The State (Columbia, S.C.)
Fri, Oct. 15, 2004

Hispanic community is a desirable cipher to Kerry and Bush

Associated Press

ORLANDO, Fla. - If any conventional wisdom about Florida politics has been rewritten more in the past 20 years, it's that the state's traditionally Cuban-dominated Hispanic community votes solidly Republican.

An influx of Puerto Ricans in central Florida and South Americans in South Florida in recent years has made a cipher out of the voting patterns of this fast-growing voter group desired by both Democrats and Republicans.

Take Isaac Martir.

The 43-year-old Puerto Rican native, who now lives in Orlando, is a registered Democrat. He plans to vote for Democrat John Kerry for president, but Republican Mel Martinez, a Cuban native, for U.S. Senate. He voted for Republican Gov. Jeb Bush in 2002, but cast his ballot for Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore in 2000.

He said he was thinking about voting for President Bush until the United States became entangled in Iraq.

"What's important to me is the candidate ... as long as he's good," said Martir, 43, who retired from his job as a mattress deliverer after he injured his back. "I'm a Democrat, but some Republicans are good."

That's a sentiment voiced by many Puerto Rican voters in central Florida such as Dennis Freytes, a registered Republican of Puerto Rican heritage who often votes for Democrats.

"Puerto Ricans are crossover voters. They don't look at party loyalty," said Freytes, a member of the board of trustees for Valencia Community College in Orlando. "They look at which candidate will represent them best."

Florida's Hispanic population has grown by 477,000 people to 3.1 million since the 2000 election, when Bush won about 80 percent of the Cuban vote. Gore took about 54 percent of the non-Cuban Hispanic vote, according to a survey taken for the National Council of La Raza.

This presidential election, Hispanics are expected to make up 14 percent of Florida's eligible voters, according to a study by the Pew Hispanic Center.

Cubans have been considered a key Republican voting bloc since the 1960s, when President Kennedy was blamed for the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion, and have not trusted Democrats ever since. President Carter's 1978 dialogue with Cuban president Fidel Castro and the raid to seize Elian Gonzalez under the Clinton administration in 1999 added to the sense of distrust, said Dario Moreno, political science professor at Florida International University.

While some Democrats say they've made inroads in the Cuban community - specifically since Bush angered some Cuban-Americans by tightening travel and remittance restrictions to Fidel Castro's communist island - some evidence reflects the GOP still holds tightly to the Cuban vote in Miami-Dade.

Moreno said he knows of two polls that say Cuban-Americans support Bush by near 80 percent, and other polls indicate that Bush approaches a 4-to-1 advantage over Kerry among Cubans in Miami-Dade.

Moreno believes Kerry has conceded the Cuban vote, saying Kerry hasn't visited with Cuban voters when coming to Miami-Dade, instead choosing general events catering to all groups or cementing his base with visits with black and Jewish voters. Kerry's vice presidential candidate, John Edwards, did speak before about 300 Cuban-Americans in August.

"There's a suspicion that whatever your political views are that the Democrats aren't going to cater to this community as much as Republicans have," Moreno said.

Raul Martinez, mayor of the highly-Hispanic city of Hialeah and Kerry's point-man in Miami-Dade, said Kerry would be coming into the "lion's den" by coming to Little Havana. But Martinez said Kerry may be able to wrest some votes from Bush this year. Cuban-Americans in Miami have been critical of Bush, claiming the administration has not done enough to pressure Castro and help foster democracy on the island.

Martinez said some voters are upset at Bush for the new restrictions, which bar Cuban-Americans from visiting family on the island no more than 14 days once every three years. They also cut back on the amount of money Cubans can spend during visits or send to relatives on the island.

Martinez and others acknowledge U.S.-born Cuban-Americans have less of an emotional tie to Cuba and will put more of a priority on issues, such as the economy, health care and the war in Iraq. Kerry could win some support from them.

There's another group of voters, those who arrived in the early 1980s and during the 1995 rafter crisis, who could lean toward Kerry. Most of those people came to the United States for economical reasons rather than politics, and won't likely favor the new restrictions on travel and remittances.

"A lot of those voters could be in play for Democrats," said George Gonzalez, a political science professor at the University of Miami.

Republicans reject Democrats' argument that tightening restrictions were a political ploy. They point to the crackdown on businesses illegally selling Cuba travel packages and improved transmission signals for Radio and TV Marti as proof that Bush has kept Cuban-American issues in mind throughout his presidency.

U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a veteran Republican congresswoman and a Cuban-American, said the tightening of the embargo "re-energizes" Bush's voting base, crediting the president for helping resist attempts in Congress to ease the embargo.

"He didn't do it for voting purposes - he did it on principal," Ros-Lehtinen said.

Gonzalez said maintaining their 70 to 80-percent stranglehold on the Cuban vote is critical for the GOP in a state that went Bush's way by 537 votes after the 2000 recount.

"If Kerry takes 10 percent of the Cuban-American vote in the state away from Bush, Bush could lose the state," Gonzalez said.

There are other factors that could come into play.

Jeb Bush's Mexican-born wife, Columba, is a source of pride for many of Florida's Hispanics. Kerry's wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, is fluent in Spanish and Portuguese. Mel Martinez could attract Hispanics toward President Bush.

"There are a lot of people inspired by his life experience that hopefully will be drawn to the polls," Jeb Bush said of Martinez. "When they do, they hopefully will vote for a presidential candidate - the current occupant of the White House who has a set of shared beliefs."

Democrats want to make sure Hispanic votes count, so on a recent weekday, a half-dozen Spanish-speaking volunteers were deployed to a heavily Hispanic neighborhood in Orlando. The volunteers, including Sandra Cervantes and Cesar Leyva, went door-to-door offering absentee ballot applications to the registered Democrats and passing out "Kerry" bumper stickers and buttons.

They first knocked at the home of retiree Gloria Burgos.

"Can we count on your vote?" said Cervantes, a 24, spunky college student who took the semester off to work on the campaign. Burgos assured her "yes" but said she would prefer to vote in person.

"Then we'll see you at the polls!" Cervantes said.