In the days following the general election, it quickly became clear that Puerto Rican voters helped tip the scales of political power in Central Florida.
Democrat Darren Soto became the first Puerto Rican to win a state Senate seat. Lynx bus driver and Democrat Victor Torres is headed to Tallahassee to serve in the House. And voters chose 78-year-old Armando Ramirez to head the
The emergent clout of this multiracial community — credited with helping give
The effort to build a nonpartisan political-action committee in Florida is the latest example that the Puerto Rican electorate is bent on wielding its power to elect preferred candidates and demand more than lip service.
"Candidates come eat 'arroz con pollo' [chicken with rice] and talk about their Puerto Rican college roommates to us, but they're gone once the election is over," said Puerto Rican businessman Raul Ramos. "We want more than that — we want a seat at the table."
Ramos is director of the Puerto Rican Leadership Council, a group dedicated to increasing civic participation and grooming young leaders to run for office.
Unlike many similar groups, organizers say, the PAC that the PRLC is forming departs from partisanship with the goal of supporting Puerto Rican candidates of any party, as well as those who represent the best interests of the Latino community.
"I've seen too many Democratic and Republican candidates that were good that didn't get the financial backing," said Puerto Rican community leader Zoraida Rios-Andino of United Front 436, an advocacy organization representing largely Hispanic neighborhoods east of Semoran Boulevard. "So we have to take matters into our own hands."
Soto — who now represents a district that includes south Orlando and
"But it can't be limited to Puerto Rican candidates alone," he said. The group must also include "candidates who embrace the community. We, as the majority group [in Central Florida], have to lead by inclusion."
Betsy Franceschini, Hispanic-outreach director for Florida's
Census data show more than 860,000 Puerto Ricans in Florida, and about a third of them live in Central Florida.
Apathy and ignorance were the main deterrents, Franceschini found. With a team of volunteers, she organized meetings, knocked on doors, used political jingles and led "caravanas," or mobile political floats, to arouse enthusiasm. The effort, she said, paid off in November.
"We turned the state blue," Franceschini said. "I don't think [anyone] thought turnout was going to be at the level, influence and numbers that it was."
'Making it happen'
The slow but steady political ground game in the Puerto Rican community made great strides last year when Emilio Perez, chair of Central Florida Redistricting Council Inc., helped lead a triumphant effort to redraw state and congressional districts to increase Hispanic representation.
"It's a young community, and there is a lot of ground to take, but little by little we are making it happen," Perez said. "Politically, we have all the tools now we need to fulfill the financial part of the equation."
That, presumably, is where the PAC will step in. Organizers are consulting attorneys to help them fill out the Internal Revenue Service paperwork and register with the
Lake Mary business owner Miguel "Mike" Nieves dropped his bid for
Nieves and his colleagues, who are forming the PAC, want to ensure that Puerto Rican political power continues to grow and isn't choked by empty promises.
This is about "building a new and refreshing brand to ensure ourselves a better future," said Nieves, who crafted the application for the PAC. "We are setting the criteria and will hold our elected officials' feet to the fire if they don't meet them."
PRLC President Carlos Guzman said the PAC intends to do its best to set partisanship aside because that has fractured his community.
"We are getting nothing in exchange for our vote," Guzman said. "We aren't progressing because we let ourselves be torn apart by partisanship."
But critics say nonpartisanship is idealistic. Though the electorate has been known to jump party lines, Puerto Ricans have overwhelmingly and historically voted Democrat.
Elias "Rico" Piccard, a staunch Democratic supporter, said he's not sure he'd vote for a Republican, even if the candidate is Puerto Rican and backed by the PAC.
"I am a little skeptical, but I support the measure" as long as the focus is progress, he said.
Jose Fernandez, former state director for the national League of United Latin American Citizens, shares the concern. Adding money to the traditionally grass-roots mission of boosting political participation is loaded with risk, he said.
"You have to be really careful with PACs," he said, adding that conflicts of interests, corruption and chaos within the PAC could malign the entire community. "There are other organizations that are working strong for the community and have been here a long time that don't have monetary interests."