Latins Ascending

The Hispanic vote in Orange County is something to be reckoned with

The presence of three Hispanic candidates in the race for Orange County Chairman -- a position responsible for a $2 billion budget and 6,000 employees -- reflects the growing political power of the Hispanic community. "The Hispanic vote in Orange County is something to be reckoned with," said Rick Foglesong, professor of political science at Rollins College.

Hispanics, who make up about 17 percent of Orange County's population, represent 50 percent of the declared candidates for the county's top elected position. To put that into perspective, consider this: There is no African-American candidate, although blacks make up an almost identical demographic. But the race for county chairman -- a non-partisan position held since its creation eight years ago by Linda Chapin -- reflects the emerging complications both inside and outside the broad Hispanic tent.

A surname with a Latin ring doesn't automatically ensure broad support. Each candidate represents a faction within the umbrella term of Hispanic that many people misinterpret as a homogenous group. And there are tensions within the community that will likely be evident at the polls. Simply stated by one Hispanic observer, "Cubans and Puerto Ricans are like oil and water."

Republican Mel Martinez, a College Park lawyer, is Cuban. Democrat Mary I. Johnson, who announced her candidacy last week, is a county commissioner with family connections to both Cuba and Puerto Rico. Dark-horse candidate Alex Lamour, a former chief of police and government official in San Juan who now resides in southwest Orange County, is running what he calls the "people's campaign."

The race is "not in anyone's pocket," said Tony Suarez, former chairman of the Democratic Party of Seminole County. He said that, in a way, Hispanic politicians have become a victim of their own success. And now that Hispanic candidates are viable, the field will be crowded.

The political muscle of Hispanic voters really came to the forefront in Orange County during the 1996 presidential election, Foglesong said, when Hispanic voters helped fuel an unexpectedly strong showing by Bill Clinton. That, in turn, caught the attention of both Democrats and Republicans.

For now, Martinez and Johnson are gingerly extending a hand while being careful to say they aren't focusing too-much attention on this growing population. Steve Hazelton, manager of the Martinez campaign, said that in any campaign with a crowded field, all voting segments are important.

"For people who vote strictly on ethnicity -- and I don't think that is a lot -- that is going to split the vote."

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Johnson, who was one of the first women elected to county office, said that when she first ran in 1980, it was difficult to envision a time when three contenders for the county's top job would be Hispanic. But while she said she has "always been there for the Hispanic community," she doesn't think the election will hinge on ethnic background.

Lamour, a mortgage broker, said he disagrees and thinks his connections with Puerto Rico will be an asset because people want to vote for someone who understands their concerns. But the Hispanic connection actually may "be a challenge" for Martinez in the heavily white parts of unincorporated Orange County, he said. And Johnson, he suggested, may benefit from having a less-ethnic name in those areas.

Indeed, said Foglesong, some white Orange County voters, like most voters in the United States, are "reluctant to vote for someone with an Hispanic surname."

Republican candidate Bob Freeman says all such speculation is worthless. "I plan on winning the Hispanic vote," said the conservative, who is also a county commissioner. He bats down speculation that he will drop out of the race. It has long been rumored that Freeman will bow out once state Sen. John Ostalkiewicz, a diamond importer and fellow conservative Republican, declares his candidacy for the county position after the end of the legislative session on May 1.

But Suarez says no matter who ultimately occupies the chairman's seat, the Hispanic community is already a winner. The race shows both parties that the Hispanic community can provide support at the polls. "In both camps," Suarez said, "we are represented in the rooms where the power brokers are making the decisions."

Behind the scenes, the 600-member Hispanic Chamber of Commerce hopes to expand the community's impact at the polls. A voter-registration drive began last week at Fiesta Medina, one of the largest of Orlando's growing number of Latin festivals. Executive Director Ada Rodriguez said a half dozen Hispanic community groups and all the Spanish-language radio and print media have vowed to help. Sign-up tables will be set up at chamber events, and at festivals and supermarkets in Hispanic neighborhoods.