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Election 2004

Parties court the ultimate swing vote: Florida's Hispanics

They voted for Al Gore, then for Jeb Bush. Now 30 percent sit on the fence. And even defining "they" isn't simple for those who covet their votes.

By ADAM C. SMITH
Published May 3, 2004

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[Times photo: Stefanie Boyar]
Pilar Reyes, left, Gina Carranza, Fabiana Nacimiento and Christina Zapata canvass the Cimmaron Apartments in Town 'N Country on Wednesday to register Hispanic voters.


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ORLANDO - To find the most coveted voters in Florida, step into La Criolla Grocery. Follow your nose past the 20-pound bags of rice, the Ola detergent and the ceramic figures of Jesus and Mary.

Hunched over empanadas and pork sandwiches in the store's small restaurant are customers like Jose Riviera, a retired cabinetmaker and native of Puerto Rico.

"Jeb Bush is not doing a bad job as governor," Riviera said, "but his brother is another story. Iraq is a mess, and it seems like for the first time in history we have a vice president really running the country."

Two tables over, Jay Padilla said most of his family are Democrats, but he's now a Bush Republican. "Clinton turned me off," said the electrical engineer, speaking over the Latin music. "I saw a difference in the parties in the sense of morals and basic values."

La Criolla owner Juan Quezada, a native of the Dominican Republic and a registered independent, spoke up moments later: "I voted for Bush in 2000. Now the economy is on the floor and we're spending billions and billions in Iraq, and we're going in the wrong direction. John Kerry to me looks a little bit stupid, but I don't see that I have any choice but vote for him."

By many accounts these are the voters who turned Florida into an up-for-grabs "swing state," and they may decide November's presidential election. They come from the Caribbean and Central and South America, either directly or by way of states such as New York and New Jersey. They lean Democratic but tend to be independent-minded. Democrat Al Gore won them over handily in the 2000 presidential race, but so did Republican Gov. Jeb Bush in 2002.

While national polls suggest as little as 5 percent of the electorate is undecided between President Bush and Massachusetts Sen. Kerry, about 30 percent of Hispanic voters are on the fence.

"This is an electorate that can clearly swing the key states," said Maria Cardona of the New Democrat Network, an independent Democratic group that's targeting Hispanic voters in Florida.

For years, Florida's Hispanic vote has been synonymous with South Florida's Cuban-Americans, a solidly Republican voting bloc. But the population of non-Cuban Hispanics is exploding - and dramatically shifting the state's political landscape.

The booming community of Puerto Ricans and other non-Cuban Hispanics in Central Florida helped Gore win Orange County in 2000, the first time since World War II that a Democrat won the county. In Hillsborough County, Puerto Ricans now account for 30 percent of the Hispanic population, turning a once-solid Democratic bloc into one that's in play. In South Florida, immigrants from Central and South America have expanded the political debate well beyond opposition to Fidel Castro.

* * *

Hispanics account for about 12 percent of Florida's electorate. The share made up of faithfully Republican Cuban-Americans has dropped from at least 80 percent a decade ago to 60 percent today. In 2000, Bush won 80 percent of the Cuban vote in Florida, while Gore won 60 percent of the non-Cuban Hispanic vote.

"In South Florida we just need to move the needle a little bit (among Cubans). In Central Florida we have to maintain or expand our share," said Nelson Reyneri, a former Kerry Senate aide who now leads Hispanic outreach for the Democratic National Committee.

Since March 10, the independently run New Democrat Network has been bankrolling anti-Bush ads on Spanish-language TV and radio stations in Florida, Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada. But some Democrats in Florida and Washington are questioning whether candidate Kerry is adequately attuned to the trend.

When the Kerry campaign recently released a list of dozens of new senior hires, party activists noted that it lacked a single Hispanic name. A week later the campaign released a list of community outreach staffers that includes several Hispanics, but that did little to ease concerns.

The president of one Hispanic advocacy group, the National Council of La Raza, last week wrote Kerry to complain about the "disturbing" lack of diversity in the campaign. "History has shown that the makeup of a campaign staff is a strong indicator of the future composition of White House and other staff in a campaign," wrote Raul Yzaguirre.

Patrick Manteiga, publisher of Tampa's La Gaceta newspaper and a Democratic activist, couldn't help notice the image staged for Kerry's recent campaign stop in Tampa: the Boston Brahmin on stage with four white women before an overwhelmingly white crowd of invited guests.

"When Kerry visits Florida you don't see any focus on Hispanic voters," said Manteiga. "This is Party Building 101. If the Democrats let Puerto Ricans go Republican in this state they'll never get the state back. We've already lost the Cubans."

The 2000 census data showed the nation's Hispanic population surging to 38.8-million, overtaking African-Americans as the nation's largest minority group. The 60 percent jump in the Hispanic population between 1990 and 2000 woke up the GOP to the implications of the demographic shift. Republican strategists crunched the numbers and concluded that if Bush won the same percentage of minority voters in 2004 that he did in 2000 he would lose by 3-million votes.

