When U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson put in his bid for presidential hopeful Marco Rubio's seat in the Senate, a flurry of candidates expressed interest in representing the largely Latino community of the Ninth Congressional District.
Among the contenders is heavyweight Susannah Randolph, a well-known progressive in the area and district director for Grayson. She's already won endorsements from high-profile movers and shakers in Central Florida, like former Rep. Patricia Schroeder, the first woman elected to Congress in Colorado, and attorney John Morgan of Morgan & Morgan, who's one of the biggest local donors to the Democratic Party. In a statement Randolph says she has spent her career registering Latinos and African Americans to vote, insuring their votes are counted. She adds that most of the 70,000 Orange County voters she helped register in 2008 were from Puerto Rico.
"As a Congresswoman, I will ensure that those efforts continue and that Puerto Ricans who are moving to Central Florida are able to easily find their voice in our political process and that their interests are well represented," she says.
Valleri Crabtree, former Osceola County Democratic chair, and Dr. Dena Minning, a biochemist and Grayson's girlfriend, have also registered as Democratic candidates. Crabtree feels she can represent the Puerto Rican community, saying she has educated herself on the issues plaguing the island for the past couple years.
"I'm making a strong commitment to the Puerto Rican population and other Hispanic cultures to not only demonstrate that I care, but also become knowledgeable about the challenges they face," she says. "Just because I'm a woman, I don't expect other women to vote for me, so I trust the community would vote for the most qualified person who will do the best job."
Puerto Ricans also have the opportunity in 2016 to elect the first Puerto Rican congressional representative from Florida. The favorite among local Puerto Rican Democrats is Florida Sen. Darren Soto. Other Puerto Rican candidates who are said to be vying for the seat but have not yet registered include one Democrat, former state Rep. Ricardo Rangel, and two Republicans, state Rep. Mike La Rosa, R-St. Cloud, and Kissimmee Vice Mayor Wanda Rentas.
Only one Republican candidate, Wayne Liebnitzky, has filed with Florida's Department of State to run, says Osceola County Republican chairman Mark Oxner. Oxner adds that in past years, his party has put forth many Republican Latino candidates to run against Democrats.
"Politically, we have good Hispanic candidates for this upcoming race," he says. "I mean, what's the point of having a majority Hispanic area if Hispanics aren't representing them?"
At a September political fundraiser in downtown Kissimmee's Buchito, the smell of empanadas and Cuban sandwiches wafted over donors waiting for Soto. The Orlando lawyer, who's said to work across the aisle, told political allies his priorities include bringing high-paying jobs to the area, diversifying the local economy and protecting the environment. But as many people reiterated through the night, it's equally important to send one of their own to Congress and finally have a seat at the table. Puerto Rican representatives don't just represent their constituents on the mainland, Dr. Luis Martínez-Fernández says. In a way, they're also a voice for those on the island who have been denied a voting member of Congress.
"The fact that I could be the first has been inescapable to me," Soto says. "We've waited decades for representation. Hopefully one of the Puerto Rican candidates from Florida can be a member of Congress. It will be a historic election."