Part 1 of a series of candidate profiles in the Florida House of Representatives District 48 election to replace Rep. Amy Mercado.
Samuel Vilchez Santiago, 23, announced his candidacy in May to represent District 48 in the Florida House of Representatives. District 48 includes parts of the Orlando International Airport, Azalea Park, South Goldenrod, Southchase, Meadow Woods, Sky Lake and Hunters Creek. Current state Rep. Amy Mercado is leaving to run for Orange County Property Appraiser rather than seek a third term.
"My mom was a dentist and my dad a small-business owner and both of them were involved in activism against the Venezuelan government," Santiago said at the time of his announcement. "Eventually that activism led to a lot of threats being made against them until one day our house got shot and my parents made the decision to move to the United States."
Seeking refugee in the U.S., Santiago and his family applied and were granted asylum in 2010. With just $2,000 in savings, Santiago's mother worked at a local McDonald's and in a cafeteria, while his father worked at a minimum-wage job at the airport.
"I saw how they were sacrificing their personal careers so my sister and I had a better future and that's when I decided early on, in 8th grade, to apply myself academically and help my community," Santiago tells Orlando Weekly. He did just that, becoming valedictorian at Colonial High School and graduating with honors from Princeton University with a bachelor's degree in politics.
Santiago supports ending cash bail, defunding the prison industrial complex and establishing independent commissions for law enforcement oversight.
"We can only help to save something in a democracy if we get out there and we do the work of organizing our communities and providing help to our communities," Santiago says.
If Santiago is elected, he would become the first Venezuelan American and youngest Latino in Florida state government. District 48 has a total population of 156,456, according to the 2010 census, and out of the total population, 86,793 identify as Hispanic or Latino.
"It sends a strong message about the future of the Democratic party, and particularly here in the state of Florida, as we look at hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans becoming citizens, being able to vote and … truly mobilize that message forward," Santiago said.
With a lot of his direct family still in Venezuela and many stateside Dreamers in close contact, Santiago advocates for not only the Latino community and undocumented immigrants, but for everyone to unite. He says the combination of historic recent events make this an especially important moment for political change.
The Orange County ZIP codes hit hardest by the pandemic, 32822 and 32824, are within District 48. Santiago, who has canvassed neighborhoods following CDC guidelines and using protective measures, has found that many neighbors in the district are people who need to continue to work to provide food for their families and are afraid of the costs associated with testing because they don't have health insurance.
"COVID-19 has affected this community very closely, and that actually is one of the reasons why I decided to run because I have been a part of these conversations and have lived some of these experiences," Santiago said. "It's an ongoing conversation about how to help the community."
Expanding Medicaid and mental health are two of the main points in Santiago's platform to help those uninsured and in crisis mode due to the coronavirus. Increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour and expanding paid sick leave for everyone will help the unemployment gap the pandemic has caused, Santiago says.
More funding for education, especially for Title I schools and for students in ESOL and disability programs, is key to his campaign.
"What I've seen from the coronavirus pandemic is that our structural inequalities have been at the forefront and the gap has widened in our society," Santiago says. "I have policy positions in other issues that are important but I think these three really represent what the community needs at this point to revitalize our society."
After seeking refuge in the U.S. from Venezuela, Santiago's mother worked at a local McDonald's, while his father worked at a minimum-wage job at the airport.
Santiago, a member of the Orange County Charter Review Commission and campaign manager for nonprofit All Voting Is Local, will be running against at least five other Democratic candidates and one Republican for Rep. Mercado's seat.
Tony Tsonis, in senior management handling hotel marketing; Nelson Pena, who runs a real estate management and motivation consulting agency; and Daisy Morales, the district supervisor for soil and water conservation, were Santiago's primary competitors, until a sixth Democrat, Julio L. Rocha, entered on June 2. Rocha is chief revenue officer of the Rocha Group and national board chairman of Prospanica.org.
The candidates share similarities in their stances on many issues. Both Tsonis and Santiago want to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Pena and Santiago both want to follow or continue what Mercado has achieved as a house representative. Tsonis, Pena and Santiago mention COVID-19 as a significant problem in District 48 and the state that needs to be addressed further.
Orange County Soil and Water Supervisor Dawn Curtis, is endorsing Santiago calling him the "best choice for the environment."
Endorsed by District 2 Orange County School Board representative Johanna López and Florida House of Representatives member Carlos Guillermo Smith, Santiago has already raised over $10,000 for his campaign, yet believes that the act of fundraising in politics gives too much power to those able to raise money and takes power from other everyday people who cannot raise funds or donate as much money.
"If we want to balance the scale of power throughout the state and across the country, we really need to look into changing the way we do political fundraising and how some people tend to have more power in the process."
Santiago is aware of the economy's rocky condition caused by the pandemic and believes that fundraising shouldn't be a burden on those running for offices, but he says his campaign is doing well.
Santiago supports ending cash bail, defunding the prison industrial complex, establishing independent commissions for the oversight of law enforcement (currently prohibited by state law), expanding voting rights, and furthering environmental justice initiatives, all of which would have a significant impact on Black Floridians.
Santiago has attended demonstrations in Orlando in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
"My story is one familiar to this community – it is a story of hope, resilience, and perseverance," Santiago said. "They sacrificed for my family’s future. Their sacrifice is dear to my heart, and I look forward to honoring the sacrifices of constituents in this community by promoting legislation that serves the needs of people, not the pockets of corporate interests.” _
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