No Jeb? Hispanics wait to be wooed

The candidates for governor struggle to even approach the appeal that Jeb Bush has offered to crucial Hispanic voters.

Published August 6, 2006

TALLAHASSEE — Call it the year of the ticket blanquito.

This year’s candidates for governor are not just  white; their Spanish doesn’t extend much beyond catch phrases such as “hola, amigos,” and “muy bien.”

None of the candidates for governor —not Republicans Charlie Crist and Tom Gallagher nor Democrats Jim Davis and Rod Smith, is expected to come near Jeb Bush’s appeal to Hispanic voters.

Not one has yet shown an ability to attract or connect with Hispanics, who comprise a crucial 14 percent of the electorate, according to the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington. They have clearly made a difference in elections, helping Mel Martinez get the edge in a close Senate race just two years ago.

“This election is a sharp contrast to the last three governor’s races, because there’s no Jeb,’’ said Dario Moreno, director of the Metropolitan Center at Florida International University. “His kids are Latino, he speaks Spanish fluently, he understands the issues, whether it’s immigration or trade with Cuba or Puerto Rico, and he was rewarded with overwhelming support.”

This year Hispanic voters of all nationalities — not just Cubans in South Florida and Puerto Ricans in central Florida — will be up for grabs. And in central Florida they have shown that they can be party-switchers, voting for Al Gore in 2000 and then supporting Jeb Bush in 2002.

While each campaign has hired bilingual staffers and Hispanic outreach coordinators who tout their meetings with Hispanic groups and endorsements, each candidate has a long way to go to connect with Hispanics, say nonpartisan business and community leaders. And that could prove costly.

Hispanics are expected to vote in droves in the general election, given that it will come just months after the worker rallies earlier this summer in places like Tampa, Orlando and Miami, which attracted more than 80,000 mostly Latino Floridians to march on behalf of undocumented workers.

“You would think that after those rallies, the candidates would notice that there’s a very large proportion of politically active people, most of them citizens,” said Patrick Manteiga, who runs La Gaceta, a Spanish-language newspaper in Tampa.

Thus far La Gaceta has received no ads from any of the candidates and has been sought out for a talk by only one:   Crist.

“Most candidates tend to come by at the last minute thinking we’re some big Hispanic tribe and they can talk to one chief Indian and win us over. Nobody ever goes to Brandon and says: 'Who is the boss of this white community?’ ”

While the primary is still four weeks away, the fight for the Hispanic votes has just begun. Both Republican candidates have Spanish-language commercials and have lined up endorsements by respected Hispanic leaders.

In July, Gallagher went to Hialeah to get the endorsement of Mayor Julio Robaina, adding to endorsements by U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Al Cardenas, former head of the Florida Republican Party. Crist, who is distributing hats and shirts embroidered with his name and “para Gobernador” has got Martinez and U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, among others, backing him.

Short on funds, the Democrats have yet to start airing Spanish-language commercials, but they are meeting with groups. Davis is scheduled to meet with Hispanic Democrats in Miami on Tuesday and Smith recently met with Latino builders in Miami.

Last month, Smith donned a guayabera and spoke at the famous Cuban restaurant Versailles in Miami, which tends to attract big-ticket Republicans, including President George Bush just this past week.

In fact, all the candidates plan more contact with Hispanic groups and communities starting next week, and more visits to South Florida, home to the state’s large Republican-leaning Cuban population.

Despite the focus on South Florida, statistics suggest that Cubans, who in the mid 1980s made up 85 percent of Spanish-speaking voters in the state, are a shrinking proportion of Hispanic voters, said Miami pollster Sergio Bendixen, who specializes in surveying Hispanic issues. That’s because the numbers of Puerto Ricans and South Americans are growing, especially in central Florida.

Indeed, several Central Florida leaders said they’ve yet to see much in the way of campaigning by either party, although some Spanish-language commercials are supposed to be playing there.

“At this point, I haven’t heard anything, not even a radio commercial, and I’m always complaining to each party, that we need a little bit more respect,’’ said Marytza Sanz, head of the nonprofit Latino Leadership of Orlando, which held an information fair in Orlando last weekend attended by 8,000 mostly Spanish-speaking citizens. No candidate attended. Last year, Sen. Bill Nelson showed up. “They come and pay attention to us  two weeks before the election, and they then disappear for four years,” Sanz said.

Democratic political consultant Ana Cruz said it’s a time management issue, that the candidates can’t hit every festival, because the state is too big. She acknowledged, “We’re not hearing a lot from our candidates period, because it just costs too much money.”

Republican do have the monetary advantage and are using it to focus on get-out-the-vote efforts. They’re also focusing on using Latino leaders as  “surrogates” to speak in the place of the candidates, said Alci Maldonado, national secretary of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly.

Democrats believe that they might have an advantage in the election because neither Republican candidate has shown he can appeal to swing-voters in the manner that Jeb Bush did.

“What Jeb did was unheard of, but that’s just Jeb being Jeb,” said  Jeff Garcia, a Democratic analyst and campaign manager for Skip Campbell who is running for attorney general. “Charlie Crist is not married to a Mexican and he’s not fluent in Spanish and he’s not going to resonate with Hispanic community the way Jeb does.”