In Florida, Puerto Ricans’ rise gives a key swing state more swing voters

There is nothing here that looks like a Little San Juan, no streetscape that replicates the sights and sounds of Puerto Rico, but you can get a taste of the island at Melao Bakery. It’s a spotless establishment in a bland shopping strip — authentic Central Florida architecture — on Boggy Creek Road. The staples of Puerto Rican cuisine are served buffet style: roasted pork shoulder, red beans, yuca, fried green plantains and a garlicky dish of mashed plantains known as mofongo.

At a table by the door, Luis and Angel Ortiz, 22-year-old twins, got tangled one recent morning in a debate about the presidential election. Luis is a liberal who believes that there are poor and disadvantaged people who need a helping hand from the government; Angel takes a conservative position that emphasizes rewards for hard work and consequences for personal mistakes.

When Luis described a hypothetical mother who can’t go to college because she has to take care of her out-of-wedlock child, Angel snapped, “Why did she make those decisions?”

“Because we aren’t perfect,” Luis answered.

The Ortizes — one vote for Obama, one vote for Romney — are among about 300,000 Puerto Ricans in Central Florida. That number is not a typo. There are at least 122,000 Puerto Ricans just in Osceola County, where the former cow town of Kissimmee is the county seat. Most arrived in the past decade.

This is an extraordinary demographic development. The surging presence of Puerto Ricans in the shadow of Disney World has created another wild card in the wildest of the swing states.

Florida is essentially a different state every four years. It isn’t like Iowa, or Wisconsin, or New Hampshire, or some other state that hasn’t changed much since the invention of the internal combustion engine. With bewildering speed, Florida has gone from a subtropical swampland to the fourth most populous state in the union, soon to be the third.

Hispanics have been in the thick of that, growing from 8.8 percent of Florida’s population in 1980 to 22.5 percent by 2010 — more than 4 million strong in a state with a population now more than 18 million. There were only about 9,000 Puerto Ricans in metropolitan Orlando in 1980, but the number jumped to about 52,000 in 1990 and about 137,000 in 2000, and has roughly doubled since then, according to historian Luis Martinez-Fernandez of the University of Central Florida (which has 50,000 students and counting).

For Puerto Ricans, Martinez-Fernandez says, this is the frontier. There are nearly 900,000 Puerto Ricans in the state, and perhaps by the time they reach the million mark they will no longer be an overlooked constituency. They are rapidly catching up — in raw numbers, if not in political clout — to the long-established Cuban American community that many people think of when they think of Hispanics in Florida.

What sets Puerto Ricans apart from other Hispanic groups is that they’re all American citizens. On the island, which is a commonwealth of the United States, Puerto Ricans can vote in presidential primaries, but they have no voice in the general election because Puerto Rico has no electoral votes. But when they move to Florida and take up residency, Puerto Ricans have the same voting rights as someone who moves from across the Georgia border.

Collectively, they’re swing voters. Puerto Ricans helped elect Republican Jeb Bush twice to the governor’s mansion, but they went big for Barack Obama in 2008. Osceola and Orange counties gave him 20-point margins in a state that he won by just three percentage points.

But polls indicate that this time, Obama isn’t enjoying quite as much Hispanic support across Florida. If he wants Puerto Ricans to turn out for him, the president has more work to do to inspire them, says Darren Soto, a Democrat — and Puerto Rican on his father’s side — who serves in the Florida House and is seeking a state Senate seat.

“They are the group that could put him over the top — and were the group that put him over the top that last time around,” Soto says of Puerto Rican voters. “He’s got to send chills running up and down people’s backs, and speak to the hearts and minds of the Hispanic community to make sure that they pull that lever for him.”

Javier Ortiz, a Republican strategist, predicts that Mitt Romney will carry the Puerto Rican vote because Obama overemphasizes government as a solution to people’s problems: “The folks who live in Central Florida that are from Puerto Rico are looking for hope, real hope, opportunity, jobs, the education of their children, betterment of themselves — and they don’t believe in anything but hard work.”

Democrats and unpredictables

Puerto Ricans in Central Florida are divided into two distinct voting groups. Roughly half are “Nuyoricans” and other Northeasterns who have migrated south to retire or reestablish themselves. They are more likely to be longtime Democrats. The other half have come here directly from the island. They’re less predictable politically.

Puerto Rico’s political parties are shaped by a long-running debate over the status of the island — whether it should be a state, a commonwealth or independent — and don’t neatly parallel the partisan divisions on the mainland.

Proof of that: Two of the most bitter rivals in Puerto Rico in recent decades, former governors Carlos Romero Barceló and Rafael Hernández Colón — men who wouldn’t give each other the time of day on the island — came to Kissimmee a few weeks back and clasped hands in an arms-raised victory gesture as they endorsed Obama. Meanwhile, the current, pro-statehood governor of Puerto Rico, Luis Fortuño, and the first lady, Luce Fortuño, have been stumping for Romney in Central Florida.

