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Fresh Faces Win Central Florida Congressional Races

State Rep. Darren Soto is the first Puerto Rican from Florida to be elected to Congress.

Central Florida will send a number of fresh faces to Congress come January. All are Democrats.

They include State Rep. Darren Soto, who will represent Congressional District 9 and is the first Puerto Rican from Florida to head to Congress, a symbol of the growing Puerto Rican electorate. In addition, former Orlando police chief Val Demings will head Congressional District 10 and newcomer Stephanie Murphy pulled a major upset in Congressional District 7.

It is the most diverse congressional delegation that Central Florida has ever seen – thanks to the Fair Districts constitutional amendment championed by the League of Women Voters and others and that took years of litigation to implement.

Once in place, it changed the gerrymandered district lines away from Republicans to more fairly represent Democrats in those areas.

The Biggest Upset

Stephanie Murphy

The biggest coup belonged to Stephanie Murphy, who won District 7 held by 12-term Republican Cong. John Mica, who complained of millions of dollars of “outside money” being poured into the district to defeat him. Certainly that is true; over $4 million was spent on behalf of Murphy.

But the redrawn district also picked up parts of Orange and Volusia counties, ending Mica’s 22 years of landslide GOP victories. In fact, Mica won Seminole County with 52 percent of the vote, but lost Orange County by about 20,000 votes.

As surprising and just as revealing, Donald Trump won “reliably red” Seminole by just 3,654 votes or 1.6 percentage points.

As political analyst Rick Fogelsong repeated earlier and on Election Night, “Seminole County is turning purple.”

Local Races

In state races:

Víctor Torres and Amy Mercado.

State Rep. Víctor Torres (D) won State Senate District 15, previously held by Soto and which covers Osceola and parts of Orange and Polk counties.

• Amy Mercado (D) was the victor in State House District 48 in Orange County. Mercado and Torres are the first father-daughter and Hispanic team to go to Tallahassee.

• John Cortés (D) was re-elected to State House District 43, representing Osceola County.

• Carlos Guillermo Smith (D) will head up State House District 49, which covers Orange County.

• Bob Cortés (R) retained State House District 30, which includes parts of Orange and Seminole.

• René Plasencia (R) captured State House District 50, covering Brevard and Orange counties.

Orange County

Emily Bonilla

Emily Bonilla also pulled a surprise 57 percent upset against incumbent Ted Edwards for a seat on the Orange County Commission, District 5.  Edwards was weakened by his support of a massive housing development east of the Econlockhatchee River, for years considered the line in the sand for protecting east Orange County’s fragile ecosystem.

Bonilla becomes the first Latina – and Puerto Rican – since Mildred Fernández to be on the Orange County Commission. Fernández was convicted on charges of illegal campaign contributions in 2012 and was sent to state prison. She cannot run for public office again.

Osceola County

José Alvarez

For the first time, Kissimmee’s fast-growing Hispanic population elected a Latino to be its mayor. José Alvarez earned a resounding victory over Art Otero, 63 percent vs. 37 percent, ending a very  contentious campaign that centered on whether Puerto Ricans would elect Cuban-American Alvarez over Puerto Rican Otero. They opted for Alvarez.

And despite being trailed by controversy early in his tenure as Osceola County Clerk of the Court, Armando Ramirez won re-election with 62 percent of the vote.

Watch Orlando Latino for more 2016 elections coverage.  

˜˜Maria Padilla, Editor

Four Days Left to Election-Day Finish

New York Cong. Nydia Velázquez (D) stumped for Stephanie Murphy in Orlando this week, as part of the Election Day ground game. Murphy is seeking to oust Republican incumbent John Mica of Congressional District 7. Polls show the race is a toss-up.

Only four days left to the Election-Day finish. Drilling down to the Latino community, what’s the ground game look like for the Puerto Rican community? Many political events center around Kissimmee, in Osceola County, a nod to what is considered the heart of Central Florida’s Puerto Rican community. Kissimmee also has become the center for the fierce battle for Florida’s Puerto Rican vote.

