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For Deltona's Hispanics, Milestone Is Within Reach…Orlando Develops Hispanic Accent

For Deltona's Hispanics, Milestone Is Within Reach

By Rachael Jackson | Sentinel Staff Writer

July 20, 2005
Copyright © 2005 ORLANDO SENTINEL. All rights reserved.

DELTONA -- Hispanics have the potential to make political history in Volusia County's largest city.

They have a chance to gain a majority on the City Commission of predominantly white Deltona.

David Santiago, the city's second Hispanic elected to office, already holds one seat. And now Hispanic candidates have entered three commission races that will be on the ballot this fall.

If they win, Hispanics would hold four of the seven seats and could represent the first time a mostly white city has a majority Hispanic City Commission.

That potential political breakthrough is in stark contrast to Osceola, where the County Commission was sued Monday by the U.S. Department of Justice to end what the government says is discrimination against Hispanic voters. About 35 percent of Osceola's population is Hispanic, but only one Hispanic county commissioner has ever been elected.

The federal government wants to force Osceola to adopt a system -- called single-member election districts -- in which commissioners are elected by the residents of specific districts. Osceola now uses an at-large voting process that has voters countywide selecting all five commissioners.

Marcelo Gaete, spokesman for the National Association of Latino Elected Officials, said if Deltona's Hispanic candidates prevail it could be historic. He could not recall any similar instance. Gaete said that as the largest minority group in the United States continues to flourish, the number of Hispanic elected officials is growing as well. Forty-two states have elected officials with Hispanic origins.

"I think it's an indication of Latinos entering more into the mainstream," said Cecilia Muñoz, spokeswoman for the National Council of La Raza, an advocacy group.

But in Central Florida, where about 14 percent of the population is Hispanic, only a handful of elected officials share those roots. Kissimmee, the region's third-largest city, has never had a Hispanic commissioner in its more than 100-year history even though nearly half of residents are Hispanic.

"That's much more common," Muñoz said.

One difference between the two cities is that Deltona elects by single-member districts rather than using at-large elections as Kissimmee does.

While having single-member districts makes campaigning cheaper, it hasn't created a district with a majority Hispanic population because demographically, Deltona's six districts are nearly identical. The six districts all have about 8,000 voters, of whom 14.5 percent to 18.5 percent are Hispanic. Overall, Deltona's population is about 18.3 percent Hispanic, according to the 2000 census.

Deltona is a young city

Deltona also is much younger. The city will turn 10 years old on Dec. 31 -- hardly enough time for entrenched politics to develop.

"Deltona is kind of a watering hole for so many different cultures without . . . having territorial neighborhoods," said Joe Perez, Deltona's first Hispanic commissioner who held his seat from 1995 to 2001.

That kind of breakdown means none of the candidates can rely on the Hispanic vote. The candidates say they know they must appeal to everyone because not only are Hispanics the minority in each district, but the community is known for staying home on Election Day.

Last November's election saw a Hispanic turnout in Deltona that was about 10 percent lower than that of the general population.

"Latinos, once they are here in the United States, the tendency is for them not to vote, and part of that is that they don't understand the process -- and the language barrier, " said Zenaida Denizac, who is running for a seat in Deltona and is president of the Volusia County Hispanic Association.

Others cite a lack of time or interest in local elections, but the weak Hispanic turnout is perplexing, considering that most of the Hispanics in Central Florida have roots in politically charged Puerto Rico.

"It's like a party there and here it's not," said Deltona candidate Rafael Valle, who is Cuban but whose wife is Puerto Rican. "The campaign in Puerto Rico is very loud. They have music, they have parties, they have passion."

 Or, as Deltona candidate Luis Ramos said, "In Puerto Rico, politics is the national sport."

In Central Florida, you won't see pickups with megaphones driving down the street to promote candidates. There are no block parties, and voters are less likely to have a cousin, friend or co-worker who personally knows a candidate.

Ramos said he is thinking about having a Puerto Rican-style rally or parade, not just to appeal to Puerto Ricans but to get people excited about the election.

"When I was young I would go to every rally," he said. "It's about getting the people involved and getting people to know you."

Ramos, who has been involved in politics before but never as a candidate, is running against Nikkie Lewis, a retired bar owner who moved to Deltona in 2001. Denizac faces Dick Pearce, who in November lost his re-election campaign for a seat on the West Volusia Hospital Authority with less than a third of the vote.