The party and the White House responded. The administration made high-profile administration appointments, including former Orange County Chairman Mel Martinez as secretary of Housing and Urban Development and Alberto Gonzales as White House counsel.

And the White House reached out with both policy and message. The administration halted controversial Navy bombings on Vieques Island off Puerto Rico; Bush made his first foreign trip to Mexico; he announced a controversial and short-lived proposal to let illegal immigrants continue working in America. Attracting more Hispanic votes, White House political strategist Karl Rove said at one point, is a top priority requiring Republicans "in every way and every day working to get that done."

Although President Bush speaks passable Spanish and cultivated his Hispanic contacts in his years as Texas governor, his strongest asset in competing for Florida's Hispanics is his brother Jeb, who is fluent in Spanish and married to a native of Mexico.

The state Republican party spent nearly $1-million targeting Hispanics during Gov. Bush's 2002 re-election campaign. While Gore won 60 percent of Florida's non-Cuban Hispanic vote in 2000, Jeb Bush won 56 percent two years later against Democrat Bill McBride.

This year, Democrats are hoping to approach 30 percent of the Cuban vote (Bill Clinton won about 30 percent in 1996) and two thirds of the non-Cuban vote. Republicans hope to keep 80 percent of the Cuban vote and win more than 40 percent of non-Cuban Hispanics.

The White House, eager to share the Florida ballot with a Republican Hispanic popular in Central Florida, encouraged Mel Martinez to leave his Cabinet post and run for Bob Graham's U.S. Senate seat.

"The president and Gov. Bush have had a tremendously positive way of identifying with Hispanic voters," Martinez said, "by language, by culture, by understanding."

* * *

The Orlando metropolitan area, where the Hispanic population ballooned by nearly 900 percent since 1980, has become ground zero in the battle for the Hispanic vote in America's biggest swing state. It's where the Bush-Cheney campaign chose to roll out its national Hispanic steering committee. And it's where the Democratic National Committee will hold its Hispanic Leadership Summit later this month.

Random interviews of Hispanic voters around Orlando suggest President Bush has a real challenge, despite his brother's popularity. A large majority said they were deeply disappointed with Bush, though few knew much about Kerry or expressed much enthusiasm for him.

"Bush was very popular after Sept. 11, but we've lost respect for him - his concentration on Iraq, on helping the rich get richer," said Luis Irizarry, a nurse and Bush supporter in 2000. "I'll vote for Kerry as the lesser of two evils."

Reaching and turning out such voters in Central Florida takes work. There's no established political machine to use, and Hispanics are as diverse in their interests as they are in their backgrounds. Coming from a U.S. territory, Puerto Ricans tend not to worry much about immigration restrictions, just as Venezuelans are not consumed with the Cuban embargo.

When Gov. Bush recently advocated letting illegal immigrants obtain Florida driver's licenses, the failed initiative held limited political appeal for many Florida Hispanics.

"That's one strategy that I don't think will work," Republican Orlando lawyer Tico Perez said. "Hispanics are motivated by the three F's: faith, family and freedom. Those are the issues that resonate."

Democrats, though, believe pocketbook issues trump social conservatism. They are stressing jobs, health care and education funding.

So far, neither party has a lock on this crucial, complex bloc of voters.

An independent group working to register Hispanic voters in South and Central Florida, Mi Familia Vota, is finding a plurality of Orange County Hispanics opting to register as independents.

"That trend will probably increase," said Michael Deliz, a native of Puerto Rico who teaches history at the University of Central Florida, "until one of the parties brings out a message that resonates with the Hispanic community."

Adam C. Smith can be reached at 727 893-8241 or adam@sptimes.com

Hispanics in the United States

The Pew Hispanic Center and Kaiser Family Foundation in 2002 conducted a detailed survey of Hispanics in Florida, California, New York, New Jersey and Texas. They found Hispanics, while hardly monolithic, have attitudes and beliefs distinct from those of other demographic groups. That applies even to those whose families have been in the United States for generations. Among the findings:

--Most Hispanics nationally say they support paying higher taxes to support larger government. Those in Florida have the most faith in government; nearly six in 10 trust government to do what's right all or most of the time.

--39 percent of Florida Hispanics said discrimination is a major obstacle to succeeding in the United States. And 27 percent said they, a family member or close friend had experienced discrimination in the last five years.

--Three of every four Hispanics in Florida were born outside the United States, and 54 percent said they considered their native country their true homeland. That's a smaller percentage than in any of the other states surveyed.

--Fewer than one third of foreign-born Hispanics in Florida planned to return to their native country some day, and 46 percent regularly send money back to their country of origin.

[Last modified May 2, 2004, 23:39:35]


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