Political parties embrace Florida's Puerto Ricans
BY BETH REINHARD
Irma and Edwin Candelaria, who moved from Puerto Rico 28 years ago to this city south of Orlando, are registered Democrats who voted twice for George W. Bush. Now she's leaning toward Barack Obama; he favors John McCain.
''We don't vote Democrat or Republican. We vote for the person we think is better,'' Irma Candelaria said over the hiss of machines pressing clothes at their dry cleaning store. "It's about what I hear and how I feel.''
Voters like this up-for-grabs couple are the reason Obama made sure to visit Kissimmee, hub of the nation's fastest-growing Puerto Rican community, last week during his first Florida campaign swing in nine months.
Sunday, that community will watch Puerto Rico host its first competitive primary since 1980 -- a bittersweet milestone, some say, since only mainland residents can vote in November.
Half the state's 750,000 Puerto Ricans live in Central Florida. Most of them are Democrats, yet four of the five Puerto Rican elected officials in the region are Republicans, reinforcing the community's prized independence in a closely divided state.
The current hype includes Hillary Clinton touting an endorsement from Puerto Rican-born entertainer Ricky Martin, and Obama delivering, in decent Spanish, un mensaje personal de Puerto Rico in a commercial. Both Democrats have stumped on the island but neither took a stand on the controversial question of whether the semi-autonomous U.S. territory should become a state with voting privileges in general elections.
Interviews with Puerto Rican voters at grocery stores, parks and luncheonettes found pervasive support for Clinton and widespread disgust with President Bush. The outlook for November: fiercely competitive, with Obama, the likely Democratic nominee, battling to convert Clinton supporters and McCain struggling to overcome antipathy toward the Republican Party.
''The only way I'd vote for a Republican is if I was crazy,'' retiree Juan Gomez, 75, said as he sipped a cortadito at the Publix Sabor.
Publix picked Kissimmee to open its first Hispanic-oriented market three years ago. (The other Publix Sabor is in heavily Cuban-American Hialeah.) The Kissimmee store features Puerto Rican specialties such as Yaucono coffee and bushels of plantains to be mashed with pork rinds and garlic for mofongo.
Unlike in South Florida, where Cuban-Americans and immigrants from South and Central America outnumber about 200,000 Puerto Ricans, voters here have limited interest in foreign policy or immigration. The rising cost of gas and fewer job opportunities are threatening a quality of life that's better than what they had in Puerto Rico.
''We're sinking economically,'' said José Rodriguez, 34, an electrician wearing his blue work shirt after hours. "We're stuck in a war that's going nowhere, but they keep spending money on it.''
''I work an hour away from my home,'' added his wife, Josie, 27, motioning toward her gas-guzzling Chevrolet truck.
The couple was waiting for a salsa class to start at the Robert Guevara Community Center, named after the first Puerto Rican to serve on the Osceola County Commission. The $8 class, they said, is a more affordable night out than dinner and a movie.
A few blocks away, Carolina Morales, 59, had brought her clothes to the open-air laundromat because she said it was cheaper to spend $8 in quarters than to run her dryer and air conditioning at home.
''The president doesn't care,'' said Morales, who voted twice for Bush. "He's got someone to drive him in a limousine.''
The Puerto Rican community of Central Florida is smaller and younger than the Cuban-American community of Miami-Dade, and has struggled to make political inroads. It took a federal judge to throw out countywide voting districts in 2006 in favor of neighborhood districts that have a better chance of electing Hispanic representatives.
Over sancocho soup and a steak sandwich at a Puerto Rican-Salvadoran restaurant, two community activists also talked about struggling to gain respect. A Central Florida congresswoman, Ginny Brown-Waite, sparked a series of protests earlier this year when she called Puerto Ricans ''foreign citizens'' who did not deserve federal tax rebates.
Puerto Ricans have been U.S. citizens since 1917, and though they don't pay income taxes, they do contribute to Social Security and serve in the military.
''They lump us together with everyone else who is Hispanic,'' said John Cortes, a Puerto Rican Democrat who lost a bid for mayor of Kissimmee by 65 votes in 2006. "They forget we are Americans.''
His friend José Colon works for Darren Soto, the only Puerto Rican currently serving in the state Legislature. Soto is a Clinton supporter, but Colon says it's time to rally around Obama, who fielded questions from the crowd last week at the Kissimmee Civic Center. Obama was following tracks laid by Vice President Dick Cheney in 2004 and Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore in 2000.
''That's the olive branch the Hispanic community is looking for,'' Colon said.
Obama was introduced by Puerto Rican radio talk host Fernando Miguel Negron, whose Spanish-language program reaches tens of thousands of Orlando-area listeners every weekday.
Negron has been arguing with his Clinton-friendly listeners for months. The Hawaii-born senator from Illinois tried to forge a connection at the town meeting by noting that he, too, comes from an island.
''I've been swimming against the current by supporting Obama,'' Negron said. "Of all the places Obama could have chosen, it was a big deal that he choose Kissimmee.''
One of the city's most heavily Puerto Rican neighborhoods is Buenaventura Lakes, a product of the developer's aggressive marketing campaign on the island. One side of the Boggy Creek Elementary School marquee is in English, the other in Spanish, alerting parents to the dates of the fifth-grade dance and the last day of school.
It's not unusual to see a statue of the Virgin Mary or an American flag on a front lawn, signs of a culture known for cherishing patriotism and religious values. Soto, who represents the neighborhood, was the only Democrat in the state House to back legislation pushed by abortion foes that would have required women seeking the procedure to get ultrasounds.
Soto's campaign in 2007 drew more fanfare than is customary for a state House race, reflecting the Democratic party's eagerness to beef up its Hispanic leadership in Florida. U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson joined him knocking on doors, while Clinton issued a press release when he won.
The GOP has been equally welcoming to Puerto Rican political leaders. John Quiñones, the first Florida legislator born in Puerto Rico, was given a coveted speaking part at the 2004 Republican national convention. He now serves on the Osceola County Commission and was asked to head up McCain's local campaign.
''It's a good thing, obviously, to see all the attention,'' he said, "but we want them to be aware of the community and its issues not just at election time.''