Orlando

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Many Latinos Among Gay Club Victims

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Francisco Hernández of Orlando waits outside Orlando Police Department headquarters to hear word about his partner Paul Henry. He was holding Henry’s driver’s license for safe keeping. /Maria Padilla

The Orlando area woke up Sunday to the horrific news that a shootout had occurred at Pulse, a gay club just south of Downtown Orlando, where law enforcement said there were 50 dead and at least 53 injured. Because the club was holding a Latin night, many of the dead and injured are expected to be Latinos.

As of this writing, six victims have been identified, all of them Hispanic. And since half of the Hispanic population of Central Florida is Puerto Rican, the group is likely to figure, perhaps prominently, among the victims. The dead thus far are Edward Sotomayor Jr., Stanley Almodóvar III,  Luis Omar Ocasio-Capó, Juan Ramón Guerrero, Eric Iván Ortiz-Rivera and Peter O. González-Cruz.

The incident has been declared the worse shooting in American history – and certainly in Orlando, where just 24 hours earlier The Voice contestant Christina Grimmie was shot and killed by an assailant unknown to her at a theater east of Downtown Orlando. It was an Orlando weekend of unusual deadly violence.

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Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer wipes the sweat from his brow as he confers with law enforcement officials. / Maria Padilla

Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency in Florida, a move that immediately opens up financial resources among law enforcement to be used in the investigation, which includes FBI, Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Orange County Sheriffs Office and the Orlando Police. The FBI identified the assailant as Omar Mateen, 29, of Port St. Lucie, about two hours from Orlando. He was killed in a gun battle with police inside the club, and is believed to have had terrorist ties.

Everybody Was Dancing

The shooting started about 2:05 a.m. Sunday just as the club, where over 300 people had gathered, was about to close. Many bar patrons at first thought it was part of the  music or entertainment.

Francisco Hernández, 24, of Orlando was waiting outside the Orlando Police Department headquarters to hear word about his partner Paul Henry, 40, and told this account:

“I was dancing. We were all dancing in a little group. It was Latino night so they were playing reggaeton and hip-hop,” said Hernández crying as he told what occurred inside the club. “All of  a sudden I heard four to five shots. Everybody just sort of toppled down and stayed on the floor. Then we heard more shots and everybody started running and ducking for cover. People opened up the exit doors leading to a hallway with thin paneling and everybody tried to knock it down. I fell and almost got trampled until I was able to stand up and run outside. I was looking for my boyfriend but I couldn’t go back.”

Hernández, who was born in Puerto Rico, was holding on to his partner’s drivers license to make sure it didn’t get lost. “We were together for about a month but knew each other as friends for about  a year,” he said.

Meanwhile, Luis, 40, a Dominican who studied in Puerto Rico, was grazed by a passing  bullet near his stomach and was covered with a blanket that Orlando Police gave him, he said, because he had given his shirt to another person to stanch a bleeding arm.

Trying to Pay His Tab

Luis, who lives in Kissimmee but didn’t want to give his full name, said he was paying his tab at the bar when shots rang out. Somehow he landed on the other side of the bar with two to three people on top of him, he recalled. “I was waiting to be shot or taken out. What else can I do?” Luis said.

He had just been to the movies with friends to see The Conjuring 2, a horror movie, when they decided to stop at Pulse off Orange Avenue because they were passing by, coming face to face with an all too real horror. He said his friend is fine but didn’t know the status other acquaintances at Pulse nightclub, which he hadn’t visited in three years.

Locked in the Bathroom

Two African-America women were walking toward Orlando Regional Medical Center (ORMC) to look for one of the women’s nephew who was at the club. The aunt, who said she was a member of the Justice-Logan family of Orlando, didn’t know if her nephew was “alive or dead.” The nephew called his mom after 2 a.m. to say he was holed up in the bathroom of the nightclub. According to the aunt, the mother could hear gunshots as her son was talking then the cell phone went silent.  “I’ve been up since 3 a.m.,” the aunt said, trying to obtain information.

Blocks around Pulse nightclub were cordoned off as medical examiner vans and law enforcement took over the area. The nightclub is situated just blocks from ORMC, which is a Level 1 trauma center. Hospital officials said six trauma surgeons were called in during the night to tend to the injured.

The media set up camp at a Chipotle restaurant off Orange Avenue that couldn’t open for business because it  is just a few blocks from the crime scene. There, law enforcement and elected officials briefed the press about every two to three hours.

The first press briefings comprised mostly law enforcement officials but by early afternoon city,  state and federal elected officials were holding press conferences of their own before a press pool that had expanded to include national and international media.