Here’s a glimpse:

  •  To get out the Puerto Rican vote for Democrat Stephanie Murphy, New York Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez on Thursday was campaigning for Murphy, who is vying to oust long-term Republican Cong. John Mica. Polls indicate the fight for Congressional District 7 is a dead heat and Democrats are pouncing, spending more than $5 million on Murphy’s campaign. The congressional district was redrawn in the last redistricting, making it more Democrat. It now includes part of Orange and Volusia counties, including Deltona, which is about a third Hispanic. Overall, District 7 is about 20 percent Latino
  •  The day before Velázquez was at a  Puerto Rican unity event in Orlando with former Puerto Rico Secretary of State Kenneth McClintock. “This election is going to be decided right here,” Velázquez said, to applause. “You could make the difference in deciding who becomes the next president of the United States.”
  • New York City Council President Melissa Mark Viverito was in Orlando to motivate Puerto Rican voters at Oh Que Bueno restaurant and on Spanish-language radio.
  • John Mica, meanwhile, rolled out his Hispanic endorsements, including former Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuño, who is not well regarded by many Puerto Ricans. Fortuño, you may recall, held a major event in Orlando in 2012 to endorse Mitt Romney for president. It did little good as the Puerto Rican vote went to Obama – and that was while Fortuño was a sitting governor.
  • trump-and-roundtable
    Donald Trump roundtable event with Hispanic leaders./ Press pool photo
  • Florida Politics reporter Scott Powers reports that Donald Trump held a roundtable with Puerto Rican leaders in Orlando. Powers, the press pool reporter for the event, was not allowed to actually sit in on the meeting, except for a photo op. Didn’t seem as if there were a lot of people in attendance.
  • Que Vote Mi Gente this week held a Twitter chat together with Momsrising.org aimed at Latinas.
  •  Today, November 4, Sen. Marco Rubio is scheduled to hold a get-out-the-vote rally in Kissimmee, the heart of the Puerto Rican community. A week or so ago Rubio conducted a meeting with local Puerto Rican leaders about the restructuring of Puerto Rico’s finances but it was sponsored by the Puerto Rican Bar Association, not  a campaign event.
  • The last Boricua Vota caravana is set for Saturday at 3
    Sen. Marco Rubio (R) at the Promesa meeting in Orlando. / Rubio campaign photo

    p.m., heading out from Fortune Road in Kissimmee. It’s a block party on wheels as a caravan of cars cruise the streets to make some noise and engage voters.

  • The Desfile Puertorriqueño de Florida (Puerto Rican Day Parade) is scheduled for Sunday in Kissimmee, where many elected officials and/or candidates on the ballot likely may show up for their photo op.
  • President Barack Obama opens up election week with a rally for Hillary Clinton at Osceola Heritage Park in Kissimmee on Sunday, starting at 1:30 p.m., yet another sign of the contest for Florida’s Puerto Rican and Hispanic vote.

Watch for my next posting about the voting numbers thus far.

˜˜Maria Padilla, Editor

Caravanas Cruise Orlando in Search of Voters

This is the fourth caravana of the general election season, with one more to go the Saturday before the November elections./Maria Padilla

Puerto Rican caravanas – the get-out-the-vote staple of Puerto Rico elections –cruised Orlando streets  to generate voter enthusiasm in Central Florida.

Iniciativa Acción Puertorriqueña, together with Misión Boricua, Que Vote Mi Gente, Organize Now and others – all progressive leaning groups – drew 50 or more cars to the parking lot of the shuttered and decaying Kmart in the heart of Azalea Park to kick off its fourth caravana of the general election season.

With Puerto Rican flags and #BoricuaVota banners flapping in the breeze, the vehicles lined up by the Kmart curb before heading out to cruise the streets of southeast Orlando and Orange County, where many Puerto Ricans reside.

Five Caravanas

“The last caravana is next Saturday,” November 5, right before the November 8 elections in an as-yet-to- be-determined location, explained Jimmy Torres Vélez of Iniciativa Acción Puertorriqueña and the SEIU labor union. Three caravans already have tooted their horns in Buenaventura Lakes and Poinciana in Osceola County, and in Hunters Creek in Orange County.

All are aimed at revving up the crowd with traditional Puerto Rican bomba y plena music and scaring away voter apathy, a specter that haunts the organizations. The caravana routes are all in heavy Latino  areas, the focus of intense get-out-the-vote efforts.

In fact, Osceola has the highest voter turnout thus far among “the top five black and brown counties in the state,” according to Stephanie Porta, executive director of Organize Now, who added the data were from the VAN voter database system.

Organize Now is taking nothing for granted. Porta commented that since July her group has knocked on 1 million doors in eight mostly Hispanic counties in Florida.

Puerto Ricans Under a Microscope

The Vamos4PR workshop preceded the caravana and focused jobs, education, health care and housing. /Maria Padilla

Puerto Ricans in Florida have come under a microscope as their numbers soar – over 1 million in the state – and organizations realize they are ripe for the picking and organizing.

Earlier in the day, Vamos4PR conducted a workshop attended by more than 100 people at the Centro Borinqueño in Orlando aimed not just at voter turnout but what happens after the ballots are cast and counted.

Vamos4PR wants to harness the potential power of the Puerto Rican population to influence the outcome of Puerto Rico’s $72 billion debt crisis negotiations.

