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After Setbacks, Florida Governor Courts Latino Support

Florida Gov. Rick Scott recognizes a visitor in the gallery during his March 4 State of the State speech at the Capitol in Tallahassee.
Phil Sears
Florida Gov. Rick Scott recognizes a visitor in the gallery during his March 4 State of the State speech at the Capitol in Tallahassee.

In Florida, where Republican Gov. Rick Scott is running for re-election, he's got a few things going for him. The state's economy has rebounded from the recession and he's on track to raise at least $100 million for his reelection bid.

But Scott's campaign has recently run into trouble with an important group of voters — Hispanics.

Latinos make up just 14 percent of Florida's electorate. But, as a bloc of voters, they have the power to swing elections statewide.

Although Scott has not formally announced his re-election bid, he is working to court the Hispanic vote. This week, he met in Miami with Venezuelan-Americans concerned about political violence in their native land.

Afterwards however, Scott was once again forced to answer questions about the resignation of one of his top campaign fundraisers, billionaire Cuban-American businessman Mike Fernandez.

In an email leaked to the media, Fernandez said he quit because of concerns with how the campaign was being run and the staff's insensitivity to Hispanics. Fernandez cited an incident in which one of his partners heard senior campaign staff members mimicking a Mexican accent on the way to a Chipotle restaurant. Scott's campaign denies the incident ever happened and the governor says he believes them.

"We have a very diverse team. They care about everybody in our state. I'm going after every vote in our state. They would not tolerate anybody doing the wrong thing," he said.

For Scott, winning support from Hispanics is especially crucial. In his first election four years ago, he won just over half of the Hispanic vote. But since then, his approval rating has plummeted with all voters.

Scott's former campaign finance co-chair Fernandez is a Cuban-American success story—immigrating to the U.S. when he was 12 and later starting a series of successful healthcare companies. A week and a half after his resignation roiled the political waters in Miami, Fernandez said he thinks the story has been overblown.

He supports Scott, but says he is still concerned about the Chipotle incident.

"In my opinion, I have no reason to believe that it did not happen. And I'm not sure that it has been addressed properly," Fernandez said.

Well before this, Florida's Republican Party was losing ground among Hispanics: President Obama won 60 percent of Florida's Hispanics two years ago. Obama even carried Cuban-Americans — a community that once was strongly Republican.

Following Fernandez's resignation, another prominent Cuban-American Republican broke with Scott. Gonzalo Sanabria resigned — Scott says he was fired — from his position on a local transportation board.

Sanabria says he's upset about how Fernandez was treated and the campaign's insensitivity to supporters, including Hispanics.

"It's not that we're all going to run over to the Democratic Party. But we're not enthusiastic about supporting the governor," he said.

The flap over the slights — perceived or real — comes just as the Scott campaign seemed to be making progress. Some polls show him closing the gap with possible Democratic opponents. And recently, he appointed a Miami legislator, Carlos Lopez-Cantera as his lieutenant governor—a move that helps him connect with Latinos in South Florida.

Political scientist Dario Moreno of Florida International University says for Scott to be re-elected governor, he needs every Hispanic vote he can get, especially in South Florida.

"It's very hard for a Democrat to win the state of Florida if they don't win Dade County by 80,000 votes. And the Scott campaign is dangerously close to that number," Moreno said.

That is one reason why, between now and November, Governor Scott is likely to be spending a lot of time wooing Hispanic voters in South Florida.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.
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