Osceola County Has Most Latino Political Candidates

osceola seal
The Osceola County seal.

Osceola County has the most Latinos running for local office, a reflection of the coming of age of the Hispanic population as well as a steep rise in its population.

Of the approximately 42 Hispanics who are running for office in Orange, Osceola, Seminole and Volusia counties, half are in Osceola County, which from 2005 to 2014 has seen an 82 percent jump in Hispanics, to reach about 92,000. In comparison, Orange County’s Latino population rose 52 percent – no small percentage – significantly below Osceola’s rate of growth. In Seminole the Hispanic population has expanded 39 percent between 2009 and 2014 (figures for earlier than 2009 were not available).

Part 2 of Latino candidate for office, therefore, focuses on Osceola. The number of candidates may change once the qualifying period expires later this month. Watch for Part 3 of Latinos running for local office, which will include Orange County. Click to read about the Osceola County Latino political candidates.

˜˜Maria Padilla, Editor

CLERK OF THE COURT 

Armando Ramírez (D) 

Armando Ramírez made Florida history by becoming the first Puerto Rican elected as Clerk of the Court back in 2012. But he stumbled badly his first two years in office making changes – layoffs, firings, hiring of close family friend and other procedural matters  – that hit the headlines, generating negative publicity. It’s no surprise that Ramírez has lots of opponents, four to be exact, all Democrats, including Malcolm Thompson, who was his Democratic primary competitor the last go-round. (Ramírez beat Thompson 39% to 33%.) Ramírez, however, shouldn’t be underestimated this year. He has kept his head low for a while. Plus, in 2010, Ramírez nearly beat out then Osceola County Commissioner John Quiñones 49% to 51%, indicating that he is popular. In 2012, Ramírez, who had never held elected office, won by 56 percent. Osceola voter demographics are favorable to him, but all depends on whether there is a large Hispanic turnout in the August primary who wants to keep him in office. The Democratic primary winner essentially wins the post.

OSCEOLA SHERIFF

Rolando Bañasco (D)

Luis Tony Fernández (D)

Marco López (NPA)

Jose Sánchez García (D)

Because current Osceola Sheriff Bob Hansell, a 40-year veteran of the department, is retiring, it presents an ideal opportunity for a newcomer. (Hansell, by the way, gets a retirement payout of over $850,000 as part of the state’s DROP retirement program, plus a monthly pension. That’s the highest amount of any public employee in Central Florida.) Of the Latinos running, Rolando Bañasco and José Sánchez García appear to have law enforcement backgrounds that might be helpful on the job. Bañasco is the police chief of Mascotte, a town of about 5,300 people in neighboring Lake County. He ran unsuccessfully for Osceola School Board in 2012. He has worked as a  detention officer with the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, Osceola County Corrections Officer and Florida State Department of Corrections Officer. Meanwhile, José Sánchez García has spent 11 years as an officer in the Army and 25 years with the Department of Justice, primarily in immigration enforcement, including deportation officer, retiring in 2012. Chief Deputy Dave Sklarek, a 29-year veteran of the Osceola Sheriff’s Office, is also running and long-time insiders often make formidable opponents. But first Sklarek has to beat three other GOP rivals to reach the general election. Recent news reports have pointed out that the upper echelons of the Osceola Sheriff’s Office have few Hispanics.

PROPERTY APPRAISER

Julius Meléndez (R)

Julius Meléndez has unsuccessfully run for office a number of times, in 2012 vying for Congressional District 9 held by Alan Grayson. He came in third in the GOP primary, with 14 percent of the vote. In 2014, he ran for Osceola County Commission, coming in second behind John Quiñones in the GOP primary with 33 percent of the vote. Meléndez previously was elected to the Osceola County School Board, serving as vice-chair. He currently is a real estate broker. He has no GOP rival, which means he’s likely to face incumbent Katrina Scarborough (D), who has a primary opponent Chris Mack. Scarborough won in 2012 with 59 percent of the vote.

TAX COLLECTOR

Orlando González (D) and Romauld José Leydon (D) 

This is an open three-way Democratic race with two Hispanics Orlando González and Romuald José Leydon, who ran for tax collector in 2012, earning a respectable 44 percent of the vote, though not enough to win the race against incumbent Patsy Heffner.  Of the two Latinos, González has direct experience as a tax collector, having worked in the Osceola office for two years collecting delinquent taxes. González is a property appraiser and also is vice chair of the St. Cloud Planning Commission and a member of the St. Cloud Finance Committee. González and Leydon face Bruce Vickers in the August primary. Vickers is a 14-year veteran of the Tax Collector office – another insider – and is currently director of the Tourist Tax and Business Tax Department.

OSCEOLA COUNTY COMMISSION  

DISTRICT 1 

José Cabán Hernández (D)

José Cabán Hernández pushes incumbent Michael Harford, also a Democrat, into the August primary. Not a whole lot is known about Cabán and his campaign finances appear to be meager, which means that Harford, first elected in 2008, cruises through the primary and is likely going to win another term. Harford won 57 percent of the vote in 2012.

