University of Central Florida

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Record Number of Latinos Running for Office

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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 

CONGRESS

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.

FLORIDA SENATE  

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.

FLORIDA HOUSE 

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.

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