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Orlando Sentinel

Hispanics Not Chump Change For GOP Team

By Myriam Marquez

March 30, 2005
Copyright © 2005 Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved.

President Bush's job-approval ratings are in the tank, partly because of what most Americans see as his inappropriate meddling in the Terri Schiavo case and the public's growing concern about spiraling-out-of-control gas prices.

So what's the big whoop if Bush's latest Gallup Poll job rating, at 45 percent, is the lowest of his presidency? That's yesterday's news, and Ken Mehlman is looking to the future.

He's working to get Hispanics securely in the GOP camp and, with the help of faith-based initiatives, make inroads in the black Democratic community, too.

"Crazy Ken" -- as Sen. Mel Martinez calls the Republican National Committee's new workaholic 24/7 chairman -- made his pitch to the predominantly Hispanic business crowd Tuesday packed at Habana Joe's restaurant in College Park. Of course, he was preaching to the converted. He talked up the GOP agenda for education vouchers, more tax-cutting, growing homeownership and starting personal investment accounts through Social Security. (Schiavo wasn't on the agenda, and Bush's job-approval rating may indicate why.)

Judging from the political glitterati in attendance (from Florida Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher, who's eyeing the governor's seat, to Orange County Mayor Rich Crotty), GOP politicos aren't taking their party's prominence for granted. Aside from Martinez, there was Orange County Commissioner Mildred Fernandez, whose Puerto Rican background can only help the local GOP court the area's largest Hispanic group. Brevard County Commissioner Jackie Colon came all the way from Melbourne.

Tico Perez, who decided Monday not to run for the interim post of Orlando mayor while Buddy Dyer fights his indictment, put in an appearance. Martinez hailed Perez for "putting the best interest of the community" ahead of his own political aspirations and encouraged him to run in the future.

For his part, Mehlman got a feel for the perennial Puerto Rican question. The issue of status -- whether the island should remain a U.S. commonwealth or seek statehood -- continues to dominate island politics. The GOP's platform supports statehood for Puerto Rico, so it was inevitable that several people, including former state Rep. Tony Suarez, would try to press Martinez and Mehlman to commit on the issue, though neither did.

If there's one thing the GOP has learned, thanks to the Bush brothers' connections with Latino communities in Texas and Florida, it's how to sell the party to family-values, business-oriented Hispanics without getting stuck in the muck of the status question. Central Florida's Puerto Ricans, particularly those who have moved here from the island, where there's no strong allegiance to the Democratic or Republican parties, are swing voters. Fernandez and state Rep. John Quiñones, both Republicans, gained Democratic Puerto Rican voters' support thanks to their island roots.

But ethnic pride will only go so far, as Angel Baez-Camacho of the Florida Association of Truckers illustrated. He pleaded with Martinez for the GOP-run Congress to find a way to help independent truckers, many of them Hispanics, hard-hit with the skyrocketing price of diesel. Ethnic pride and the GOP's pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps philosophy, it seems, don't substitute for a pocketful of change -- even for the converted.

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