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Parties Courting Hispanic Vote

by Tim Nickens

June 14, 1999
Copyright © 1999 ST. PETERSBURG TIMES

Republicans and Democrats are focusing on Hispanic voters along the I-4 corridor between Tampa and Orlando.

Bob Henriquez and Tony Suarez see more than road construction, billboards and fast-food outlets when they dream about the Interstate 4 corridor between Tampa and Orlando.

The two freshman Democrats in the state House envision thousands of new Hispanic voters who could swing elections and increase the overall political clout of 2.2-million Hispanics, who are edging past African-Americans to become the state's largest minority group.

With Henriquez's district in Tampa and Suarez's district in Orlando as bookends, the lawmakers see an opportunity to register more Hispanics to vote and to highlight issues beyond Fidel Castro's fate in Cuba or whether Puerto Rico wins statehood .

"It is staggering when you consider the growth of this group, and they should be part of the political process," Henriquez said. "Whoever is successful is going to have a huge voting bloc they can build on in the future."

Al Cardenas agrees.

As the first Hispanic chairman of the Florida Republican Party and the only Hispanic state GOP leader in the country, he can rattle off all sorts of trends about the growing importance of the Hispanic vote.

While Cuban Americans concentrated in South Florida still are solidly Republican, Cardenas said, they account for less than half of the Hispanic vote. He said the next largest group, Puerto Rican Americans, generally vote more for Democrats and are more predominant in Central Florida.

So Republicans also are focusing on the I-4 corridor this summer, planning programs on Spanish radio stations, voter registration drives and community outreach programs.

"The only way we can continue to win statewide . . . is by increasing the percentages we are getting from minority voters in African-American and Hispanic communities," Cardenas said.

Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida, said Republicans and Democrats are smart to focus on Hispanics living in counties along I-4. He said Cuban Americans tend to identify with Republicans because of the party's tradition of hard-edged opposition to communism, while Puerto Rican Americans and other Hispanics often align with Democrats because of that party's traditional support for social services and education.

"I think they are in play," Jewett said of Central Florida Hispanics, "and that's why both parties are actively pursuing them."

Statistics compiled by the political parties indicate Hispanics represent between 9 percent and 12 percent of Florida's 8.3-million voters. African-Americans account for more than 10 percent. But U.S. Census records indicate a greater portion of black adults are registered voters than Hispanic adults, and black voters go to the polls at a higher rate than Hispanic voters.

The sharper focus on Hispanic voters by both major political parties in Florida mirrors a national trend.

Hispanics, who represented 9 percent of the country's population in the 1990 census, now make up more than 11 percent of the population. By 2005, they are expected to surpass African-Americans as the country's largest minority group.

As the population goes up, so will the number of registered voters.

After registering 1.1-million new Hispanic voters in 1996, the nonpartisan Southwest Voter Registration Education Project hopes to register an additional 1.5-million new Hispanic voters nationwide before the 2000 elections. That would bring the total to more than 8- million registered Hispanics.

The key, though, is where Hispanic residents and voters are concentrated, said Antonio Gonzalez, president of the Texas-based Southwest Voter Registration Education Project. The nine states with the largest Hispanic populations, including Florida, account for 184 of the 538 electoral votes in a presidential election.

"Both political parties now understand that really the only significantly growing electorate in the U.S. is the Latino electorate," said Gonzalez, who this month flew from his California office to Miami to meet with potential donors. "If you want to win in a situation where everything is so close, you have to look at the growing community and that is the Latino one."

Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore, the favorites to win the Republican and Democratic presidential nominations, respectively, each have Web sites in Spanish and are paying close attention to Hispanics.

Bush and his brother, Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, are fluent in Spanish and have avoided wedge issues such as immigration restrictions, anti-affirmative action measures and English-only initiatives that have driven Hispanic voters away from other Republicans. They sharply contrast with Republicans such as former California Gov. Pete Wilson, who endorsed efforts to cut state aid to illegal immigrants and to end affirmative action.

Mike Murphy, the Virginia-based consultant to Jeb Bush's campaign last year, said in a recent speech in St. Petersburg that the GOP must reach out to Hispanics across the country. If it doesn't, he said, "the reality of demographics is going to make us the permanent minority party of the gated communities."

Democrats and Republicans have focused on the I-4 corridor for years as the swing area that can decide statewide elections because the party registration numbers are roughly even and the voters are generally moderate.

Census estimates show Hispanics will represent 15.7 percent of Florida's population next year, up from 8.8 percent in 1980 and 12.2 percent in 1990. While Hispanics are the majority in Dade, they now represent more than 10 percent of the population in 11 other counties. Three of those counties are in the I-4 corridor: Hillsborough, Orange and Osceola.

"It will be interesting to see how the political parties go after them, whether the outreach will be tangible in terms of policy initiatives or whether it will be smoke and mirrors," said Henriquez, the Tampa state legislator.

Last year, Henriquez won back a Tampa House district from a freshman Republican. Democrat Elvin Martinez had represented the district for nearly three decades. There already are 45,000 registered Hispanic voters in Hillsborough and a well-established voting bloc in West Tampa, but the legislator hopes to register more new voters this summer.

In Orlando, Suarez upset a Republican in a special election this spring by gathering 2,900 absentee ballots - virtually all of them from Hispanic voters. He has helped establish the nonprofit Latinos in Action with money from the Democratic Party, teacher unions and national Hispanic organizations. With two full-time employees, its goal is to register 20,000 new Hispanic voters by the 2000 election.

Eventually, Henriquez and Suarez hope to extend their registration efforts along the entire I-4 corridor. They also want to work with Hispanic legislators from Miami-Dade, all but one of whom are Republicans, to create a nonprofit foundation that would better connect Hispanics with state government and highlight issues such as education.

The Florida Democratic Party also plans to bring in Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., a co-chair of the Democratic National Committee and head of a Hispanic political action committee, to perhaps lead a caravan this summer through Central Florida.

Gov. Jeb Bush's fluency in Spanish and his Mexican-born wife, Columba, give Republicans an advantage in courting Hispanics. But the state GOP also has taken the unprecedented step of hiring a full-time staffer to focus solely on Hispanic voters. Plans also are being made for a Web site in Spanish and a twice-a-month radio show on Spanish radio stations in Tampa and Orlando featuring Cardenas and guests.

"I'm certainly not arrogant enough to say they are Democrats at heart or Republicans at heart," Cardenas said of Hispanic residents in the I-4 corridor. "I am going to work very hard to have Hispanic residents see things our way."

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