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  1. Florida Politics

Republican Florida House newcomers shows diversity

Published Dec. 8, 2014

TALLAHASSEE — The new class of Republican state representatives doesn't fit the national GOP stereotype.

Four of the 19 new members are Hispanic. Two are women.

The GOP has long been more diverse in Florida than in other states, thanks largely to Cuban-Americans from Miami-Dade County. But the party is involved in a broader push to recruit minority and female candidates from across the state.

The effort paid off in 2014. Three of the four new Hispanic members were elected outside Miami-Dade.

"This is the new face of the Republican Party of Florida," said newly elected state Rep. Bob Cortes, an Altamonte Springs Republican who was born in New York but grew up in Puerto Rico. "You're seeing more young, fresh Hispanic Republicans not only run for office, but win."

Cortes and the other new members of the state House will be in Tallahassee on Tuesday for training.

Florida isn't the only place where diverse Republican candidates are winning office. The Republican State Leadership Committee, through an initiative known as the Future Majority Project, invested more than $6 million to help elect 42 minority and female candidates to statehouses across the United States in 2014. All told, Republicans won control of 69 of the nation's 99 legislative chambers.

"Conservative values are not gender- or race-specific," said Florida state Rep. José Félix Díaz, a Miami Republican who sits on the Future Majority Project executive board.

For decades, most Hispanic members of the Florida House and Senate were Republicans of Cuban descent.

That started to change around 2000 when top Democratic fundraiser and former state party chairman Bob Poe made a focused effort to recruit Puerto Ricans to the Democratic Party.

More Republicans from Central Florida have won office in recent election cycles, including Rep. David Santiago of Deltona.

The Republican Party was particularly excited to see Cortes and teacher Rene Plasencia run for office in the Orlando area, Florida International University political science professor Dario Moreno said.

"They were searching for candidates who are more representative of their communities, who reflect the fact that Central Florida is changing," Moreno said.

Plasencia, who is of Cuban and Puerto Rican descent, edged out Democratic incumbent Joe Saunders. Cortes bested one of the Democratic Party's best-financed candidates, former state Rep. Karen Castor Dentel.

Cortes, a former member of the Longwood County Commission, said he expects to see more Central Florida Puerto Ricans register Republican — and believes more will ultimately run for office.

"These are Catholic families who are fiscal conservatives, who align with the principles of the Republican Party," he said. "It's important for us to start doing some better outreach to the thousands of people who are coming into the state."

The new crop of Republican representatives also includes two women: Colleen Burton of Lakeland and Jennifer Sullivan of Mount Dora.

Sullivan, who was 23 when she won her August contest, said her election was also a sign of the times.

"It shows that no matter what your gender or ethnicity is, the Republican Party is the party with the proven principles for economic prosperity," she said.

Six new Democrats became members of the Florida House in 2014.

That class includes one woman (Rep. Kristin Jacobs of Coconut Creek), two African-Americans (Reps. Bobby DuBose of Fort Lauderdale and Edwin Narain of Tampa), and one Hispanic (Rep. John Cortes of Kissimmee).

Florida Democratic Party spokesman Joshua Karp said he wasn't surprised "that the changing demographic landscape of Florida is also reflected, to some extent, in the Republican ranks."

But Karp said he wasn't concerned about the GOP infringing on what has traditionally been the Democratic base.

"Elections are about your values," he said. "Our party better represents the values that women voters and Hispanic voters, by and large, are looking for."

Times/Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report. Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@miamiherald.com.