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They Want Their Cake, But Can They Eat it Too?

Florida politicians fight over a slice of the growing Latino vote

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I'm not exactly the most objective observer, but my feelings about my hometown of Miami, Florida are complicated. I’m neither the Magic City’s biggest booster, nor its most vicious critic. But no matter how long it takes to drive 10 miles in rush hour or how many near-death experiences I’ve had racing along the Palmetto Expressway, I still consider Miami one of the nation’s most interesting cultural tapestries.

Truly the “Gateway to the Americas,” the city and its ever-growing metro area has a creative cultural profile that showcases a blended fabric of interwoven Latino identities stretching from the Cuban island in the Caribbean to the southern tips of Chile and Argentina. Each Latin American population that made the Sunshine State its home brought with it its own history, religious traditions and political memory that together form the rich taste of a multilayered cake from Vicky Bakery.

This delectable electorate was once available only to politicos at Latin America’s doorstep, but a rising Latino population in Northeast Florida may soon have Democrats and Republicans scrambling to secure the largest piece of the voter pie.

For years, South Florida’s mammoth Latino citizenry has been a force politicians must reckon with; more recently, the number of Central Florida Hispanics has likewise ballooned. As Latin American expatriates have historically tended to support more Democratic policies, Latino expansion in metropolitan cities like Orlando and Miami over the years has shifted these regions’ politics further left.

But recent census numbers show traditionally more conservative regions like Northeast Florida are now leading the state in Latino population growth as national furor over hot-button issues like immigration reach a fever pitch.

If this surge of Hispanic transplants continues in Northeast Florida, what might that mean for the outcome of future Florida elections? The answers to that question are as varied as the cultures of the 33 countries that fall under the umbrella of Latin America.

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Thursday morning in late August was the first time Tomas Jimenez Jr. visited Kathy’s Bakery Café, a traditional Cuban eatery on Beach Boulevard, but the Cuban-American real estate lawyer said it’s not hard to feel at home here.

“I was born in Miami and came to Jacksonville when I was two months old,” he said, stirring a café con leche and breaking off pieces of his guava-filled pastelito. “So I consider myself to be a Jacksonville native.”

After his family escaped Fidel Castro’s communist regime in 1960, the Jimenez clan bounced around a bit before planting roots in Jacksonville. Jimenez said that at the time, it felt like they were the city’s only Latino family.

“When I was a kid—I speak Spanish fluently—we would sometimes, if we didn’t want someone to understand what we were talking about or wanted to kind of talk in code, we’d say something in Spanish. Today I wouldn’t do that,” he said. “I don’t think I would get away with it as easily.”

According to the latest U.S. Census figures, Jimenez is right: Spanish is becoming too common in Northeast Florida to safely spill secrets in public en Español. Though South Florida trounces the rest of the state in pure numbers, North Florida counties have seen the fastest recent growth in Latino households in the state—and even these numbers don’t include the influx of Puerto Rican migrants after last year’s Hurricane Maria.

Between July 2016 and July 2017, the Latino community grew nine percent in Georgia-bordering Nassau County, earning it the distinction of having Florida’s second-largest year-over-year growth rate for the population. And over the previous decade, St. Johns County was No. 1 for Latino growth—climbing by two-thirds.

In the late 1990s, Jimenez’s dad founded the city’s Hispanic-American Advisory Board with Republican Mayor John Delaney. The board, on which the younger Jimenez now serves, is City Hall’s bridge to this burgeoning community. Jimenez is hoping to build on his father’s legacy by hosting a bipartisan candidate forum Oct. 9.

He said having Republicans and Democrats talk to Latino constituents can help dispel what he calls the “monolith myth.” Hispanics have political views just as nuanced as the general population, he said.

“I think to encourage people to be part of the process and for people to want to be part of it, I think they need to be able to make their own choice and not be spoon-fed or have a candidate shoved down their throats,” he said.