Hostage Situation

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Vans from the Orange County Medical Examiner stationed a few blocks from the crime scene. /Maria Padilla

Law enforcement spoke of a three-hour window – from 2 a.m. to 5 a.m. – during which officers couldn’t enter the club because it was a hostage situation. At 5 a.m. police stormed the club and a gun battle ensued, killing the assailant Mateen. In addition to a handgun and a semiautomatic rifle with extra rounds,  a “suspicious device” also was found with Mateen, according to the FBI, which declined to elaborate.

Minutes before the attack, Mateen called 911 to pledge his allegiance to Islamic State, according to law enforcement. It’s not clear how long Mateen may have been inside Pulse before he started shooting.

Congressman Alan Grayson (D-Orlando) said during an interview with public radio WMFE-90.7 FM that Mateen’s father said his son was incensed over seeing a gay couple kiss.

Grayson, Jolly Debate Politely over Senate Seat

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Congressmen Alan Grayson, D-Orlando, and (right) David Jolly, R-Seminole during the Florida Open Debate for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Marco Rubio. /photo Maria Padilla

It was a mostly civil affair between Congressmen Alan Grayson (D-Osceola and parts of Orange and Polk counties) and David Jolly (R-Pinellas County) during this week’s U.S. Senate campaign debate in Orlando hosted by the Open Debate Coalition and live streamed on the Web.

None of the bare knuckles brawl seen in the presidential campaign. The two congressmen discussed policy differences without finger-pointing or raised voices. Grayson, known for his sharp tongue, was on his best behavior, minus a few turns of phrases, such as “We have a name for killing a person … but no name for killing a planet”  and “African Americans were once considered three-fifths of a human being. The first African American president gets only seven-eighths of a term.”

Jolly, best known for calling on Congress members to stop personally soliciting campaign donations, stated that jihad and Iran were a greater threat to the U.S. in response to a question about climate change. Grayson appeared to stare in disbelief as Jolly changed the subject. Jolly also gave an “incorrect” reply on a question about U.S. Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland, stating Garland should get an up or down vote (but he would vote against). Lt. Gov. Carlos López Cantera, also vying for the Senate seat, later criticized Jolly, saying it demonstrated Jolly’s unwillingness to stand up to President Barack Obama.

The debate was missing a few key players, notably Patrick Murphy (D-South Florida), Grayson’s rival for the Democratic nomination, and López Cantera. Had all four been on the debate stage, the dynamic might have been scrappier.

The 75-minute debate, moderated by Cenk Uyghur of the progressive The Young Turks and Benny Johnson of the conservative Independent Journal Review, was held at the WMFE-TV studios at the University of Central Florida. Florida Open Debate fielded 900 questions from the public posted a week or two earlier on its Website which readers then scored in order of importance. Over 410,000 people voted and the top 30 questions were chosen for the debate, although time didn’t allow for all 30.

(Full disclosure: I was invited to “ask” a reader’s question during the debate. The question came from Samantha Moran of Pembroke, Mass., who asked “Do you support defunding or defending Planned Parenthood? The question was ranked 28 in Florida and 30 nationally.)

The “open debate” format  proved that debates do not have to be controlled by political parties or print and broadcast media. In addition, the public can be trusted to generate substantive questions. In addition to the Supreme Court nomination and climate change questions, readers also asked about campaign financing, the banking system, abortion, Planned Parenthood, Social Security and minimum wage, among others.

But noticeably absent were Florida-related questions and, specifically Latino issues in a state where one of every four people is Hispanic. No questions on the thawing of U.S.-Cuba relations or the debt crisis in Puerto Rico – the two feeders of Florida’s largest Hispanic groups, which likely will have a big impact on the 2016 elections.

Asked later about their views on the Puerto Rico crisis – the island may default on over $400 million in debt next week. It is carrying a total of $72 billion in debt –Jolly replied that federal bankruptcy laws ought to be extended to the island as they “apply to other states,” adding that he didn’t want the largest  bondholders to be bailed out because “they knew [buying the debt] was a risk.” He added that Republicans and Democrats in Congress were far apart on a potential compromise.

As a Central Florida congressman, Grayson’s stance on Puerto Rico is more well known: Extend Medicaid to Puerto Rico; eliminate the Jones Act that governs shipping between the U.S. and Puerto Rico and makes the island uncompetitive; and end the bankruptcy law discrimination.

Congress removed Puerto Rico from federal bankruptcy laws in the 1980s.

˜˜Maria Padilla, Editor

Democrats Driven to Distraction in District 9

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Democratic Congressional District 9 candidates Susannah Randolph and Darren Soto. /official campaign photos

A decade-old college comedy skit landed congressional District 9 candidate Darren Soto in an embarrassing position last week as his Democrat primary opponent Susannah Randolph seized the information, sending it to her supporters.