DISTRICT 3

Jaime Matos (D), Iván Rivera (R) and Manny Rodríguez (D)

Jaime Matos and Manny Rodriguez face incumbent District 3 Commissioner Brandon Arrington (D) in the primanary. Matos, who once worked for Orange County, ran unsuccessfully for Kissimmee City Commission in 2012. Iván Rivera also ran unsuccessfully for District 3 in 2012, earning about 17 percent of the Republican primary vote.  Arrington, the son of Osceola Supervisor of Elections Mary Jane Arrington, is a likely shoo-in. He won District 3 with nearly 78 percent of the vote in 2012.

DISTRICT  5

Jeff Rivera (D)

Jeff Rivera is a registered nurse who currently serves in Chaplaincy & Pastoral Care Services at Osceola Regional Medical Center. He states he was instrumental in uncovering  corruption in New York City’s School District 11, in The Bronx. According to Rivera, nine school members were removed from office and several were convicted of felony crimes and sentenced to prison. He faces incumbent District 5 Commissioner Fred Hawkins (R) in the general election. Hawkins won the district by 69 percent in 2012.

OSCEOLA SCHOOL BOARD  (nonpartisan)

DISTRICT 2

Wilfredo Fonseca vs. incumbent Kelvin Soto

District 2 covers Buenaventura Lakes and Lakeside, the heart of Kissimmee’s Hispanic community, and incumbent Kelvin Soto is the first Hispanic to fill the seat. Soto is a lawyer with a degree from the University of California, Berkeley. The School Board has had a rocky ride the past couple of years, playing musical chairs with school superintendents. Soto played a role in keeping the first Hispanic school superintendent Melba Luciano in the job a little longer after one board member wanted her ousted. Luciano retired in 2015. Soto supports bilingual education and bilingual literacy. He faces challenger Wilfredo Fonseca, a Realtor® and former police officer, who states he also is a community activist. In 2012, Soto won 52 percent of the vote.

KISSIMMEE COMMISSION  (nonpartisan)

SEAT 1

Olga González, Debra Rosado and Nicolosa Maria Murillo

This is an open seat since incumbent Commissioner José Alvarez is running for Kissimmee mayor. Olga González retired from General Motors and has been very involved in the Kissimmee community, having started a nonprofit Church and Community Assistance Program, Inc. that helps feed the needy. She is currently a member of the Kissimmee Housing Advisory Board, advisory board for the Homeless for Osceola County, president of the Morgan Point Homeowner’s Association, and a director for the Master HOA of Lakeside Estates. In 2008, she received the Point of Light Award for her work from then Gov. Charlie Crist.

Debra Rosada also heads her own nonprofit All Family Resource Center LLC, which offers programs such as mental health services, targeted case management, social services, and legal aid services, among others. Meanwhile, little information is available about the third Hispanic candidate in the race Nicolasa Murillo.

SEAT 3

Olga Castaño and Lisandra Román

This is another open seat with four contenders, two of them Hispanic. Olga Castaño is a Realtor®,  a member of the advisory board for National Association of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals, the advisory board for the Realtors Political Action Committee (RPAC), as well as a member of the Kissimmee’s Firefighters Board. Lisandra Román is a Kissimmee restauranteur who said she decided to run for public office because she wanted to do more for the community, according to an Osceola newspaper account.

MAYOR OF KISSIMMEE 

SEAT  5

José Alvarez, Art Otero and Freddy Villanueva

This is the Kissimmee race to watch, and the real fight is between Kissimmee City Commissioners José Alvarez and Art Otero. The race has drawn a lot of attention and not for good reasons. Last fall Otero was involved in a domestic dispute and tried to use his influence as a city commissioner to intimidate the police, stating “he was a city commissioner, that he signed our paychecks, and that we should be on the streets looking for criminals instead of wasting his time trying to make something out of nothing,” according to a police report as published in the Orlando Sentinel. The report stated his wife had a lump larger than a golf ball  on her forehead and both had been drinking. Otero was not charged. But a month later, WFTV 9 News reported that Otero had requested copies of the personnel records of the three police officers involved in the incident. He also requested the job description of the city attorney and a copy of KPD’s building surveillance video footage.

Otero also allegedly urged Kissimmee voters to elect Puerto Ricans to office, using the term “Boricua vota Boricua,” or Puerto Ricans vote for Puerto Ricans. (Alvarez is Cuban-American and Villanueva is Venezuelan.) He later said too much was made of the issue. In addition, he has had verbal altercations with other members of the city commission, including Alvarez, during commission meetings.

Alvarez is a Realto® who has served on the Kissimmee Commission since 2012. He won his seat with 60 percent of the vote. Currently, he serves on several boards, including Central Florida Coalition for the Homeless, Osceola Arts, Osceola Education Foundation, and is chair of the Transportation & Intergovernmental Relations Committee, Florida League of Cities, among others. Freddy Villanueva, meanwhile, is a radio host who says he’s concerned about the unemployment in Osceola, workers’ rights and other issues.

Otero appears to have an unsuitable temperament for the job and is inclined to abuse his power.  Villanueva has no experience, which makes Alvarez the favored candidate to beat. If Alvarez wins the primary, he becomes mayor.

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