as six weeks after the November general election. With a Dec. 7 runoff, most voters (white and Hispanic alike) are focused on holiday shopping, not politics.

Surely, a runoff can be held within two weeks of a general election -- even with the use of optical-scan ballots, which is the excuse that was used to delay runoffs. Purportedly, Osceola's elections office needed more time to prepare ballots.

Second scheme: Let's call it the Kamikaze Move. City commissioners cry poverty and nix spending $4,000 to run early voting sites for two weeks during a runoff. By keeping to one day of holiday voting (on the World War II anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, no less) the powers-that-be make sure only super voters show up at the polls.

Super voters are people who vote each and every time. Many of them care about the process because they either have a lot more time on their hands (retirees) or they have a vested interest in the outcome (for instance, developers and those with businesses that depend on city contracts).

Sure, the obvious fault lies with Hispanic voters who didn't get to the polls for the runoff. But in a city where Hispanics tend to be young families, many headed by parents working two jobs to survive in a service economy that pays on the cheap, it's not hard to see how those voters might miss the runoff election fever.

It's unfortunate, because there were many good candidates running this year, among them Peter Olivo, who lost by a hair in the county commission race in November after absentee ballots were counted.

In the Kissimmee runoff elections this week, Jeanne Van Meter beat Domingo Toro for Seat 3 in the citywide race. Toro, a Kissimmee Utility Authority board member and certified court mediator, has been a community activist in Osceola for a very long time. The retired businessman may not go back to the county's cowboy days, but, at 72, Toro surely has bucked the status quo in Kissimmee many a time.

So now we're back to zero, zilch, nada. Until one day soon, when Hispanic voters, who already make up almost 41 percent of the city's registered voters, use their clout, turn out the vote and take over. Then, they'll be the "insiders." That's the lesson Kissimmee's leaders refuse to learn. It's happened before -- to the Irish, the Poles, the Italians and Germans and blacks in America's cities. They went from outsiders to insiders.

And it'll keep happening until the cows come home.

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