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Shifting Loyalties Among Ethnic Groups a Factor

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Page A08

© 2004 The Washington Post Company

 

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer

NORTH MIAMI -- Carline Paul keeps an honest-to-goodness Florida voting machine -- an iVotronic touch-screen model -- in the cluttered space that was once her living room. Gray-haired Haitian American men speaking lyric Kreyol and wearing baffled expressions let Paul hold their hands as she guided them through sample ballots.

"When you see D-E-M," she said urgently, mixing English and Kreyol, "Baton!" Hit it!

A few miles away, men waited in North Miami's City Hall for an audience with Josaphat "Joe" Celestin, the city's first Haitian American mayor. The credenza in Celestin's wood-paneled office -- displaying pictures of him with such Republican luminaries as President Bush and former senator Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) -- speaks as loudly as his rival's baton.

"We've got five new Republican clubs in the Haitian community in North Miami in just the last year," Celestin boasted.

This is the topsy-turvy, up-is-down world of Florida presidential politics less than three weeks before the state that made 2000 the messiest presidential election in recent history returns to the polls to choose between Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.). Haitian Americans, once solidly Democratic, are in play for the GOP. Arab Americans, once reliably Republican, are nudging toward the Democratic ticket. Cuban Americans, a staple of the GOP, are considered gettable by Democrats. Moving even small numbers of these minority voters -- either to the polls for the first time or into a different party's vote-tally column -- could have a huge impact during this closest of battleground races in this closest of presidential elections.

"It's absolutely all in play," marvels Irene Secada, a longtime South Florida Democrat.

Polls show the race in Florida, a state that represents one-tenth of the electoral votes needed to secure the presidency, too close to call. Political veterans pity the pollsters this year. So many factors are complicating the forecasts: An unmatched hurricane season has forced polling places out of ruined buildings, prompting worries about lost voters. The whereabouts of thousands whose homes were damaged by hurricanes is so doubtful -- voter groups believe many may have sought refuge in other states -- that activists are urging people to vote by mail. A mailing by America Coming Together, an anti-Bush group, included an absentee-ballot request with an only-in-Florida option for not voting in person: "I am temporarily unable to occupy my residence due to hurricane, tornado, flood . . . or other natural disaster."

The run-up to the election is also clogged with court cases, including disputes over runoff provisions and a controversial decision by Secretary of State Glenda E. Hood (R) that could prevent thousands from voting because they did not check a box on their registration forms that asked whether they are U.S. citizens. Some counties are following her ruling, others are not. Then there is the wildcard of 600,000 newly registered voters.

"How many of these people who registered are going to vote?" asked Taleb Salhab, president of the Arab American Community Center, based in Orlando. "At the end of the day, this election is going to be about turnout."

The excruciatingly close margins have given a sense of possibilities to tiny factions as the Oct. 18 start of the state's first foray into early voting for a presidential election approaches. Haitian Americans with an estimated 150,000 voters and Arab Americans with 100,000 are eye-drops among the state's 9 million voters. But Florida politics is as much a game of tiny gains this year as giant leaps. Countless small to medium-size tightly to loosely organized groups are wielding unprecedented influence. A state once dominated by the politics of big unions and other large stalwarts of the political landscape has given over, in part, to a kaleidoscope of thinly nonpartisan "527" groups, hip-hop crusaders and small-scale upstart activists.

The larger organizations and demographic groups still hold great sway, but the smaller groups, operating outside the official campaign apparatuses, have lent an anything-goes essence to the race. Their bogey seems tantalizingly reachable: 537 votes, the margin of Bush's disputed victory over Vice President Al Gore in 2000.

"If I get my 300 to 400 people in Orlando and 300 to 400 in Miami to vote, that could be the election," Salhab said.

The contest for Arab American voters crosses into two staples of modern political campaigning in Florida: post-Sept. 11, 2001, terrorism angst and the quest for the now-fabled "Interstate-4 voters," the inhabitants of the politically divided region between Tampa and Orlando that both political parties consider indispensable.

There has been a perceptible shift among Arab American voters away from the Republican Party because of complaints that the Bush administration unfairly targets Muslims in its anti-terrorism efforts. This small but vocal group may be joined in its shift to the left by another key demographic in Florida: Hispanic voters.

Cuban Americans, who represented about 80 percent of Hispanic voters in the 2000 election, now comprise barely half the state's Hispanic voters. Job growth in the Orlando area has led to an influx of Puerto Ricans and Central Americans -- who typically vote for Democrats -- and has ended the Republicans' once-unquestioned dominance of Florida's Hispanic vote. This trend complicates the effect of the U.S. Senate race on the Nov. 2 ballot, which features Mel R. Martinez, a Cuban-immigrant success story who was Bush's former housing secretary, against Democrat Betty Castor.

"You have the potential to excite Hispanic voters, but the question is: Do other Hispanics [besides Cuban Americans] come out?" Secada said.

Bush appears to be suffering a small decline in popularity among Cuban Americans because of anger over his administration's policy that limits travel to the island. During campaign appearances in the Miami area last weekend, Kerry emphasized his support for allowing more family visits to Cuba.

Looming over the race is something that might best be described as "The Power of Jeb." Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R), the president's brother, is so popular that he confounds conventional political wisdom, said Sergio Bendixen, a Miami pollster who works primarily for Democratic candidates and groups. Jeb Bush spoke Spanish during an endless stream of hurricane news conferences this summer and while escorting his brother on highly publicized visits to storm-damaged areas.

The governor's appeal -- he won a majority of the normally Democratic Puerto Rican vote when he was reelected in 2002 -- is likely to have significant carryover that could help the president secure large numbers of moderate Hispanic voters, Bendixen said, perhaps enough to carry the state. "He's an icon in the Hispanic community," Bendixen said of Jeb Bush. "He's what makes things difficult for those of us working on the Democrat side."

Celestin has seen the Jeb effect among Haitian Americans. Even a small gain in that group would be considered a coup for Republicans trying to overcome widespread outrage among the black population, many of whom believe they were disenfranchised in the 2000 election. Jeb Bush drew cheers this weekend at a rally when he talked about the U.S. government's efforts to stabilize Haiti. He also promised to discuss with the president a long-stalled request for "temporary protected status" for Haitian immigrants, which would end the Bush administration's policy of automatic deportations on the grounds that Haiti allegedly harbors terrorists.

Such entrees are increasingly gaining support for Republicans among Haitians, Celestin said, and are building on the appeal of the party's conservative social platform -- such as opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage -- in a community that is almost universally Catholic.

"Prior to 1998, there would have been almost no votes for Bush in the Haitian community," Celestin said. "Now, maybe we can say we are the 500 votes that would put him in office."

 

 

 

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