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Gerrymandering house to house 

It's no secret that Hispanics have become firmly entrenched as a political force in American politics. Central Florida has to look no further than the Cabinet-level promotion of former Orange County Chairman Mel Martinez as proof that the Hispanic vote is being coveted, even at the national level.

Hispanics have become the second most populous minority in Florida and Orange County. In Orlando, they've doubled their official numbers in the last ten years to 33,000, according to the latest Census figures. That puts them well behind the city's 115,000 whites but within striking distance of Orlando's 50,000 black residents.

African Americans, though, already hold two seats on the Orlando City Council. Hispanics don't hold any. Indeed, the only Hispanic elected to office on one of Orange County's three main boards (county commission, Orlando city commission, school board) is County Commissioner Mary Johnson.

A group of 30 Hispanics calling itself the Puerto Rican/Hispanic Coalition for Fair Representation is trying to change that. Formed in May, the coalition was instrumental in the Orange County School Board's decision to appoint Hispanic representatives to its redistricting committee -- a decision that allowed them to help redraw school-board lines.

The coalition has scored no victories in Orlando -- though not for a lack of trying. The group has made several presentations to the city's advisory redistricting committee in an attempt to add more Hispanic voters to District 2, Orlando's easternmost district. That district is already home to 12,800 Hispanics, the largest concentration in any district in Orlando. For the last decade, the district has been presided over by the matriarch of the Orlando City Council, 70-year-old Betty Wyman, who rarely makes enemies at City Hall mainly because she is rarely ever heard from.

A year ago, Wyman easily defeated three Hispanic candidates for her seat. The coalition would like to close the gap by 2004, while adding an economic center to the district (such as the Orlando International Airport) so that the district has a rallying point.

One of the group's proposals is to redraw district lines so that Hispanics living in the Southport and Boggy Creek neighborhoods west of the airport could vote with Hispanics living in the Englewood Park, Monterey and Lake Fredrica neighborhoods to the north.

The proposal divides the airport between District 1 and 2, allowing the upscale neighborhood of Lake Nona to vote with other affluent communities in District 2.

One problem: this proposal is illegal. As drawn by the coalition, it has intersecting boundaries, meaning that one of the districts would not be contiguous as required by law. "Where it crosses at a point, that point, no matter how infinitesimal, is either in one district or the other," says Bruce Hossfield, the city planner who advises the redistricting committee.

Hossfield also argues that the communities the coalition is trying to separate Ã? Lake Nona from Boggy Creek and Southport Ã? have more in common (traffic and noise) than they do with neighborhoods to the north.

Southport shares only one thing with its northern counterparts: ethnicity. "That's the only thing they have in common," Hossfield says.

Another option recommended by the coalition was to cut into parts of apartment-heavy East Central Park, Dover Shores East and Dover Estates. That would have created a city-commission district with more than 9,600 Hispanics of voting age.

But Hossfield and other members of the redistricting committee didn't like the proposal because it divided six neighborhoods. It also left a large part of Dover Estates, where Wyman used to live, in Don Ammerman's District 2.

Dover Estates must be in Wyman's district for "sentimental reasons," says coalition member Ayme Smith. "Remember, this is the neighborhood where she began her political career."

Not so, says Lew Oliver, the local Republican chairman who represented Wyman on the redistricting body. Dover Estates was included in Wyman's district for political reasons, he says, which is a legitimate redistricting concern. "It's one of her political bases." he says.

If the redistricting committee had a problem with the coalition's suggestions, the coalition also had a problem with the committee's offerings. Their recommendation to City Council (which has final say over redistricting) actually decreases the percentage of Hispanics in District 2 from 40.6 percent to 39 percent.

"This is wrong and illegal," a coalition flier claims.

But the committee's option would put more Hispanic homeowners in District 2. Homeowners are thought to be more active politically, meaning more likely to vote.

Smith, though, doesn't believe that: "Immigrants are coming with a dream. They are coming with something to work for. Their vote means something to them." As it is, Hispanics aren't concentrated enough, not even in District 2, to create their own district. "You'd have to gerrymander from house to house," Oliver says.

At Monday's city council meeting, Smith was bushwhacked by Wyman after giving an impassioned speech on redistricting. When Smith was finished, Wyman could barely contain her resentment. She wanted to know if Smith lived in District 2. Smith answered that she didn't but that it was her desire to have someone on Council whom Hispanics could turn to for understanding.

Wyman, though, wasn't interested in understanding. "I don't want to argue with you," she said. As Smith returned to her seat, Wyman glared at her and bobbed her head up and down as if she were a cock of the walk.

"I sort of expected that," Smith said later. "We're challenging her seat. I don't expect her to be nice."


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