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 forAmerican 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.
The two candidates angling to be Kissimmee’s first Hispanic mayor are engaged in a mano a mano that started years ago and is getting weirder and weirder the closer we draw to the August 30 primaries.
Art Otero and José Alvarez, both Kissimmee city commissioners known for verbal disputes in and out of commission meetings, are on the August 30 ballot. The winner takes the mayor’s seat.
But Otero, known most recently for a domestic altercation in which he allegedly tried to influence the Kissimmee police investigation, is trying to disqualify Alvarez from the race – and seize the prize – in a suit rejected last week by the Ninth Circuit Court in Osceola. Otero said he will appeal, throwing the election into a dispute that potentially may be decided by the court.
Otero alleges that Alvarez should have resigned his commission seat to run for office, as Otero did, to avoid running from a “safe haven,” which is illegal in Florida. But Alvarez’s term ends in November, while Otero still had a few years left to his term. The judged ruled in Alvarez’s favor.
The hijinks do not end there. Although the mayor’s race is non partisan, Otero is a Democrat represented by two Latino lawyers well known in Oceola Republican circles: principal attorney Carlos Meléndez and former Osceola County Commissioner John Quiñones, who lost his 2014 re-election bid to Democrat Viviana Janer.
Many prominent Orlando-area Democrats are supporting Alvarez, including Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, congressional candidate Val Demings, State Rep. Víctor Torres (D-48) and Janer.
An ad paid for by Alvarez with photos of his endorsees is circulating on Facebook, as if it were a “Most Wanted” poster because they had the audacity not to support Otero.
Here’s the crux of the matter: Otero is Puerto Rican and previously urged voters to “vote for the Puerto Rican.” Alvarez, meanwhile, has committed the high crime of being Cuban-American.
Many Puerto Ricans yearn for the first Hispanic mayor of a largely Puerto Rican city to be Puerto Rican. No matter who it is, no matter the temperament.
“Dyer has aspirations for the governorship,” wrote local activist Violeta Burgos on Facebook. “Is he counting on our vote when he visits Kissimmee to endorse a Cuban for mayor and it’s not even his city”?
At last week’s Political Salsa hob nob, attended by 400 people and held at the Acacia Network in Orlando, Otero took umbrage at losing 70 percent – 30 percent to Alvarez in an unscientific poll.
A Facebook war broke out, forcing Political Salsa organizer and attorney Anthony Suarez to weigh in.
“Any implication that the results aren’t accurate is defamatory…,” wrote Suarez in perfect legalese on Facebook.
Otero, possibly sniffing an electoral defeat at hand, is lashing out any way he can because hob nob polls aren’t meant to be taken seriously. They are hyper partisan fun, “accurate” only insofar as they represent voter sentiment at the event.
Most folks who attend hob nobs are political insiders themselves, and apparently they are not supporting Otero.
In a surprise announcement, Susannah Randolph, Democrat running to replace her old boss Alan Grayson in Congressional District 9, snagged the endorsement of Viviana Janer, the first Latina on the Osceola County Commission.
Of all the endorsements Randolph has announced, none may count as much as this one in the Latino-leaning district that includes parts of Orange and Osceola counties.
However, the move is riskier for Janer, who serves as Osceola County Commission chair. She may see a backlash from the Hispanic community.
Janer was expected to endorse Randolph rival State Sen. Darren Soto (D), who has represented the district as a state representative and now state senator for about 10 years. If Soto wins the August primary, he would be a shoo-in for the seat, making Soto the first Puerto Rican to go to Congress from Florida.
If Janer is seen as thwarting that goal, she could draw the ire of the Latino community and attract a primary opponent when she is up for re-election in 2018. Osceola County District 2 is the most Hispanic district on the Osceola County Commission.
It seems then that the August primary is being set up to test Janer’s pull with Latino voters versus Soto’s. Back in 2014 Janer won her district with 51 percent of the vote, while Soto drew 76 percent support.
Osceola County is heavily Hispanic, and they generally vote Democrat. In fact, the influx of Puerto Ricans has produced one of the highest concentrations of Democrats of any Florida county.
Sources say Janer, who is Puerto Rican, was being heavily courted by Randolph and the Florida Democratic Party for some time. But her relationship with Randolph goes back several years.
When Janer ran into trouble with her employer during her 2014 campaign, she sought legal help from Grayson. At the time, Randolph was on Grayson’s staff.
Political newcomer Janer snatched the district away from incumbent Republican John Quiñones, who was accused of pressuring Janer’s employer to fire her after it was disclosed that Quiñones had received a donation from the company.
Quiñones denied the charge, which was never proven.
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
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.
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 ValDemings 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 49 – Orange
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.