Too little, too late?
ELECTION 2006 COURTING HISPANIC VOTERS
Some activists and experts say the 2 leading gubernatorial candidates have failed to adequately reach out to and develop rapport with Central Florida's Hispanic voters.
Victor Manuel Ramos
Sentinel Staff Writer
Charlie Crist introduced himself as "Carlitos" and drank cafe con leche during a recent visit to a Hispanic grocery store off East Colonial Drive.
Jim Davis blew the candle on a surprise birthday cake at the east Orlando home of a Hispanic activist Friday as dozens of Latino supporters cheered him.
Both gubernatorial candidates prayed with a Central Florida coalition of Hispanic pastors, during separate visits a few weeks ago to a Union Park church.
As Election Day comes closer, the two men seeking to replace Gov. Jeb Bush --who has easily captured the Hispanic vote speaking his way in Spanish -- are touting their ties to Florida's Latinos in last-ditch efforts to have that picture-perfect moment that will give them an edge.
But at least in Central Florida, it remains to be seen whether the Hispanic outreach that some characterize as too little, too late, will create any groundswell. Neither campaign, some experts and activists say, has established a rapport with those voters, despite the state's Hispanic growth.
Just last week, the Miami-based Democracia USA voter-registration project said it had registered 56,003 Florida Hispanic voters in 30 weeks. More than 20,000 of those were from Central Florida. Orange, Osceola and Seminole saw a Hispanic registration surge of more than 9,000 since July.
"I don't think there has been much investment in Hispanics in Florida. I haven't seen it," said Jorge Mursuli, national president of Democracia USA. "As long as the Hispanic budgetary investment for candidates and parties is secondary, the vote will be secondary. . . . Going to two churches and a supermarket does not cut it."
Some blame voter apathy -- a recurring problem that Hispanic advocates and elected officials have been trying to counter in the community -- on the strategies of the very politicians courting the Latino vote.
"There's a complete lack of understanding of the Hispanic community, a lack of Hispanic candidates and the general mind-set that this is an afterthought," said Carlos McDonald, a political consultant who helped craft Bill Clinton's campaign for the Florida Latino vote in 1996. "They also have to appeal to the voters and if they are not making that appeal to the voters, then why should the Hispanic voters bother?"
That seemed to be the consensus among people shopping Thursday afternoon at Las Americas Supermarket, a grocery off Semoran Boulevard.
Several said they did not know the candidates and were not planning to vote.
Jose Leon, 85, was the exception. He had taken advantage of early voting, but even he had his complaints about the campaigns.
"The candidates out there never come around here until the election," said Leon, who has lived in Orlando for about 30 years. "They wait two weeks before the election and start plastering their photos everywhere, but nobody knows who they are, and the smiling photo won't tell you."
Hispanic activists as well as Spanish-language radio hosts and TV executives said the Florida campaigns have not advertised much in the ethnic media this election cycle.
The Charlie Crist campaign launched some ads as the final stretch nears, trumpeting the support of Sen. Mel Martinez, who captured a significant chunk of Hispanic voters in 2004. From other races, Sen. Bill Nelson, the Democrat running for re-election, has also advertised in Spanish. Most other candidates have not.
Roberto Vizcon, Telemundo Orlando's general manager, said the Crist campaign passed on an offer to hold a prime-time Hispanic debate, with simultaneous translation to Spanish.
The candidates, however, have not been shy about staging their own Latino events, even as both campaigns take different approaches.
Crist, for instance, showed up for a Hispanic-themed pep rally at the Marks Street Senior Recreation Complex.
Sen. Martinez joined him in criticizing Davis over his visit to Cuba, also the theme of a Spanish-language ad. Luis Fortuno, Puerto Rico's nonvoting member of Congress, said Crist would push for Florida's economic development. Orange County Commissioner Mildred Fernandez praised Crist for being close to the community.
There was jazz music, a festive mood and Spanish-language signs that borrowed a page from George W. Bush's presidential campaign, saying "!Viva Crist!" Crist sprinkled his speech with some Spanish words, even if limited to saying something was muy importante or calling Sen. Martinez mi amigo.
"It's very important to me" to reach out to Hispanics, Crist said. "I'm the grandson of an immigrant who came to this country with nothing, and I understand how important it is to reach out to all Florida's people. . . . That's why I want to be the people's governor."
Davis, on the other hand, showed up to a more relaxed and low-key event at the home of Marytza Sanz, a Hispanic activist who put together a backyard meeting with other Latinos. There were no signs and no band playing. Davis did not try to speak Spanish but instead focused on issues. "I think the achievement gap is exploding in this state," Davis said. "We have many young Hispanic boys and girls who are falling further and further behind in school, and I'm going to change that. And the first thing I'm going to do is stop using the FCAT to punish these children."
Sanz, who hosted the Davis event, agreed that both campaigns could have done more, earlier in the game, to show Hispanics that they care and where they stand. There are immigration-enforcement issues, school-performance problems and lack of medical insurance that affect Hispanics every day, she said.Both sides said they were making efforts to reach Hispanics in their campaigning, but they would not discuss strategy.
"Coming and having coffee with us or giving someone a kiss on the cheek for a photo is not enough," Sanz said. "We want them to come and talk to us."
Whatever the approach, none of the candidates had made an impression on Odalis Pena, a mother of five shopping in east Orlando. She had registered to vote but was not planning to go to the polls.
"I don't know who's who," said Pena, 23. "I swear, I haven't heard a thing about these elections. Maybe I haven't been paying attention."