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Democrats, GOP court Hispanics in Pinellas

Abelardo Diaz, a native of Colombia, is the president of the new Pinellas County Democratic Hispanic Caucus.

ATOYIA DEANS | Times

Abelardo Diaz, a native of Colombia, is the president of the new Pinellas County Democratic Hispanic Caucus.

The first time Abelardo Diaz went to a meeting of the Pinellas County Democratic Party, he did not see any fellow Hispanics present.

After his second meeting, he spoke with committee chairwoman Toni Molinaro.

"I notice there are no Latinos here," Diaz told her. "And I know they vote Democratic."

Diaz, 74, a native of Colombia, now aims to increase the county's number of Hispanic Democrats. He is the president of the new 20-member Democrat Hispanic Caucus of Pinellas, which has been organized under the umbrella of the county's Democratic Party.

"We know (Hispanics are) trending Democratic finally in Florida," said Molinaro, who agreed to form the Hispanic caucus when Diaz suggested it. "That is something we can't ignore."

•••

In the national picture, Florida has long been an anomaly when it comes to party affiliation among Hispanic voters.

Most Hispanics around the country favor the Democratic Party. But Cuban-Americans have been a Republican stronghold in Florida, particularly in the southern end of the state.

Now Democrats are enjoying recent gains in their share of Hispanic members in Florida.

In the November 2006 election, for the first time since Jimmy Carter was elected 1976, the Democratic candidate for the ballot's biggest race — who would become Florida's next governor — got as many Hispanic votes as the Republican — if not more.

Democrat Jim Davis and Republican Charlie Crist each got 49 percent of the Hispanic vote, according to television network exit polls. The nonpartisan William C. Velasquez Institute found that Davis received 53 percent of the Hispanic vote and Crist received 42 percent.

And earlier this month, the Florida secretary of state released statistics showing that for the first time Florida has more Hispanic Democrats (418,339) than Hispanic Republicans (415,086).

Among Pinellas County's registered Hispanics, 7,484 are Democrats and 4,460 are Republicans.

Democrats say one reason they are making gains is because many of the new Hispanics settling in Florida are not Cuban.

The new Hispanics, who have origins in Puerto Rico and countries such as Venezuela and Mexico, are more inclined to register as Democrats.

Another reason for the gains, Democrats say, is a harsh anti-illegal-immigration rhetoric among some elected Republican officials nationally.

"We have witnessed a lot of hateful rhetoric and attacks coming from the Republicans against Hispanics," said Alejandro Miyar, a spokesman for the Florida Democratic Party.

•••

The Pinellas Hispanic caucus fits into state Democratic leaders' plan to develop by June such organizations in the 15 counties with 95 percent of Florida's Hispanics.

Hillsborough has a Democratic Hispanic Caucus, as do Orange, Lee, Miami-Dade and Broward.

"I feel for the first time in a long time the Florida Democratic Party has put their money where their mouth is," said Millie Herrera, president of the statewide Democratic Hispanic Caucus of Florida. "We are sitting on a gold mine of voters we did not have the money to motivate."

But state and local Republicans say they won't give up the Hispanic vote easily.

The quarterly meeting of the Republican Party of Florida in Orlando last weekend focused on doing Hispanic outreach.

Under chairman Jim Greer, the state GOP has developed Hispanic and other minority leadership councils — including in Hillsborough County — to reach out to those voters.

Republicans point out that despite increases in Hispanic registration for Democrats, the Republican Party is the one with numerous Hispanic elected officials, including Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio of Miami and U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez.

"We have more Hispanic elected officials than Democrats and that's the bottom line," said Katie Gordon, press secretary for the Florida Republican Party. "Registration is one thing. Results are another."

Regarding the anti-illegal immigration stand of some Republicans, Gordon pointed out that presumptive presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, was the author of a bill that would have legalized many immigrants.

Also at the Orlando meeting, the Republican leaders chartered the new Hispanic Republican Club of Pinellas County.

Like the Democratic caucus, Hispanic Republicans in Pinellas are going to register Hispanic voters and urge them to vote.

The Republican club has "several dozen" members, said Tony DiMatteo, chairman of the Pinellas County Republican Executive Committee.

The club will hold its first meeting June 2 at Crabby Bills in Indian Rocks Beach.

"We think we have a more natural home in the Republican Party (for Hispanic voters) because of their conservative values," DiMatteo said.

•••

The task to register Hispanics as Democrats in Pinellas County will fall in large part on Diaz, who lives in St. Petersburg.

He is an emigrant from Colombia who first moved to Long Island, where he owned a jewelry business. He put three kids through college before retiring to Florida 10 years ago.

Though not all Hispanics in Pinellas County or elsewhere are immigrants, Diaz said he is interested in helping newly naturalized citizens understand the voting process.

"I have found out that politically Latinos are disoriented," said Diaz, who first worked on then-Sen. Al Gore's presidential campaign in 2000 putting up signs. "When elections arrive, a lot of people don't know where to go vote."

Among its coming activities, the Hispanic caucus is holding a registration drive Saturday at the Wagon Wheel Flea Market in Pinellas Park.

They intend to recruit.

"I got lists and lists of people of the Hispanic population who are registered as Democrats," said Renee Fernandez, a former New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent and vice president of the Democratic Hispanic Caucus.

She added: "We are going to contact each and every one to the best of our abilities and tell them what we are doing."

Jose Cardenas can be reached at jcardenas@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4224.

Democrats, GOP court Hispanics in Pinellas 05/20/08 [Last modified: Sunday, May 25, 2008 6:37pm]

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