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'American Way' Disenfranchises Puerto Ricans…Justice Dept. Says Osceola County Hinders Hispanic Candidates

'American Way' Disenfranchises Puerto Ricans

Myriam Marquez

March 9, 2005
Copyright © 2005 Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved.

Guess what?

--Central Florida's Puerto Rican population is better-educated than those living anywhere else, even on the island.

--Two-thirds of this area's Puerto Ricans say they speak English very well, according to the U.S. census, rivaling only 28 percent on the island.

--One-third of Puerto Rican families living here earn more than $50,000 a year. That's more than the 25 percent of Puerto Ricans nationwide and only 11 percent of those on the island.

That's just a snapshot of Central Florida's largest Hispanic group that emerged last week at the Hispanic Summit held by the Orlando Regional Chamber of Commerce.

It's a starting point to help businesspeople and policy-makers understand a growing community that's different in one important aspect from any other Latino group: Puerto Ricans are not immigrants. They are U.S. citizens by virtue of the island's U.S. commonwealth status.

Not everything is rosy, though. "Despite their achievements, Puerto Ricans have not attained socioeconomic parity with other major ethnic groups in Central Florida," one summit study noted. Which leads to the most important issue facing local Puerto Ricans: the need for political empowerment.

During the summit, state Rep. John Quiñones, whose district represents portions of Osceola and east Orange County, and Orange County Commissioner Mildred Fernandez, both Puerto Ricans, discussed Hispanic political clout in the region.

Even though Fernandez was elected to a nonpartisan seat in her east Orange district, it's important to note that she is a Republican, as is Quiñones. Osceola County's first elected Puerto Rican commissioner, the late Roberto Guevara, was a Democrat. Guevara was elected by voters in a specific district, before the county switched to at-large elections.

Ever since, Osceola has not had a Latino on the County Commission even though Hispanics make up almost a third of the county's population and nearly half of Kissimmee's. State Sen. Gary Siplin, whose predominantly black district includes a large number of Hispanics, pointed out the raw deal Hispanics are getting in Osceola. Quiñones agreed that single-member districts make sense for the county.

Predictably, Osceola County Commissioner Ken Shipley balked. At-large elections, Shipley says, are "not the Democratic way or the Republican way. They are the American way."

Ha! Why, then, did the Founding Fathers create districts for the House of Representatives? So that those elected folks would be closer to the people, sharing certain geographic and even ethnic similarities.

The real issue in Osceola is partisan, and Shipley surely knows it. Puerto Ricans tend to vote Democratic, though they are a true swing vote in the area, which explains how Fernandez and Quiñones won. Osceola County commissioners are Republican. At-large elections dilute the minority vote. Shipley feigns patriotism to keep the status quo that suits him.

The summit brought out some big-business players who embrace Hispanics' market potential. It exposed, too, the small-minded politicians who dare to excuse disenfranchisement schemes as the "American way." In the bad old days maybe. Not now.

Justice Dept. Says Osceola County Hinders Hispanic Candidates

July 19, 2005
Copyright © 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved.

ORLANDO - The federal government has filed suit over the way Osceola County commissioners are elected, saying the system discriminates against Hispanic candidates.

The lawsuit that the U.S. Department of Justice filed Monday in Orlando contends that the county's at-large system was adopted in 1996 "for the purpose of diluting Hispanic voting strength in violation of Section 2" of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Under the at-large system, all five commissioners are selected by voters countywide. County officials have long debated whether to adopt single-member election districts instead.

Osceola County's Hispanic population grew from 12 percent in 1990 to 35 percent last year, but only one Hispanic county commissioner was elected during that time.

Complaints from residents and information collected by officials investigating an unrelated voting issue in the county prompted the lawsuit, Justice Department spokesman Charles Miller said.

Armando Ramirez, a county resident who has run unsuccessfully for office, said he filed a complaint with the Justice Department in 2000.

"For people that are not affluent -- and of course, needless to say, that includes minorities -- it is insurmountable to engage in a political campaign countywide," Ramirez said.

County Commission Chairman Paul Owen said the county has retained outside counsel.

The county avoided a federal lawsuit in 2002 by agreeing to hire more Spanish-speaking poll workers and take additional steps to help bilingual voters.

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