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Dividing lines



In the last decade, Orange County's minority populations have made significant political gains. In 1990, District 6 elected Mabel Butler, an African-American, as its representative to the Orange County Commission. In 1992, District 3 elected Mary Johnson, who is Hispanic. Then, in 1998, voters countywide awarded Cuban immigrant Mel Martinez the chairman's seat.

Now, as the lines that define the six county commission districts prepare to be redrawn, some say those gains are in danger. "We will not go back!" declared James Mitchell, an African-American, to the redistricting advisory panel last month, warning that under the proposed plan, the black community's work to secure a seat on the commission may be lost.

Hispanics have the same fear, said Luis Grajales, a member of the Puerto Rican/Hispanic Coalition for Fair Representation. Those fears will go forward as the plan advances to the commission for final approval this month.

For the most part, the advisory panel stuck with the status quo. Yet the problem, as activist groups see it, is this: Because of population increases in the county's outlying areas, the districts with the heaviest populations of blacks and Hispanics have been expanded, thus diluting the current impact in those districts of minority voters.

Nowhere is that more clear than in District 6, which encompasses the mostly black Parramore and Washington Shores neighborhoods. Acquiescing to Mitchell and fellow activist Sylvia Young, the redistricting panel proposed new borders for District 6 that would contain a 51 percent black majority. But that, they say, isn't good enough. They want enough black voters to guarantee a black commissioner for the next decade, says Young.

Though the goal is clear, the strategy is up for debate. Ever since so-called minority-majority districts first became popular in the early 1990s, political strategists have been doubting their effectiveness in increasing minorities' political power.

Consider the example of Corrine Brown, the black Democratic congresswoman from Jacksonville whose serpentine district extends into black neighborhoods of Orlando. Last year, Brown won re-election easily. But in an Orange County congressional race, well-known Democrat Linda Chapin lost a razor-thin contest to upstart Republican Ric Keller, in part because Brown's district robbed Chapin of the black votes that had helped carry Chapin to two local victories as county chairman.

Perhaps, Orange County Democratic leader Doug Head suggests, African-Americans' influence should be siphoned to other county commission districts, not just concentrated in District 6.

Mitchell angrily discards that notion: "Doug Head does not speak for black folks," he says. But do Mitchell and Young? They were just the squeaky wheels, the ones who showed up at meetings and made a lot of noise.

Indeed, their main goal is to oust Commissioner Homer Hartage, another African American who took over Mabel Butler's seat in 1998 but who, they say, hasn't done enough with his position to bolster black businesses. With more blacks in the district, they feel they can elect a more progressive commissioner next year. (Hartage recently underwent surgery for prostate cancer and could not be reached for comment.)

Hispanics, on the other hand, are far more spread out. Though a massive influx of Hispanics -- about half of whom are Puerto Rican -- has made them a viable political force in the county, where they comprise about 18 percent of the population, Hispanics have no lock on Johnson's seat once she leaves office in 2004. Under the committee's current proposal, District 3 would be 32 percent Hispanic.

Grajales and Head lobbied unsuccessfully to pack still more Hispanic voters into District 3, though other prominent Hispanics say the numbers work just fine for them.

"We do not need to be branded with a place," says Ed Rivera, who hosts a bilingual radio talk-show. Instead, he adds, the county needs to help nurture Hispanics for political office, and appoint more of them to the county's many advisory boards. "[Even] Mel Martinez failed to name and place people in positions where they would have a say," says Rivera.

Johnson says the county is doing better on that front, but acknowledges it's a pressing issue. More important than relying on the county to draw Hispanic-friendly lines, she suggests, is uniting Hispanic organizations to create a political force with clout throughout Central Florida, not only in her district.

Indeed, the longevity of a Hispanic district would be doubtful, since the population is quickly moving from rental neighborhoods in District 3 to home-owning neighborhoods elsewhere.

Still, it's naive to say that race doesn't matter, or that the lobbying won't continue. "The more that our elected bodies represent the community," says Jose Fernandez, director of the Hispanic Business Initiative Fund says, "the better off we all are."


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