Puerto Ricans in Fla. carry clout as new swing group in state, national elections
BY PETER WALLSTEN
ORLANDO -- The next president of the United States, the next governor of Florida, even the balance of power in the U.S. House of Representatives, could come down to this: How will Florida's Puerto Rican community vote?
And to the top brass of the state's political parties, the answer could have something to do with a more immediate question: What will Eddie Diaz do?
Diaz, a likely Democratic candidate for Congress, was an obscure Orlando police officer until he was shot in the line of duty last year. Now, just 30 years old and with zero political experience, he is being courted by powerful politicians, from Florida House Speaker Tom Feeney to senior members of Congress.
They see Diaz as an electable candidate with a compelling personal tale. But, most important, he is a Puerto Rican whose candidacy could help build a base and draw thousands to the polls on Election Day.
In the nation's biggest swing state, where the presidency was
decided by 537 votes last year, the biggest new swing group is the nearly
half-million Puerto Ricans who
now live here.
Puerto Ricans are traditionally registered Democrats but show an independent streak. Eighty percent of Central Florida's heavily Hispanic precincts supported Republican Jeb Bush for governor in 1998. But Democrat Al Gore took nearly all of those precincts in 2000.
As the political parties lay plans for 2002 and beyond in Florida, Puerto Rican voters are a key chapter in everybody's playbook.
Diaz is not the only potential contender targeted by the parties.
And Republicans also have plans, still largely under wraps, to create a
new, majority Hispanic state
legislative district in Central Florida. It would be the first such district outside Miami-Dade County and could ensure a Puerto Rican member of the state House by
clustering communities in Orange, Osceola, Seminole and Volusia counties.
``We are at the crossroads,'' said Anthony Suarez, a former state
legislator whose win at a 1999 special election made him the first Puerto
Rican elected to serve in
Tallahassee. ``We've been ignored so long. But now everybody wants us.''
Diaz provides the most striking example of the parties' competition.
He is an attractive potential candidate in part because of his compelling personal story: He is recovering from a shooting during a traffic stop in February 2000, when his partner was killed and he was left paralyzed. The incident received enormous news coverage in the Orlando area.
His calendar since the summer has been packed. After hours of
conversations with state Democratic Party Chairman Bob Poe, visits from
top state senators in both
parties, a meeting with Feeney, a visit to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in Washington and sessions with key Democratic members of Congress, the young street officer was convinced he was ready for prime-time politics.
Diaz was a registered Republican but quietly switched his party registration on Oct. 4. Now he plans an unlikely career change, running for Congress in a new district that GOP legislators are expected to craft for Feeney.
Poe, in an interview last week, called the Diaz switch ``a great coup'' and predicted it would assure future Democratic success in the Puerto Rican community from the top of the ticket down.
``The Republicans were working on Eddie Diaz,'' Poe said. ``He'll be running as a Democrat. That will ignite the Puerto Rican community, because they'll have somebody that they can work for, a real goal to meet.''
Neither Poe nor Diaz would say what, if anything, Poe promised him to win the party switch.
Diaz acknowledges being a bit surprised by the attention.
``It's been crazy,'' he says. ``I mean, what do they want me to run for next: Is it dog catcher, county commissioner, governor?''
The Republicans may have lost Diaz, but they are not to be outdone.
Suarez, the Democrat, has been visited recently by Gov. Bush and by state
GOP Chairman Al
Cárdenas. The governor appeared in November on Suarez's Saturday radio talk show, I Need to Know. And Cárdenas sent him a Christmas card.
The governor, Suarez said, ``wanted to know if I was going to support him.'' But, Suarez said, the GOP's goal is a bit broader. Republican leaders hope he, like Diaz, would switch parties and run for office.
Suarez left the House last year feeling rejected by his party after he supported Bush's One Florida Initiative rolling back affirmative action. Now a lawyer in private practice, he says he is open to the GOP's entreaties.
``If I can prove to myself that it would help my people, then I would do it,'' Suarez said.
Bush, meanwhile, held a fundraiser for his gubernatorial candidacy in Puerto Rico in August and, thanks to his fluency in Spanish, will reach out to Hispanics in their own language, just as he did in Central Florida in 1998. At a gathering of Hispanic business people in Orlando in August, Bush touted his education reforms as a solution for the high dropout rate that plagues Puerto Rican communities around Orlando.
Cárdenas likens the Puerto Rican community of Central Florida to South Florida's Cubans around 1980, a fledgling political bloc with the potential to wield great influence.
Unlike Cubans, Puerto Ricans are born U.S. citizens. That means they can register to vote as soon as they arrive in Florida.
Census figures show that the Puerto Rican population of Florida totals 482,000 -- nearly twice as many as were counted in 1990. Most of the growth has occurred in Orlando and its suburbs.
``There ought to be a majority Hispanic state House district in Central Florida,'' said Cárdenas, a Cuban American who has argued in previous years for majority-minority districts for both Hispanics and blacks. ``This has been a personal passion of mine.''
The creation of a Hispanic state House district would be controversial.
Suarez and others say they would oppose a plan that would put most of the Puerto Ricans in a single district, removing the community's influence over lawmakers elected in neighboring non-Hispanic white districts.
Bush said on Suarez's show that he did not see it that way, calling ``access'' districts a ``good part of our American tradition.''
The Republicans also have engaged in a public relations campaign to convince Puerto Ricans they should resist the Democrats' efforts.
``The Democrats have been making some very large promises to Hispanic
candidates to get them on the ballot,'' Cárdenas wrote this month
in an op-ed piece in the
Orlando Sentinel. ``Then, when the rubber meets the road, the promises are broken.''
Cárdenas cited the experience earlier this year of Joe
Perez, a candidate for mayor in the small Volusia County town of Deltona.
Under pressure from Poe and other
Democrats, Perez switched his party registration during the campaign from Republican to Democrat. The city's elections are nonpartisan, but for a short time, the
campaign became a major battle ground between state parties.
The GOP backed the city's popular incumbent. Perez lost, largely because the Puerto Rican community stayed home and did not vote for him.
Now Perez is, as one GOP strategist put it, ``the poster child for broken Democratic promises.''
Cárdenas promises that, ultimately, Puerto Ricans could be as important to the GOP as Cubans.
NOT A BLOC
But the parties' fighting over personalities, and not ideology or issues, is a sign there is no obvious formula for wooing Puerto Ricans as a bloc.
Cubans coalesced around their visceral feelings toward Fidel Castro and President Kennedy's performance during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Puerto Ricans have no such issue. Some believe the island deserves statehood; others support independence. Some support President Bush's compromise to allow the military to conduct bombing training at Vieques in the short term, while others oppose it.
``I'd say it's a standoff,'' said Winter Springs Commissioner Eddie Martinez, the only elected Puerto Rican in the community, when asked whether most Puerto Ricans are liberal or conservative.
Martinez is a Republican but has only negative feelings toward the party, saying it does nothing to boost the community. He accuses the governor of appointing Cubans and blacks but only an occasional "token'' Puerto Rican.
Suarez defends the governor, noting that his point man in Central Florida, Waldemar Serrano, is a native of Puerto Rico. ``That means something,'' Suarez said.
At a recent lunch, Suarez, Martinez and conservative radio talk show host Eddie Rivera debated the future of their community. They argued about the governor, the state of education, even the Democrats' wooing of Eddie Diaz.
There was little agreement -- until the end, when Suarez invited Martinez to join him in a joint Democratic-Republican voter registration drive targeting Puerto Ricans. ``I've been obsessing about this for a long time,'' Suarez said. ``We're pathetic unless we vote. I don't care who they vote for, but they need to vote.''