Central Florida

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Election Season Heats Up

The election season is heating up as we close in on the August primaries and march toward the November election, which is less than three months away.

Campaign developments are coming fast and furious. Here are some local, state and national campaign notes that caught my eye.

Florida GOP Spokesman Resigns

Wadi Gaitan
Wadi Gaitán left the state GOP, taking issue with Donald Trump’s stand on immigration and other issues. / photo Wadi Gaitán-Twitter

Wadi Gaitán, communications director of the Florida Republican Party, left his post this week over differences of opinion with Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. He has joined the LIBRE Initiative, a Koch brothers-led effort to attract more Hispanics to the conservative cause.

It’s big news because it indicates the GOP daily defections from Trump occurring on the national level is giving permission – and cover – to state officials to do the same without major pushback from the Republican Party.

According to the Tampa Bay Times, Gaitán said he “was avoiding efforts that support Trump.”

The LIBRE Initiative, Gaitán’s new employer, disagrees with Trump too, especially on immigration. Executive Director Dan Garza had a sharp exchange with party leaders on national public television over immigration during the Republican National Convention. LIBRE favors a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States, among other policies. Trump does not, pushing instead for deportation and building a wall along the Mexican border.

Gaitán had been Florida GOP communications director since 2015.

Earlier this year, some Central Florida Hispanic Republicans complained to Orlando Latino that the state GOP had dismantled outreach to the Hispanic community. Gaitán’s resignation completes the circle.

Fellow blogger Evelyn Pérez Verdía of Political Pasión makes an excellent point: While the state Republican Party lost their Hispanic spokesperson, the Florida Democratic Party never hired one.

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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

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Puerto Rico Crisis Offers Business Opportunities

Hisp CofC 2016
Puerto Rico economic opportunities were discussed at the Hispanic Business Conference & Expo this week.  / Maria Padilla

Every fiasco creates opportunity, if people care to look carefully. That was the message of a panel discussion about the Puerto Rico financial crisis held this week at the Hispanic Business Conference and Expo in Orlando.

The island’s many problems are known to Central Floridians, tens of thousands of whom have fled Puerto Rico to settle here. But the business panelists pointed out that positive things are also happening on the island.

Hisp Biz Conference
Moderator Rafael Lama (standing), Carlos López Lay, Sonia Colón and Gustavo Vélez discuss Puerto Rico economic potential during the Hispanic Business Conference. /Maria Padilla

“The other side of the situation in Puerto Rico is that not everything is going bad,” said Gustavo Vélez, president of Inteligencia Económica, an economic consulting firm based in San Juan. “Over the last 200 years, Puerto Rico has been restructuring itself – from coffee production in the 1800s to becoming a pharmaceutical hub in the region” until 1996, when federal tax credits were eliminated and eventually phased out.

Carlos López Lay, owner of a Puerto Rico auto parts business, was even cheerier, explaining he formed a movement titled “Yo no me quito,” or We Don’t Quit, to demonstrate islanders’ resilience in the face of a 10-year economic decline and the island’s inability to pay its mountain of debt.

“There are people in the community doing extraordinary things in Puerto Rico,” López said, adding “Yo no me quito, ustedes tampoco y vamos por más.”

The social media movement, with reportedly over 25,000 followers, came under criticism earlier this year as a dig at Puerto Ricans who “abandon” the island during its time of need for other parts of the U.S. It’s a big, ongoing discussion that includes hurtful and sometimes hateful epithets. (I wish I had saved some comments from a particularly vitriolic discussion. Next time, readers.)

López  said that’s not what he meant. People in the states are the patria extendida or extended country, he said.

Puerto Rico is an impoverished U.S. territory that has a century-old history of migration. For generations it has had a conflicted relationship with those who leave, mostly poor islanders. Today’s migrants are better educated but no less stigmatized. For their part, migrants demonstrate affection for the island – there are political protests and other activity on behalf of the island taking place here each week – even if they weren’t born in Puerto Rico and even when there’s little reciprocity.

The panelists are correct – there’s always opportunity in every storm. For instance, Puerto Rican businesses have been following their customers to Central Florida for years, a trend that has accelerated as the island economy has tanked.