Valle, chairman of the city's Planning and Zoning Board, lost a run for the same commission seat four years ago. He's up against sitting commissioner Charles DeZaruba, along with Janet Deyette and Charles Williams, and will have to advance after an October primary.

Asked if they will campaign in Spanish, only Valle said he plans to make television ads in Spanish. Others said it wouldn't be a priority. Santiago said he did not use Spanish during his successful campaign.

"When I was a candidate, I was struggling with this whole piece of being Hispanic," Santiago said. "It was part of my heritage, but this position is bigger than that."

'Beacon of diversity'

Volusia County has a history of breaking racial barriers in elections.

In 2003, mostly white Daytona Beach elected four black city commissioners, another political milestone that many experts think was unprecedented.

Deltona's first commission had black, white and Hispanic representation and both male and female commissioners. In fact, the city could be viewed as a beacon of diversity in leadership. Two sitting commissioners are black, as are a mayoral candidate and a City Commission candidate. Seven percent of Deltona is black, according to the 2000 census.

Deltona has always been diverse, said former County Council member Pat Northey, who is white and has been involved in Volusia and Deltona politics since the 1980s.

"We're kind of colorblind in Deltona," she said. "If the commission were to become all Hispanic, that does not signal to me that their agenda would become a Hispanic agenda."

T. Wayne Bailey, who teaches political science at Stetson University, said that Hispanics' decisions to run could be an indication that they are starting to catch up to blacks in representation.

"Win or lose," he said, "the significant part of it is that they are participating."

Orlando Develops Hispanic Accent

By Dr. Luis Martínez-Fernández | My Word

July 26, 2005
Copyright © 2005 ORLANDO SENTINEL. All rights reserved.

As everybody in the Orlando metropolitan area should be aware of by now, the region's Hispanic population has swelled over the past decade. Hispanics comprise more than 20 percent of Orange County's population; in Osceola County, it is 35 percent. These numbers translate into greater Hispanic visibility and influence in the cultural, social, economic and political realms, not only through the proliferation of so-called ethnic institutions such as Hispanic-owned restaurants, Spanish-language media and the like, but within so-called mainstream organizations and businesses.

While the growth in the Hispanic population and the concomitant expansion of Hispanic influence are not new developments, the past 12 months have witnessed the crystallization of major highlights:

*?August 2004. The University of Central Florida expands and re-launches its Latin American, Caribbean, and Latino Studies Program.

*?September 2004. The Census Bureau releases information confirming that Latinos/Hispanics have become Central Florida's largest minority, with a total of 464,100 people.

*?October 2004. The region's Hispanic/Latino electorate receives national and international attention as a possible swing vote that may determine the November elections.

*?November 2004. Orlando resident, Cuban-American Mel Martínez, is elected to the U.S. Senate; Florida state Rep. John P. Quiñones, a Puerto Rican, retains his seat after defeating another Puerto Rican candidate; Mildred Fernández is elected as Orange County's first Puerto Rican-born commissioner.

*?February 2005. The Downtown Media Arts Center (D-MAC) presents OLA Fest, the city's first Latin American film and heritage festival. Clear Channel Communications transforms 100.3 FM (WEBG) from an oldies station to La Rumba, with Latin music programming.

*?March 2005. The Greater Orlando Chamber of Commerce dedicates its yearly summit to Hispanic topics, unveiling major studies on the region's Puerto Rican and Hispanic population. This is the first of three consecutive summits dedicated to Hispanics.

*?April 2005. Publix Supermarkets opens its first Sabor supermarket in Kissimmee, catering to Latino tastes and preferences.

*?May 2005. A delegation of 216 Orlando business and community leaders organized by the Greater Orlando Chamber of Commerce travels to Puerto Rico to participate in the Puerto Rico Chamber of Commerce Annual Convention; the delegation is led by Orange County Mayor Richard Crotty and Chamber President Jacob Stuart. The Fundación Ana G. Méndez, a Puerto Rico-based higher-education system, graduates its first Orlando campus class.

*?July 2005. Henry Maldonado, general manager of WKMG-TV Local 6, announces that the 6 o'clock evening news will be broadcast with Spanish-language subtitles.

The next 12 months promise to bring more milestones that further demonstrate the growing Hispanic influence. Unfortunately, we could not include among the 2004-2005 highlights the selection of Kissimmee's first Hispanic mayor. This will be taken care of in the next election, and the U.S. Justice Department is watching closely.

Dr. Luis Martínez-Fernández is director of the Latin American, Caribbean and Latino Studies Program at the University of Central Florida.

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