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Hispanic voter clout on horizon

In the next generations, minority voters, especially Hispanics, will become increasingly important to Florida's political parties.

By ALICIA CALDWELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 29, 2001


Florida's political future will come wrapped in the culture of its burgeoning Hispanic population.

Of that, the experts are certain.

But for a variety of reasons, the demographic changes shown in census figures released this week are unlikely to immediately change the state's political landscape.

Despite Florida's 70.4 percent increase in its Hispanic population during the last decade, and despite Hispanics overtaking African-Americans as the largest minority group in Florida, the state's voting age population remains overwhelmingly white and non-Hispanic.

However, the strength of numbers in the minority children categories indicate that won't be the situation for long. As Republicans and Democrats jockey for dominance in the state during the next decade or two, an important factor will be their ability to woo minority voters, particularly Hispanics.

"This is a group to go for in a state that's up for grabs," said state House Democratic leader Lois Frankel of West Palm Beach. "Neither party has a lock on it."

A look at census numbers shows these trends at work as the state redefines itself politically and demographically:

Whites are a declining portion of the voting-age population. In 1990, white people made up nearly 86 percent of voting age Floridians, while in 2000 that number had decreased to 81 percent.

Florida has more younger people than expected. The Census Bureau had projected that the 2000 census would show the state had 3.5-million children younger than 18. However, the bureau counted nearly 3.7-million in that age bracket.

In the Tampa Bay area, only Hillsborough County has a strong minority voting age population. Of those 18 and older in Hillsborough, 22 percent identified with a minority group -- that includes Hispanic, African-American, Asian and the myriad other combinations possible in the 2000 census. In Pinellas, the number is nearly 12 percent; Pasco, 5 percent; Hernando, 6 percent; Citrus, 4 percent.

While Suncoast counties logged big increases in Hispanic population, their numbers, even in combination with other minority groups, still do not make for significant chunks of voting age adults. The exception is Hillsborough, where a relatively large Hispanic population registered strong growth and the voting age Hispanic population increased to 124,000 of the county's 746,000 voting age residents.

Patrick Manteiga, publisher of La Gaceta, a trilingual Tampa weekly newspaper who also is a part-time Democratic political consultant, said what really matters is Hispanic voter turnout. Unless you can prove Hispanics are going to the polls, sheer numbers will not translate into political power.

While many politicos acknowledge the importance of the Hispanic vote, approaches to drawing them differ. James Stelling, vice chairman of the state Republican Party, said he would hope the party would not change its message in an effort to draw Hispanics or anyone else.

"If they agree, they'll be attracted to us," said Stelling, who lives in Seminole County, near Orlando.

In Orange County, home to Orlando, the Hispanic population grew 141 percent during the last decade. Doug Head, the Orange County Democratic Party chairman, said his party began focusing on the Hispanic population six to eight years ago.

Orlando-area Hispanics tend to be Democrats, Head said, unlike Cubans in South Florida who lean Republican. This year, after spending 15 years as the minority party in Orange County, Democrats outnumber Republicans, Head said.

"We surged ahead of the Republicans, and the Hispanic numbers are clearly what's driving it," he said.

The Orange County experience, he said, is being heeded in Florida political circles.

"Everybody in the state is highly focused on the Hispanic vote," Head said. "It's the swing vote."

The diversity of those who call themselves Hispanics is both a strength and a political weakness, said Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida political science professor.

Their cultural differences mean they do not always vote in a bloc, and some come from countries that do not have strong Democratic traditions, she said. There are also questions as to how many are naturalized and therefore eligible to vote.

Nevertheless, MacManus joins others in calling Hispanics, in conjunction with African-Americans, a key constituency in the future of Florida politics.

"There's not a whole lot of reason to believe that the boom in the Hispanic population will immediately translate into the political power that blacks now have in this state," MacManus said. "But certainly the future is there and both parties know that."

- Computer assisted reporting specialist Constance Humburg contributed to this report.


Related Census 2000 coverage
  • Census highlights Hispanic diversity
  • Population bulge hits Citrus midsection
  • Census numbers don't surprise Hernando schools
  • North Pinellas spurs county's growth
  • Gain may elevate Pasco's political profile
  • Hispanic voter clout on horizon
  • Hillsborough less racially segregated
  • Census data show diminished color lines

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