The island newspaper El Nuevo Día, whose business editor Rafael Lama moderated the panel, published a special edition this week highlighting nine island companies that have successfully set up shop in Central Florida.

But the discussion did come off as if Puerto Rico’s business community doesn’t get how the ground game has devastated middle- and low-income households. And how Central Florida is picking up the detritus, educating and orienting newcomers about how things are done here.

“We don’t do business here like in Puerto Rico,” commented Rick Hernández of Winter Springs, a Central Floridian for 35 years. “I’ve seen eight companies that have gone back to Puerto Rico.”

A frustrated State Rep. John Cortés (D-Dist. 43) said, “I’m tired of the talk and no action. People have to get more involved.”

The panelists agreed.

“We need to integrate into the big Hispanic market in Central Florida,” said attorney Sonia Colón, whose law firm Ferraiuoli LLC has opened offices in Orlando.

Vélez, the economist, closed, “We need to have a new way of doing things” on the island.

The Hispanic Business Conference, sponsored by the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Metro Orlando, is being held at the Orange County Convention Center-North Concourse and  runs through Saturday, when the vendor exhibit area is open free to the public.

˜˜Maria Padilla, Editor

Record Number of Latinos Running for Office

The old Florida Statehouse building in Tallahassee. Many Latino political candidates aspire to state elected office. /Maria Padilla

A record number of Latinos are running for office this year, a sign of the continuing political awakening of the group whose numbers and voters in Central Florida have grown significantly in the past several years.

At least 42 Hispanics from as far north as Volusia and south as Osceola counties have signaled their intention to run for federal, state or local office in November, though that number could change after the June 24 final qualifying period. That’s the date the candidates have to submit the requisite number of voter signatures or pay to be on the ballot.

Still, it’s an encouraging number of Hispanic candidates. Orlando Latino has conducted a Latino political candidate overview during previous major election years and the number of Latinos aspiring to political office continues to grow. In the 2012, election cycle about 33 Hispanics ran for office, while in 2010, a gubernatorial election year, the figure was about 24.

It doesn’t mean that every Latino candidate is successful – far from it – but simply that more are stepping into the political arena. As a consequence, more are getting elected, boosted in part by more favorable voter demographics and electoral redistricting in certain areas.

For 2016, supervisor of elections data in Volusia, Seminole, Orange and Osceola counties show that 42 Latinos are running for public office, some for the first time. Osceola County, alone, accounts for half the total or 21 candidates, a reflection of a much higher percentage of Latinos and Latino voters in the county.

For the first time in Osceola history,  there are more Hispanic registered voters (43 percent) than non-Hispanic white registered voters (42 percent), a trend that may have an impact at the ballot box.

Here’s Part I, Hispanic candidates in congressional and state races in Central Florida. Watch for Part II, which will cover local races.

˜˜Maria Padilla, Editor 


District 9

Darren Soto (D)

Wanda Rentas (R)

The real race is between State Rep. Darren Soto and former congressional staffer Susannah Randolph. Both are Democrats who seek to eliminate the other in the August primary. The district leans Democrat,  so whoever wins in August likely will go on to win in November. Former Kissimmee City Commissioner Wanda Rentas is a long shot. Ricardo Rangel (D) was in this race but opted to run for his old Statehouse District 43 seat.

District 10

Fatima Rita Fahmy (D) vs. Val Demings (D), Geraldine Thompson (D)  and 2 others, including Bob Poe (D), who has considerable financial resources

Fatima Rita Fahmy, a Brazilian-born lawyer who grew up in Central Florida, has made the news by loudly alleging that the Democratic National Party unfairly favors former Orlando police chief Val Demings in the race, instead of maintaining neutrality. District 10 was redrawn in the recent electoral remapping and favors Democrats; Demings is considered the favorite to win.