The story, reported by Gawker and picked up by Politico, refers to a comedy-music skit rap titled “2-Luv” that talks about Soto’s male organ – this must be the election season for this topic – and having sexual relations with a drunk woman, a subject of many college campus disputes and even federal regulations regarding non-consensual campus sex.

““As you may have heard by now, Senator Darren Soto wrote a disgusting and sexually explicit song during his time as a law student,” states Randolph, a former congressional staffer who has focused her campaign on women and gender equity. “The song depicted non-consensual sexual acts.”

State Senator Soto released a statement admitting that he penned the words but has moved on. “As a college student over a decade ago I did write a song for a comic skit among a co-ed comedy troupe that was in poor taste. But, the fact is that in public life I have been a responsible, consistent and effective advocate for women,” he said. “I led the fight to double the statute of limitations for victims of sexual violence and against the regressive 24 hour waiting period bill that would have diluted a woman’s right to choose. In Congress, I’ll do even more by fighting for pay equity and against Republican efforts to cut health care and defund Planned Parenthood.”

A number of Soto’s female supporters, including his wife Amanda Soto, chimed in, a move reminiscent of the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal in which prominent women defended Clinton’s sexual dalliances, citing his pro-women policies.

“As a proud pro-choice woman, I can tell you that Darren is second to no one when it comes to standing up for our rights,” wrote Amanda. “Darren gets it.  He knows that there is work to be done when it comes to securing a woman’s right to equal pay for equal work, to making her own health care decisions, and on so many other fronts.”

Other prominent Orlando Hispanics defended Soto on social media, including local activist Zoraida Ríos-Andino and Vivian Rodríguez, president of the Hispanic Democratic Caucus of Florida.

Soto and Randolph are running neck-and-neck in District 9, with the candidates generating similar financial support – raising about $162,000 each in the first quarter ended March – and compiling political endorsements.

Soto and Randolph aside, however, sexual politics appear to be making the Democratic campaign rounds lately, as Latina actress Rosario Dawson also invoked Monica Lewinsky while stumping for presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in Delaware. “We are literally under attack — not just for supporting the other candidate,” Dawson said. “I’m with Monica Lewinsky on this. Bullying is bad.”

˜˜Maria Padilla, Editor

Sanders Opens Puerto Rico Campaign

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Betsy Franceschini, regional Hispanic outreach director for Bernie Sanders, makes a TV appearance in Puerto Rico. / Franceschini Facebook photo

When Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders stumped for votes in Florida ahead of the March 15 presidential primary, he knew he could not – would not – possibly win the Sunshine State.

Sanders was significantly behind in the polls. But he particularly went after the Puerto Rican vote, a constituency that’s beginning to make a decisive difference at the polls. A week before the primary, Sanders named local community organizer Betsy Franceschini as his regional director for Hispanic outreach. Franceschini, well known among Orlando-area Puerto Rican, at the time was the Florida regional director for the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration (PRFAA) office in Kissimmee.

Why would Sanders make such a mad play for Central Florida’s Puerto Rican vote so late in the game?  He couldn’t catch up to Clinton, ultimately losing 33.3 percent to 64.4 percent in a Clinton landslide.

But Sanders wasn’t making a last-minute appeal to Puerto Rican primary voters here. He was tentatively approaching Puerto Rican voters there – on the island, where the Democratic primary isn’t scheduled until June 5.

Islanders cannot vote in the November presidential election but they do play a key role in the primaries, in which the island’s 67 Democratic delegates, including seven super delegates, are up for grabs – more than in Iowa (44), New Hampshire (24), South Carolina (53), Nevada (35) and Colorado (66), to name a few.  That’s a rich cache for the Democratic underdog.

This week Franceschini is unrolling Sanders media campaign, visiting island TV and radio stations two months in advance of the Puerto Rico vote in an open primary. According to Puerto Rico’s Noticel, about 250 people turned out for a Sanders meeting in Old San Juan.

“There hasn’t been a presidential candidate who has presented such a comprehensive and profound [commitment] to Puerto Rico,” Franceschini is quoted as saying in the story, referring to Sanders’ opposition to a proposed financial control board as part of a congressional debt relief package. Franceschini called for volunteers to create Sanders’ committees in every island precinct.

Puerto Rico is facing an economic crisis, on the hook for $72 billion in debt.

Clinton, meanwhile, is popular among island Democrats. In the 2008 Democratic primary, Clinton won 68 percent to Barack Obama’s 32 percent. She’s substantially ahead in the delegate count with a total of 1,712 (including super delegates), compared with Sanders’ 1,011.

In Puerto Rico, Clinton has earned soft pledges from three of seven super delegates, according to the political website Greenpapers.com

˜˜Maria Padilla, Editor