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