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Suarez Hits One Out Of The Park For Central Florida Hispanics

By Myriam Marquez

March 12, 1999
©Copyright 1999 The Orlando Sentinel

Wow! I know how Italian-American kids must have felt in the '40s, watching Joe DiMaggio hit a homer.

Anthony Suarez, who grew up humble in New York, the son of Puerto Rican parents, has become the first Hispanic elected to represent the Orlando area in the Florida Legislature. Suarez, a Democrat, won the House of Representatives District 35 seat Tuesday in a special election.

Expecting a low turnout, Suarez decided to go after his base -- Hispanic voters -- early and encourage them to send in absentee ballots.

Meanwhile, Republicans were duking it out in their primary election. Once Tom Drage, a moderate former state legislator, lost to Jerry Creel, a pastor, Suarez began to focus on courting non-Hispanic Democrats and independents.

The Orange County Democratic Party helped Suarez with voter mailings, but he mostly stuck to a grass-roots campaign led by his heart and soul. Working folks in pick-up trucks sporting huge, vote-for-Suarez signs were seen criss-crossing the district day after day.

Suarez raised mostly small contributions -- no political-action committees. "I'm going to support people-based legislation, not PAC-based bills. You have to stand up to make a difference," he said.

By contrast, Creel mailed at least one flier, paid for by the Associated Industries of Florida Service Corporation, a Tallahassee-based pro-business group, that blasted Suarez for being a defense lawyer. "Warning," the flier stated in bold, red letters, "Anthony Suarez's best clients are your worst nightmare."

So much for innocent until proven guilty and the right to legal representation.

So much, too, for Hispanic solidarity in this race.

Orange County Chairman Mel Martinez, a Cuban-born Republican who won the chairman's race with strong support from Democrats and Hispanics, backed Creel. That ticked off many Democrats and Puerto Ricans.

From Martinez's perspective, though, his choice was made easy by Suarez, who had backed a little-known Puerto Rican candidate, Alex Lamour, in the chairman's race last year. Once Lamour lost in the first round, Suarez supported Martinez. But Creel backed Martinez early and bucked the Christian-right that was moving to another candidate, John Ostalkiewicz.

Martinez, a lawyer whom Ostalkiewicz kept hounding during the campaign for being a "personal-injury attorney," didn't seem to see the irony in his Grand Old Party loyalty even as Creel's followers bashed a fellow lawyer.

Puerto Rico's island politics also played a divisive role in this race, splintering Puerto Rican voters on an issue that has little to do with their lives here. The Puerto Rican Statehood Foundation in Orlando, which includes Winter Springs Commissioner Eddie Martinez, backed Creel. Ouch!

Hispanics, like any other group, ought not vote for a candidate simply based on his ethnicity. Suarez, though, offers more than that. He's independent-minded. He supports welfare reform because he has seen first hand how generational dependency can hurt children's chances of success.

And, as a criminal-defense lawyer, Suarez has witnessed how gangs and hate groups can grab a child who is struggling in the school system and turn him into a criminal. That's why he supports paying teachers what they are worth, of paying more money for early-childhood intervention programs and vocational schools to give kids a hand up, not a handout.

"I don't want to see any more lost souls," he said. "I've had to comfort too many crying mommies, too many wives."

Suarez' experience helping the lost souls among us bodes well for Central Florida. His election win has put the area's old Republican guard on notice: Hispanics are a part of this community.

We're here to stay.

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