“We have to turn this crisis into an opportunity,” said Shirley Aldebol, vice president of SEIU 32BJ of New York, the driving force of the 30 coalition partners of Vamos4PR Florida.

Compared with Florida, a right-to-work state, Puerto Rico has higher labor activism – from teachers to  hotel workers. And decades-long links with stateside labor unions.

“Puerto Rican participation in the labor movement generally has been more intensive and consistent,” wrote Eddie González and Lois Gray in a Cornell University study, titled “Puerto Ricans, Politics, and Labor Activism” in the 20th century.

Filling a Vacuum

The influx of tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans to Florida has shocked Puerto Ricans already here with stories of hunger, homelessness and deprivation. It has lit a fire under this and local labor coalitions to fill the vacuum of what is perceived as a lack of official local government response.

“I lost everything,” said Kaisha Toledo, originally of Hatillo, Puerto Rico. “I have $283,000 of student debt and it terrorizes me,” she added, explaining that she accumulated the debt while studying for a Ph.D in Puerto Rico, where she worked as a mental health counselor. But she cannot practice in Florida and is desperately looking for a solution.

Blue for Life

In fact, many professional Puerto Ricans – teachers, for instance– say it’s difficult to navigate the state’s licensing procedures, which seem bent  on keeping people out than letting newcomers in.

If Vamos4PR Florida and other organizations succeed in drawing the disaffected Puerto Rican migrant to their movements, it’s a good bet the newcomers will be progressive for life, potentially turning the now purple state of Florida a deep shade of blue.

That ought to have Florida Republicans seeing red for years to come.

˜˜Maria Padilla, Editor

The Puerto Rican Voter Has Arrived in Florida

Puerto Rican lady w. flag
The Puerto Rican voter has arrived in Florida, as journalists and Pacs begin to cover and embrace the demographic shift in Hispanic voters. /Maria Padilla

The Puerto Rican voter has arrived in Florida. It’s not too early to declare it so.

The national and international media have come around to the fact that Puerto Ricans in Florida likely hold the key to the 2016 elections. Serious Pac money is being invested in the Central Florida Puerto Rican voter this election cycle.

As a journalist who has spent nearly 20 years in Orlando reporting, writing and documenting the comings and goings of Puerto Ricans, I’ve never seen anything like it.

Florida is a politically fluid state in large measure because more and more Puerto Ricans are choosing the state as their home. The Puerto Rican population jumped 100 percent since 2000,  according to census reports, and they are concentrated in Central Florida, the political swing part of the state. Central Florida is the swing part of the state because Puerto Ricans can be swing voters. It’s fair to say that one doesn’t exist without the other.

Puerto Ricans put the purple into Florida.


They are providing an important counterweight to the heavy Cuban-Republican vote in South Florida. However, even that is changing as more recent immigrants and younger Cubans break away from the political traditions of an older exile generation.

In the last month, reporters from the United Kingdom, Iceland and Montreal, Canada – to name a few –  have touched down in Central Florida to profile specifically the Puerto Rican voter. That would not have happened earlier.

Years ago, journalists visited Central Florida – if they visited at all – to ask about Cuban voters, indicating they didn’t know what was happening here. They had not done their homework. They didn’t understand that census data show that Puerto Ricans make up half of the Orlando area’s Hispanic population.

Word Is Out

That’s over. Word has gotten out.

Puerto Ricans are here in very large numbers – over 1 million in Florida, a state that will soon surpass New York in Puerto Rican population. That is saying a lot, considering that New York for decades has been the historical stateside center of Puerto Rican people.

As significantly, only four percentage points separate the ratio of Cuban to Puerto Rican voters among  Hispanic voters – 31 percent to 27 percent, according to Pew Research.

If this were a poll, the difference would fall within the margin of error.

In fact, Osceola County, the heart of the Puerto Rican community, now has more Hispanic registered voters than non-Hispanic white voters, according to data from the Osceola County Supervisor of Elections and as Orlando Latino reported earlier.

84 Percent Expect to Vote

In a Center for American Progress Action Fund poll of Puerto Ricans released this month – a rare poll to focus exclusively on Puerto Ricans in Florida – about 84 percent said they “definitely” planned to vote in the election, a number that approximates voter turnout in Puerto Rico but which thus far has eluded Florida.

The Center for American Progress Action is a progressive-leaning organization that has taken a keen interest in the Puerto Rican voter. It is plunking down serious funding into a number of local initiatives, including the Que Vote Mi Gente voter mobilization effort.

Other projects are underway in the two weeks left to the November 8 elections. But more about that later.

Today, it suffices to say the Puerto Rican voter has arrived in Florida.  Finally.