The exodus of Puerto Ricans to Central Florida has given the political powerhouse a body of potential voters, but is it enough to finally have a voice?

The exodus of Puerto Ricans to Central Florida has given the political powerhouse a body of potential voters, but is it enough to finally have a voice?
Photo by Monivette Cordeiro

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Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis had a month to make a decision that would alter the political landscape of an entire state and kill a political career, or two.

He's in this position after Florida legislators, who were forced to redraw district lines because the Florida Supreme Court caught them gerrymandering districts to favor Republicans and incumbents, could not agree if they would choose the map from the House or the Senate. on a map. Through several days of drama in court, Lewis examined one map from the House, two maps from the Senate and four maps from plaintiffs in the original lawsuit. On Friday, he rejected maps from the Florida Legislature and chose one of the maps drawn by the plaintiffs, which include the League of Women Voters and Common Cause of Florida. Ultimately, Lewis' recommendation will go to the Florida Supreme Court for a final review.

A major source of contention between House and Senate legislators was where to draw the boundaries for the Ninth Congressional District. The district as we know it today didn't exist until Florida gained two more congressional seats in 2010, partly because the surge of Puerto Rican migration swelled the population, says Dr. Rick Foglesong, a political science professor at Rollins College.

Since the first wave of Puerto Ricans came to Central Florida in the 1970s when Walt Disney World opened, the population in Osceola and Orange counties has exploded, leading some to call it the new "Mecca" for Boricuas moving from the island and northern states. The number of Puerto Ricans on the mainland (4.9 million) eclipsed the population on the island (3.5 million) in 2012, according to the Pew Research Center. In Florida, the population is projected to hit 1 million soon, and about 400,000 Puerto Ricans are estimated to live just in Central Florida, according to the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at the City University of New York.

In 2011, Foglesong and a student were studying changing voting patterns in the Interstate 4 corridor and found a strong correlation between the Latino migration to the area and an increase in Democrats, with the correlation being most pronounced in Osceola County. In the "swing part of the swing state," the Puerto Rican community has neutralized Republican Cubans in South Florida and become the political power that determines national elections.

The new Democratic-leaning congressional district was created to be a minority-access seat for the Latino-based electorate, but U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson won election in 2012 and re-election in 2014, presumably on the strength of his liberal politics, Foglesong says. Puerto Rican candidates, like John Quinones, have run for the seat as Republicans, but lost in the primaries.

The recent redistricting showdown in Tallahassee has done a "disservice" to Latinos in Central Florida, says Matthew Isbell, a Democratic data consultant for Politico. The Legislature's base map divides the group between Ninth, Tenth and Seventh Congressional Districts, and adds white voters from Polk County.

Using the base map, the Latino share of the 2014 Democratic primary is low in a district where they made up the majority (almost 46 percent) in 2013. An amendment by Sen. Tom Lee in the Senate map changed the boundaries to take in more Latino voters and lose parts of Polk County, bringing the Latino share in the Democratic primary from 21 percent to 26 percent, making it a minority-coalition district, Isbell says.

The plaintiff map chosen by Lewis on Friday is very similar to the House map except for some parts of South Florida. In Central Florida, the House Map and the plaintiff map altered District 10, currently held by Rep. Daniel Webster, to be more Latino and lean Democrat.

For this reason, Isbell preferred the Senate map because it did a better job at keeping Latinos concentrated in District 9 where they could influence primaries. He adds that legislators should have taken into consideration Central Florida's Puerto Rican population growth and given the population more influence in upcoming elections because if they aren't able to elect someone now, the Puerto Rican community will have to wait until 2022 to get a seat.

Another roadblock affecting the Puerto Rican vote is that many register as having no party affiliation because they know little about how the political parties work on the mainland, says Vivian Rodriguez, president of the Democratic Hispanic Caucus of Florida. In Osceola County on Sept. 24, the majority of Latinos registered were listed as Democrats at 33,773, but 27,400 were registered as no party affiliation, says Amber Smith, community relations coordinator for the Osceola County Supervisor of Elections office. Smith adds that these numbers are extremely fluid and may not be representative of the entire demographic because people are not required to state their race or nationality on voter-registration forms.

Registering as having no affiliation shuts Latinos out of the state's closed primaries, Rodriguez says, which is where many Puerto Rican candidates in Central Florida have lost. Election day in Puerto Rico is also treated as a national holiday, with festivals and caravans, which many attribute to the island having a higher national voter turnout. The key to getting through this block is by educating the local Puerto Rican community on voting rules, she says.

"The people in this community want to see someone who looks like them and knows the struggles we are facing, before and after campaign season," Rodriguez says. "We're very excited for that chance."

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