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Change in Latino Population Could Alter Florida's Politics

June 28, 2011 - 6:00pm

There was little surprise when Census numbers came out earlier this year that Latinos had comprised most ofFloridas explosive growth -- about 54.7 percent of the states 2.8 million new residents were Hispanic.

But the numbers also contained a subtle shift in the Latino population. In 2000, Puerto Ricans and Mexicans accounted for a total of about 5.3 percent of the states population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, putting them on equal footing with Cubans, who made up 5.2 percent of the people in Florida.

A decade later, Puerto Ricans and Mexicans are 7.8 percent of the states residents, eclipsing the 6.4 percent that Cubans account for. And many of those new residents -- more than 365,000 of them -- are Puerto Ricans.

Perhaps nowhere is the growth more pronounced than in Central Florida. In Orange County, Puerto Ricans now account for 13 percent of the population and a quarter of the total population growth since 2000, according to the Census Bureau. In Osceola County, the increase has been even more notable. Almost 44 percent of the population growth has come from Puerto Ricans, who now account for more than a quarter of the countys total population.

The voters have come from all over, observers say. Some of the immigration is from the island itself, a U.S. territory, while Puerto Ricans from New York have also made their way down to Florida in sizable numbers.

The seat that we lost in New York went to Florida, quipped Juan Cartagena, president and general counsel of LatinoJustice/PRLDEF, an advocacy group working with local activists on redistricting in Central Florida.

But political power has so far proven difficult to win; already, local redistricting in Central Florida has caused tensions with the Latino community, and more could be on the way as lawmakers begin the once-a-decade process of redrawing the states political boundaries.

Puerto Ricans lean toward Democrats in elections. According to some studies, Puerto Rican voters in Central Florida supported U.S. Sen. John Kerry by a 2-1 margin in the 2004 presidential election, even though President George W. Bush carried Florida.

But political observers say the Puerto Rican community is not as solid for Democrats as older Cubans were for Republicans when the latter became one of the most reliably GOP voting blocs in Florida for decades. Some believe that will prompt a new focus on the voters ahead of the 2012 election.

The vast majority of us are not party-brand loyal, said state Rep. Darren Soto, D-Kissimmee, and currently the only Puerto Rican state legislator. We are swing voters in a swing area of a swing state.

That could come into focus not only in redistricting -- but with the states electoral votes being a cornerstone of efforts by both Democratic and Republican plans for winning the White House.

I think well see a lot of the front-runners in the presidential race in Central Florida, Soto said.

President Obama might have already started that outreach -- although it wasnt in Orlando or Kissimmee. Obama made a much-noted trip to Puerto Rico recently, and most observers said his audience was actually those Puerto Ricans living on the U.S. mainland.

That certainly will score him some points to go down there, Soto said. But the economic issues are really whats critical.

The fickle nature that some see as a virtue could also complicate Puerto Rican voters efforts to leverage their clout. Politically disparate voters might have a more difficult time commanding the attention and deciding the fates of politicians, said Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida.

In the sense of being able to wield more power as a group, that is a problem, he said.

With redistricting looming, the immediate focus is winning more seats centered on Latino voters generally, and Puerto Rican voters in particular, in the Central Florida area. Local activists have already drawn a map that would create a congressional district where 46 percent of the voters are Latino, 12 percent are black and 34 percent are white, according to Emilio Perez, president of the Central Florida Redistricting Committee, an advocacy group.

Perez said the concept is simple: When the state decides where and how to configure the new districts, the new seats should follow the new individuals.

The highest growth in the state was the Latinos in Central Florida, he said.

Giving some new hope to activists: the new FairDistricts amendments adopted by voters in 2010. Supporters of a Latino district are hoping that the focus on giving minority voters a chance to elect representatives of their choice will help them in a push for a congressional seat, and perhaps more legislative power.

Jewett said lawmakers following FairDistricts to the letter might very well craft a new district along the lines of what Latinos are looking for.

If all those things happen, it wouldnt surprise me to see a new district in Central Florida ... that had a fairly high percentage of Hispanics, he said.

But the redistricting standards havent been used before, and its not clear how closely lawmakers will hew to the new rules. Personal preferences for a seat, either carved out for legislative leaders or for a favored rank-and-file member, could still guide the drawing of the lines.

Cartagena said the two dont have to conflict. He said who ends up winning the district is largely immaterial, as long as the voters who brought the district to Florida are heard.

As long as that district ... has a majority or a very, very strong plurality of Latinos, then Latino voters have a lot to gain, he said.

And he thinks lawmakers have very little choice about whether to create a district along those lines.

I think the data compel it, he said. And the law may very well compel it as well.

News Service Editor Dave Royse contributed to this report.

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