State Sen. Alan Hays is a retired dentist, so it's surprising to see him stick his foot in his mouth.
But Hays wandered into a political minefield with recent comments about Hispanics and redistricting.
At the end of a 2½-hour meeting last week, the Republican spoke about the likelihood of a new Hispanic-majority seat in Congress representing Orange and Osceola counties, south of where he lives in Umatilla.
"Before we design a district anywhere in the state of Florida for Hispanic voters, we need to ascertain that they are citizens of the United States," Hays said. "We all know there are many Hispanic-speaking people in Florida that are not legal, and I just don't think that it's right that we try to draw a district that encompasses people that really have no business voting anyhow."
His comments brought denunciations from two Hispanic House members, Democrats Luis Garcia of Miami Beach and Janet Cruz of Tampa, who accused Hays of being prejudiced against Hispanics.
Reached Monday, Hays declined to say anything more about the subject, not wanting to add more fuel to the fire.
This is not the first time Hays' mouth has landed him in trouble.
In a tense 2009 legislative floor debate on property insurance, he wagged a finger at then-Rep. Adam Hasner and said, "That's bullcrap!" It was great blog fodder.
In 2007, on the subject of an anti-bullying law, a group of students said Hays told them gay students needed psychological treatment.
On redistricting, Hays surely was speaking for some of his constituents. But he should have known better for three reasons.
First, many Hispanic newcomers to Osceola during the past decade are Puerto Ricans who are U.S. citizens by birth. That county is now 45 percent Hispanic, and Orange County is 19 percent Hispanic.
Second, the mandate for creation of political districts of equal population includes noncitizens. The census requires counting all "whole persons," including children, homeless people, nursing home patients and prison inmates. People who can't vote are still entitled to political representation.
Third, Hays and other Republican lawmakers voted last spring to rewrite the election laws, citing the need to stop election fraud (which rarely occurs).
The law is under attack by opponents in the courts and parts are under review by federal judges.
Hays stood on the Senate floor in April and said the state needed to pass the bill to eliminate "activities that might be fraudulent to occur in our system of voting."
It's true that people are not required to show proof of citizenship to become Florida voters. They affirm under oath that they are citizens, and the state double-checks that.
Hays' district includes part of Seminole County, where Supervisor of Elections Mike Ertel says the chance of a noncitizen getting a voter card is slim because the main form of ID that Florida uses to verify identity is a driver's license, which requires proof of citizenship.
Asked if noncitizens try to break the law, Ertel said: "We have not seen any."
Maybe Sen. Hays should have a little more faith in the people who run elections in Florida.
Steve Bousquet can be contacted at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.