Florida’s Hispanic electorate, of course, also includes many Dominicans, Cubans and others from all over the hemisphere. Consider two undecided voters having lunch at Melao Bakery: Liliana Santizo and Linda Rivera, both 30, both Guatemalan, though Santizo was born there and Rivera is from New York.

They’re advocates of liberal immigration laws that would enable others from their country to pursue their dreams of a life in the United States. Romney took a hard line on immigration during the GOP primary season, a stand that dims his star in their eyes, but Rivera thinks Obama also lost support among Latinos by failing to live up to his promises on immigration reform.

The two women are also evangelical Christians, like a great many Puerto Ricans in Central Florida, and they oppose same-sex marriage and abortion. “We come from very conservative backgrounds,” Santizo says. The bottom line is that neither political party speaks directly to their full suite of positions, and both are undecided in this election.

Across the room, Anaeli Berrios, 35, says she moved to Osceola County two years ago when her husband, Ricardo, 45, got a housekeeping job nearby. They bought a house, with two bedrooms and two bathrooms, for $63,000 in a lower-income neighborhood. Medicaid pays for her autistic daughter to get therapy that wasn’t available in Puerto Rico, she said. She’ll cast a vote for president for the first time in her life, and she took notice when Obama mentioned autism in the first debate.

“Obama is the only one who apparently cares about autistic kids,” she said.

The pro-Obama sentiment is particularly clear among the elderly Puerto Ricans who gather to play dominoes and bingo at the community center in Buenaventura Lakes, known to everyone simply as BVL.

Luis Alicea, 90, a retired sanitation worker from New York, says everyone he knows will vote for Obama. His son, Luis Jr., 54, echoes that and says his culture values compassion for the needy: “My mom always says, ‘Don’t ever deny a plate of food to somebody.’ We should all be united. Love thy neighbor.”

From Disney to bust

The Puerto Rican presence is part of the speeded-up evolution of Central Florida.

Back in the early 1960s, Walt Disney and his agents used dummy corporations to buy up the pastures and wetlands southwest of Orlando. Soon the Disney company owned more than 27,000 acres, and the secret was out of the bag. A Magic Kingdom shot up in the middle of nowhere.

Bulldozers got to work from one side of the state to the other; the rule of the game was more is better. Development was horizontal, with strip malls and subdivisons sheeting across the flat peninsula. If everything looks like it was built in the past 40 years, that’s because it was.

But the recent recession corroded much of the landscape, and in places, this new world has grown prematurely old. Along U.S. Route 192, which is effectively Main Street in Osceola County, motorists pass shuttered restaurants and motels, miniature golf courses that have seen their last putts, and properties that are desperate for a buyer or perhaps a merciful hurricane.

“We had a philosophy of grow at any price. We didn’t care,” says retired developer Tom Tompkins, 64, who once could boast that he’d built one of every five homes in Osceola County. He’s having a drink in downtown Kissimmee at the 3 Sisters Speakeasy, chatting with his friend Ed Moore, 74, who directs the county arts center after a career in insurance.

They’re both Republicans and are going to vote for Obama — Tompkins says he doesn’t want Wall Street running the country, and Moore says he prefers the Democratic platform on social issues. They’re also dismayed by the way Osceola County grew with so little regulation, like a Wild West for developers.

“The growth overwhelmed Kissimmee,” Moore said.

But it was good for people looking for service-industry jobs. Someone had to make the beds and mow the lawns and greet the tourists at the gift shops. Puerto Ricans filled many of those jobs, and told their cousins and nieces and nephews, and soon a great migration was underway. The developers and the old-timers couldn’t have imagined it.

Today, the signs along the big roads here say Discount Supermercado and Pollo Tropical and El Sabor Dominicano. Publix, the supermarket chain, has opened Publix Sabor stores that cater to Hispanics. The local cable company offers a channel straight from the island. Students take classes at the Orlando campus of the Polytechnic University of Puerto Rico.

Jose Martinez, 31, is a Dominican entrepreneur who is in the thick of the new Orlando economy. He owns 13 MetroPCS stores, selling cheap cellphones — pay in cash, no contract required — to a mostly immigrant clientele, including many Mexicans, he says.

He’s a busy man, driving the congested roads to visit his stores every day, but one recent evening he took a break to enjoy drinks and a cigar at the 3 Sisters Speakeasy, the same place that older, Anglo power brokers hang out. He was joined by one of his managers, David Ortiz, 27, a Puerto Rican by heritage but a Philly kid who’s never been to the island.

Both men say they voted for Obama last time. This time? They’re not sure.

Ortiz sounds a conservative note: Government shouldn’t support lazy people.

“Why would I want to pay for a person who’s sitting home, watching cable TV all day?” he says.

And Martinez gripes about all the taxes he has to pay: “The straighter you try to do things, the more you get penalized for it.”

So which way will they go? Martinez decides to call his brother, who knows more about politics. They talk in Spanish for maybe 30 seconds. Martinez ends the call and makes a dramatic announcement: “Romney, that’s who we’re going to vote for!”

They laugh and order another round of drinks — two prosperous Americans enjoying a pleasant night in Kissimmee.

Whitney Shefte and Alice Crites contributed to this report.

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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