Bilingual politicians gaining clout
U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez's use of Spanish in the Senate highlights a growing trend among Florida politicians.
BY OSCAR CORRAL
U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez took much of the nation by surprise when he addressed the Senate in Spanish two weeks ago, but not Florida politicians, who for decades have witnessed the rise of bilingual politics.
Miami-Dade County has long embraced politicians who speak Spanish fluently. The ability to speak it has practically become a prerequisite to compete for office in the county.
But the bilingual trend seems to have spread beyond Miami-Dade's borders. The last two men to win statewide office, Martinez and Gov. Jeb Bush, are bilingual.
Some of Florida's top political powerhouses say it is no coincidence. They identify the ability to speak Spanish in the state as a major plus for anyone seeking statewide office.
''Bilingual politics is here to stay,'' said Al Cardenas, former chairman of the Florida GOP.
``In my opinion, those who jump on the bandwagon later rather than sooner do so at their own peril.''
As the race for Florida's next governor gets under way, party consultants and top elected officials say that a candidate's ability to communicate a message to Florida's growing Hispanic community may be crucial for victory.
Some even predict that both the Democratic and Republican parties will have Hispanics or bilingual politicians on the ballot in 2006, either as aspiring governors or lieutenant governors. As
of yet, no Hispanics have announced candidacies.
''You are going to see one or both tickets have a lieutenant governor who is bilingual,'' Martinez, a Republican, said in a recent interview. ``I think it would be an advantage.''
Martinez's use of Spanish in the Senate reflected not only an aggressive move by Martinez to bring Hispanics into the political mainstream, but the Republican Party's ongoing outreach to a group that is Democratic by a 2 to 1 margin around the country.
Florida's Hispanic population, once mostly limited to Miami and pockets of Tampa, has boomed in the past two decades.
Hispanics make up sizable chunks of the population across central and southern Florida -- 13 percent of the statewide electorate, up from 11 percent just four years ago. And both Democrats and Republicans are engaged in a political war to lure them.
As the parties compete, the past decade has seen the erosion of the Republican hold on Florida's Hispanic vote.
A growing population of Puerto Ricans and Dominicans in Central Florida, plus Latin American immigrants from countries such as Colombia and Venezuela, have partly offset the the traditional Cuban-American loyalty to the GOP.
Hispanics in Florida voted for Democratic candidate Sen. John Kerry by 52 percent to 45.7 percent, a 28-point shift from 2000, according to exit polls conducted by the William C. Velasquez Foundation, a think tank dedicated to studying Hispanic political participation. The foundation said Bush beat Gore that year in 2000 by 61 percent to 39 percent.
However, that 2004 number was disputed by the Bush campaign, which said an analysis showed 55 percent of Hispanic voters in Florida supported Bush.
By speaking Spanish, politicians can communicate directly with large segments of Florida's population that vote but retain their native language.
Jim Krog, a top Democratic political consultant and activist, said Florida's growing Hispanic population has made Spanish a powerful weapon to politicians' resumes.
''I think you are going to see running mates who are bilingual and statewide candidates who are bilingual,'' Krog said. ``In a state like Florida, the ability to speak English and Spanish is an added arrow in your quiver that helps you transcend the politics of a region.''
Tico Perez, an Orlando lawyer and Republican political analyst with his own radio show, said being bilingual is far from a prerequisite for statewide candidates, but it does help break the ice and can aid crossover appeal. For example, Martinez and Bush, both Republicans, won a majority of votes among Central Florida Hispanics, who tend to be heavily Democratic.
''They showed that the Latino community mattered, and one way they showed it was to speak their language,'' he said. ``Being bilingual helps, but if you're not bilingual, they need to know you care.''
Most politicians agree Spanish is not a necessity.
Bush says it's more important for a candidate to be sensitive to the cultural and political distinctions of Florida's diverse Hispanic communities.
''Speaking Spanish is helpful,'' Bush said. ``Understanding Hispanic culture and the diversity of it is maybe more valuable. Politically the results are their to see.''
Bush, whose wife is Mexican-American, speaks fluent Spanish and is often heard talking politics on Miami's influential Spanish-language radio stations.
U.S. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, said speaking Spanish is a plus, but it's far from a necessity for politicians winning statewide office in Florida.
''It depends on the candidate and the person's view, not on their linguistic ability,'' Ros-Lehtinen said. ``For that you can take a Berlitz course and be the best candidate ever. Fidel Castro speaks very good Spanish, but he wouldn't get many Cuban American votes.''
Said Florida Republican Party Chairman Carole Jean Jordan, `` Does it make a difference in a race? I think it certainly can be to your advantage.''
However, while being bilingual is mostly considered an advantage in Florida, being a Hispanic candidate for statewide office can have its disadvantages, too, particularly in traditionally white non-Hispanic areas.
Perez said there are still parts of North Florida and the Panhandle that may shy away from Hispanic candidates.
''Bilingualism is always an advantage,'' said Democratic Party consultant Joe Garcia. ``But I do think that there are places that are experiencing the growth and infringement of a large Hispanic community, where a percentage of the population that may be turned off by that and may be looking for alternatives away from that.''