What The Non-Cuban Latino Vote Means For Florida Politicians
Latinos, as if you needed more media reminding, are America’s largest minority today. Winning their swing vote matters more than ever – even if means politicians making speeches in really bad Spanish.
In Florida, that exercise used to be a day at the beach. Or rather, an hour at Miami’s Versailles restaurant. Drink a café cubano. Declare your hatred for Fidel Castro. Head to the next campaign stop.
But that was back when Latino in Florida meant almost exclusively Cuban. And Cuban meant Republican.
Things are more complicated today. Latinos (or Hispanics) make up almost a quarter of Florida’s population and 15 percent of its registered voters. But Cuban-Americans are less than 30 percent of the state’s Latino cohort. Groups like Puerto Ricans and South Americans are surging – and voting mostly Democratic, evidenced by the fact that they helped President Obama win Florida in 2012.
Florida’s Latino campaign trail is no longer an express bus to Little Havana. It’s a sprawling local running through regions like the I-4 Corridor – and the living rooms of families like the Parras in the south Miami-Dade suburb of Pinecrest.
As part of his “Kitchen Table Tour,” Democratic gubernatorial candidate (and former Florida Governor) Charlie Crist paid the Parras a visit this month to talk about the recent cuts to Florida’s Bright Futures scholarships. Specifically, how they’re affecting Latino students like 18-year-old Marcela Parra, who’s had to take on more student debt.
Politicians are finally putting the spotlight on us and not just the Cuban community. -Marcela Parra
“We’re trying to get our voices heard too,” says Parra, who’s voting for the first time. “So it’s like politicians are finally putting the spotlight on the Colombian community and not just the Cuban community.”
Non-Cuban Latino voters like Parra are younger and lean Democratic. They’re focused not on Cuba policy but on issues like immigration reform and especially education.
So in his bid to unseat Republican Governor Rick Scott, it’s not surprising that Crist chose Annette Taddeo-Goldstein – a Colombian-born business owner – as his running mate for lieutenant governor.
The selection of Taddeo – who until recently was Miami-Dade County Democratic chairwoman – reflects a belief among Crist and Florida Democrats that the state’s Latino future resides far beyond the doors of the Versailles.
“There are Hispanics now everywhere throughout Florida, not just in South Florida,” says Taddeo. “And the non-Cuban Hispanic vote is, I believe, a sleeping giant that we are working to awaken… because we don’t have a lobbyist in Tallahassee.”
What’s more, polls suggest Governor Scott has an image problem with Latinos – especially after Coral Gables billionaire Mike Fernandez resigned this year as a top Scott fundraiser in part because he felt the campaign was insensitive to them.
And yet, the Scott campaign isn’t really panicked about the Latino vote – which Scott actually won in 2010. And political experts like Eduardo Gamarra of Florida International University in Miami say there’s reason not to be.
“I think we can still expect a predominance of Cuban-American voters,” says Gamarra.
VOTE OF THE FUTURE
Gamarra notes the problem with the Florida Latino vote of the future is that it’s still… of the future. Trends certainly indicate non-Cuban Latinos will be a potent Florida force in later election cycles – and the GOP should certainly be worried about that, he adds – but for now they’re “probably not ready to compete with Cuban-Americans.”
Cuban-Americans still make up more than half of Latino voters in Florida. And they remain a more reliable bloc than non-Cuban Latinos – who still lag when it comes to getting U.S. citizenship, registering to vote… and voting. (It should be noted, of course, that the citizenship part is far easier for Cubans under current U.S. policy.)
As a result, pundits say Scott was smart this year to name Carlos Lopez-Cantera – a Cuban-American former state legislator – as his new lieutenant governor and now running mate.
“The emphasis on the Cuban-American voter that the Scott campaign has made is going to be extraordinarily important for the outcome,” says Gamarra. “Other Latinos are not becoming voters as quickly as people had predicted.”
That includes a part of the Cuban electorate that Crist was counting on: younger and more moderate Cubans who tend to vote Democrat.
Crist has reached out to those Cuban-Americans, for example, by calling for an end to the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba. But he may have overestimated their current voting clout.
Lopez-Cantera, as a result, accuses Crist of being opportunistic with Cubans and Latinos in general.
“Charlie has resorted to trying to play on the emotions of Hispanics,” says Lopez-Cantera. “The issues that matter to them are the issues the Governor [Scott] has focused on, jobs and education.”
But Taddeo says reductions in education benefits under Scott, like the Bright Futures, belie that claim.
“That is an insult to Hispanics,” she says.
Election day will gauge whether it’s enough of an affront to wake Florida’s sleeping giant.
Tim Padgett is WLRN's Americas editor. You can read more of his coverage here.