Every election cycle, a small army of political consultants and campaign workers tasked with capturing the Hispanic vote descend upon Central Florida. Some call them “the parachutists” — a reference to how they simply seem to materialize and the little connection they have with the community.
To rely so heavily on outsiders isn’t an ideal situation for any campaign. However, it is a necessary evil in a community that is strong in numbers — but lacking in political infrastructure. As Election Day draws near, parties and candidates strategize, canvass and organize the Hispanic vote in Central Florida with lots of imported talent, in part because there aren’t enough people here with the necessary experience and acumen to do those jobs.
“It is a challenge,” said Javier Cuebas, a Washington D.C.-based government, and political consultant who works with Latinos in Central Florida on behalf of national Democratic campaigns. “Sometimes the people on the ground don’t know the Puerto Rican community very well at all. But because there isn’t a strong Hispanic political infrastructure in the area it becomes an unavoidable risk.”
Puerto Ricans are key for campaigns wanting to capitalize on the area’s Hispanic population for a couple of reasons. For one, their numbers are stronger than those of any other Latino group and keep surging across Florida. There are more than 1 million Puerto Ricans in this battleground state, and the I-4 corridor is their preferred destination, with more than 400,000 Boricuas residing here. The heaviest concentrations can be found in Osceola, Orange and Seminole counties.
Yet it is still a relatively young community that isn’t fully politically acculturated. Their mass exodus from the island began in 2006 as its economy began to crumble. More than half of all Puerto Ricans have been in Florida 10 years or less, according to U.S. Census data and a study recently published by the National Council of La Raza, a Latino advocacy group.
“We are an emerging population, even if there are 1 million of us in Florida,” said María Padilla, an independent journalist covering the community in her Orlando Latino blog. “We are still in the midst of a migration of historic proportions which doesn’t appear to be slowing down, and the community isn’t fully acclimated yet. So if you came here last year, or two years ago, you still probably haven’t gotten your bearings.”
Unlike other groups of Hispanics, Puerto Ricans are in a unique position for potential political power because they can become registered voters the minute they disembark at Orlando International Airport. Puerto Ricans were conferred American citizenship in 1917, almost two decades after the U.S. annexed the island as booty after the Spanish-American War. Yet they are not consistently showing up at the voting booth.
“They turn out for presidential elections in decent numbers, above 50 percent,” said Angel de la Portilla, a business and political consultant who has run local campaigns for Republican candidates. “But then we don’t see them for another four years. They don’t come out for mayoral races, they don’t come out for legislative races, and they don’t show up for primaries. There’s not going to be a high demand for people like me if candidates know that the population I target isn’t going to be a decisive factor.”
Hispanic voters’ participation in non-presidential election years is usually between 25 percent and 28 percent of registered voters in Central Florida. By contrast, more than half of white registered voters cast ballots during the same period.
“We still don’t have the type of voter participation needed to launch a platform for Hispanic consultants to be able to withstand the offseason in politics,” de la Portilla said.
This is only part of the puzzle. Although Puerto Ricans are in the majority, there are scores of other Hispanic nationalities in the area, such as Dominicans, Venezuelans and Colombians. They, too, are relatively new to the area.
“This is a business very hard to break in that requires experience and strong community knowledge,” said Bertica Cabrera-Morris, who has been in the consulting business in Orlando for 25 years and is a well-known Republican fundraiser. “There are not many Berticas around, because it takes a long time to turn a Rolodex into paid dues and to know the ins and outs of a community as diverse as this one.”
Another aspect hampering the development of a stronger Hispanic political infrastructure is the timid financial support from Latino entrepreneurs and businesses.
“For Hispanics to be able to make it to the next level as a political force, it needs a business sector that is willing to invest in them,” Cuebas said. “Strong Latino political leadership will translate into benefits for the community as a whole.”
Like the rest of the population, most local Hispanic businesses are also young and don’t see political engagement as a priority as they strive to make it. But a transformation is already taking place as the number of Latino-owned businesses soar. At 1,700 members, the Metro Orlando Hispanic Chamber is the largest business interest group in the area.
“In addition to the locally founded businesses, we’ve seen a surge in Puerto Rican businesses migrating or expanding here from the island,” Cabrera-Morris said. “Engineering firms, CPA firms and other mature businesses are bringing their talent here.”
Padilla estimated the turning point is about 10 years away. Florida Sen. Darren Soto’s bid for Florida’s 9th Congressional District appears to be the beginning, she said. If successful, Soto, who is half Puerto Rican, would be the first-ever Hispanic congressman from Central Florida.
“Darren’s campaign has had broad support from Latino businesses and mainstream businesses as well,” Padilla said. “Overall, in my 20 years here I had never seen so many Hispanic candidates running and so much political activity in the community. This election season can be a catalyst for Hispanic politics and the political industry, when all the pieces start to come together.”
Padilla recently reported on her blog that there are 42 Hispanics running for office in Orange, Osceola, Seminole and Volusia counties — half of them in Osceola County. This is nearly twice the number of Latino candidates (24) that ran in the same counties in 2010. There were 33 Hispanics on the ballot in 2012.
Puerto Ricans and Orlando Hispanics, in general, are on the right track, Cuebas and others agreed. Political power and infrastructure take time to develop and strengthen, but they are well on their way.
“It took a couple of generations for Cubans in Miami to be the political force they are today,” Cuebas said. “The same can be said of Puerto Ricans in New York and Arab-Americans in Michigan. The structure isn’t fully there, but the people who will be the future campaign managers and consultants are already pounding the ground as volunteers and accumulating experience. Businesses are maturing. They are poised to be a force not to be reckoned with.”
Jeannette Rivera-Lyles is a senior communications specialist with Eleven 11 Communications.