Senate District 15 

Víctor Torres (D) vs. Peter Vivaldi (R) and 1 other

State Rep. Víctor Torres is running for Darren Soto’s old State Senate seat, potentially facing Peter Vivaldi, who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2014. But for the first time Torres faces a primary opponent in Bob Healy (D),  a funeral operator and a former member of the Osceola Expressway Authority. Torres twice campaigned unopposed for the Florida House; he is well known in the district and the demographics favor his move to the Senate.


District 27 – Volusia

Zenaida Denizac (R) vs. “Abogado William” McBride (R)

Zenaida Denizac is a school teacher and a former Deltona city commissioner who is running for David Santiago’s old Statehouse seat as Santiago attempts to move up to Congress. In the August primary, she faces William McBride, a well-funded and well-known personal injury lawyer of Hispanic  descent who is a heavy advertiser in Spanish-language media. (Denizac is Puerto Rican.) McBride has been shopping for a seat for several years, running unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate in 2006 and also unsuccessfully for Florida Senate in 2012. District 27, which includes Deltona, has more Democrats than Republicans but there’s no foretelling the outcome with McBride in the race.

District 28 – Seminole

Franklin Pérez (Lib.)

Franklin Pérez is a perennial candidate, popping up nearly each election cycle with unsuccessful results. Jason Brodeur (R) is the incumbent in this Seminole County district and soon will be term limited out of his seat. A Democrat and NPA candidates also are running, which means all four will be on the November ballot – unless some of the opposition doesn’t qualify.

District 30 – Orange and Seminole

Bob Cortés (R)

Bob Cortés won this tight race in 2014 against teacher and Democrat incumbent Karen Castor Dentel. It’s a battleground Statehouse seat that includes parts of Seminole and Orange counties. In 2014 Castor Dentel won Orange County 52 percent to 48 percent, but Longwood-based Cortés pulled through in heavily Republican Seminole. In addition, state GOP backers strongly supported Cortés. This year he faces Democrat Ryan Yadav, a criminal defense attorney.

District 43 – Osceola

John Cortés (D) vs. Ricardo Rangel (D)

John Cortés looked as if he would cruise to re-election until Ricardo Rangel, who Cortés soundly defeated in 2014 despite Rangel’s incumbent big-money advantage, transferred from the Congressional District 9 race. Rangel is looking for a do-over, while Cortés also faces another Democrat primary opponent, Sara Shaw, who is mayor pro team of Kissimmee. The real race is between Cortés and Shaw, with the voter demographics favoring Cortés.

District 48  – Orange

Amy Mercado (D)  vs. Alex Barrio (D)

Amy Mercado is campaigning for her stepdad Víctor Torres’ old Statehouse seat as Torres runs for State Senate District 15. If each wins, they likely would be the first father-daughter duo in the Florida Legislature. But first Mercado has to beat Alex Barrio, a lawyer and former legislative analyst, in the August primary. Gus Martínez (NPA), a homeless advocate and the faith representative on the Orange County Commission on Aging, is also running. The real race is between Mercado and Barrio, with odds on Mercado, an experienced campaigner (she ran Torres’ campaigns and knows the district).

District 49Orange 

Carlos Guillermo Smith (D)

Carlos Guillermo Smith, who is of Hispanic descent, has no Democratic opponent in this district race, which sweeps east Orange County including the University of Central Florida and was Republican René “Coach” Plasencia’s old seat until he chose to run in District 50. Smith has been politically active for years, serving as former chair of the Orange Democratic Executive Committee and senior advisor to Joe Saunders, who lost the seat in 2014. Smith’s Republican opponents Amber Mariano and Martin Collins face off in the August primary. Shea Silverman (NPA) is also in the race, but Smith is the odds-on favorite.

District 50 – Orange and Brevard 

René “Coach” Plasencia (R)

René “Coach” Plasencia currently is the representative of District 49, but as the district has become more Democrat  he decided to chase more favorable demographics in adjacent District 50, which includes southeast Orange and Brevard. He faces Republican George Collins, a college professor, in the August primary. In 2014, state Republicans bet heavily on Plasencia in District 49; he went on to beat incumbent Joe Saunders in a close race. The GOP groups are likely to back Plasencia again this year, making him the favorite in the race.

Watch for Part II covering local political races.