Depending on when they immigrated, what religious tradition they practice or where they’re from, Latin American transplants can vary widely in political opinions. Much like those of general population, these disparate values can even exist between family members just a single generation apart. Stretches of my childhood memory are full of verbal cage matches over Nicaraguan politics between my father and grandfather. Both were refugees from the Central American republic’s bloody 1979 civil war and communist takeover.

The experience swung my dad to the conservative side and he idolized figures like President Ronald Reagan for “giving him” his citizenship. Conversely, my grandfather–ever the consummate contrarian and self-labeled “guerrero de las montanas”–died a supporter of Nicaragua’s communist Sandinistas.

In Duval County, Hispanics make up around 10 percent of the population and five percent of voters. According to a Supervisor of Elections report, Latino voters almost doubled between 2006 and 2016.

Graciela Cain, who goes by the stage name GeeXella, is a Jacksonville educator, DJ and hip hop artist. Cain prefers to be described as “they,” a gender-neutral pronoun.

The Afro-Mexican rapper synthesizes activism and music to channel their experience as a queer person of color in the South. They moved to Jacksonville with their family when they were just five years old.

“My mom was born in America. Most of my family were migrant workers. So they would go from Mexico up to Minnesota … . They were all born sporadically up and down the Midwest,” they said. “I know most of my mom’s family were all pretty much raised here.”

Cain’s U.S.-born Latino story isn’t unique. Cain’s political ideology tracks with the prevailing progressive views of their millennial peers and their working class, secular Mexican roots makes them a reliably left political thinker.

“For myself, I definitely want to see change. I think a lot of folks are like feeling these horror stories with a lot of Latin folks right now with [Immigration & Customs Enforcement] and things like that,” they said. “It’s very oppressive to be black, to be Mexican. I definitely think there’s going to be a huge change and a huge voice for Hispanics in this election.”

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Millennials made up almost half of all eligible Latino voters in 2016, according to the Pew Research Center.

“Forty-four percent of the 27.3 million Hispanic eligible voters is a share greater than any other racial or ethnic group of voters,” a Pew analysis of census data found. The catch? Just like any other millennial group, Latino millennials aren’t as likely as their more conservative parents or grandparents to show up to the polls. Although Hispanics older than 65 make up the smallest share of the overall Latino bloc, more than 60 percent reported casting ballots in 2012. Meanwhile, younger generations vote at a much lower rate.

In Duval, Puerto Ricans make up the largest share of the Hispanic community and although most don’t register with a political party due to confusion over mainland ballots and political parties, they tend to vote Democratic.

A George Washington University study estimates around 3,000 people have died in the almost-year since Hurricane Maria battered Puerto Rico. As NPR reported, “Around 179,000 Puerto Ricans fled the island in the months following Hurricane Maria, with 69,000 moving to Florida alone.”

This diaspora (mostly to Central Florida) has been the subject of intense election season punditry: Will this exodus from the tropical island to the Sunshine State change political winds?

On its face, it seems clear that Democrats would have an edge in courting this voting bloc, members of which are almost voting-ready as soon as they step onto the mainland. Puerto Rican voters tend to support Democratic politicians—the federal disaster response last year rewarded President Donald Trump with a Puerto Rican approval rate close to George W. Bush’s following 2005’s Hurricane Katrina.

The battle over Puerto Rican voters is perhaps no better exemplified than in the homestretch of a bruising statewide contest between Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) and Sen. Bill Nelson (D). Both candidates have racked up endorsements from Puerto Rican politicians and have visited the island territory during recovery efforts multiple times. There’s probably no better example of the difficulty of forecasting this population than that of a summer survey, simultaneously showing 57 percent of Puerto Ricans pledging support for Democrats and overall positive reviews for Scott, a Republican and early Trump backer.

A Florida International University survey found that a whopping 82 percent of Puerto Rican people who arrived between 2017 and 2018 have a favorable view of Scott, while almost 70 percent recognize the two-term governor. Only 50 percent say they know who Nelson is. But those numbers may not tell the full story, either, as almost 100 percent of Puerto Ricans know who President Trump is and most have a negative view of him, reported the Sun Sentinel.

Courting Votes with Fingers Crossed

Over the last couple of years, Northeast Florida politicians have sponsored stricter immigration measures or have expressed support for a federal immigration crackdown that’s steadily lost support among Hispanics since Trump took office.

Former state Rep. Lake Ray (R-Jacksonville), recent candidate for Duval County Tax Collector (he didn’t progress to the November runoff) and early supporter of the president, sponsored a failed measure during his legislative tenure that would have granted military powers to the governor to prevent “restricted persons, immigrants and refugees” from entering Florida, Reveal and WJCT reported early last year.

“The intended goal, at the end of the day, is finding out who’s here, securing the borders, and not necessarily creating a path for citizenship unless there’s some sort of quid pro quo,” he said in January 2017. “You know, what is the something? Somebody walking across our borders should not necessarily just be entitled citizenship.”

State Sen. Aaron Bean (R-Fernandina Beach) last year filed a similar failed bill that would have forced municipalities to cooperate with federal immigration enforcement efforts or face state financial penalties. The bill would have also stripped noncompliant entities of their sovereign immunity, opening localities up to lawsuits, among other things.

“If they let a criminal go or if they don’t report and that illegal creates or makes a crime, then that official, that municipality, that county government—whomever is engaging in it—can be held directly liable for those actions,” he told WJCT last October.

Flagler College political science professor Rachel Cremona said that’s just good strategy for officials in overwhelmingly white, conservative areas and it can play well with Latinos who don’t originate from Central America, where the majority of new, unlawful immigrants are from.

But a swelling Hispanic population and aversion to hardline policies like family separation is creating solidarity between traditionally fragmented Latino nationalities like Puerto Ricans and Cubans. That could spell trouble for the GOP in the long run. Cremona said more moderate Latino conservatives are being alienated from the Republican Party, while the younger generation has already moved further left.

“We have seen just nationally over the last 10, 15 years or so, that Latin American immigrants were starting to vote in large numbers. Going forward, might that affect the dynamics? I think definitely,” she said.

Even that demographic path to change shouldn’t make Democrats complacent, Cremona cautioned. Though most Latino polling still shows broad disagreement with Trump’s immigration policies, a strengthening economic recovery and tough foreign policy also drove a “10 point climb [in overall Trump support] among Hispanic voters,” according to a June Harvard CAPS/Harris poll released by The Hill.

“As the proportion of the population increases, it will become more of an issue for people in Northeast Florida, particularly because we have such a conservative Republican base here,” Cremona said. “One of the tricky parts of this is that there are people in the Democratic base—you know, older generations of Latinos—people who have been here for decades, who also fear incoming immigration because they see it as negatively affecting their own position.”

Last week, a federal judge ruled that 32 counties, including Duval, Clay and St. Johns, must provide Spanish-language sample ballots online and at polling places, and that the counties must have Spanish-language signs at polling places informing voters that the sample ballots are available. The court stopped short of ordering official Spanish language ballots, however, agreeing with state officials’ argument that to do so “would be impossible, or close to impossible” this close to the midterm election.

In November, Latino voters, recent transplants to and longtime residents of Florida will choose between two incredibly different candidates for governor: The progressive Democrat and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum and the Tea Party Trump conservative Congressman Ron DeSantis. Though Gillum carried registered Democratic Hispanics, in the first poll DeSantis still holds an edge since the primary among Hispanic voters overall—most likely a result of his high support among Cuban-Americans, reported Politico.

In the end, Cremona said, both political parties (especially in places like Northeast Florida) would benefit from understanding a Latino constituency as less of a reliable bloc of single-issue voters and more as individuals with intersecting identities, histories and experiences—all of which they’ll bring
with them when they cast their ballots in November.

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Benk previously reported on this issue for WJCT.

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