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Thursday, Jul 31, 2014
South Tampa News

O’Neill: Time for Hillsborough to have Hispanic commission district


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A few weeks back, I had the unique experience of a nonbaseball conversation with Rays manager Joe Maddon. We talked immigration and its volatile impact on Hazleton, Pa., his hardscrabble hometown of 25,000 whose roots are anthracite coal and European immigrants. And we talked about the Hazleton Integration Project that he created to foster dialogue across a cultural chasm between newly arrived Hispanics and wary incumbents. We also touched on the political hot-button issue that is immigration reform. (He’s hardly averse.) And, yes, the fact that his team of Hispanics, Anglos and African-Americans was a diversity microcosm did come up.

What surprised him was a diversity issue in this place he’s been calling his in-season home for the last eight years. A place with roots in Asturias, Spain, and Havana, Cuba. A city with an appropriately referenced Boliche Boulevard. With City Council members named Yolie Capín and Charlie Miranda. With a soul that is Ybor City. With a legacy that is Al Lopez.

And yet.

It’s easy to take for granted, whether you pivot out of your South Tampa home during baseball season or you’ve been embedded in the community for decades, that diversity is more than a heritage and demographic given. It’s also a representative-government issue at the county level.

This Thursday, Oct. 3., there will be a Hillsborough County Commission workshop to discuss a new district system, one that would add another single-member district to the current four, leaving only two districts voted on at-large. There will be a public hearing Nov. 6. Then it will be determined if a redistricting change will be on the 2014 ballot. The key catalyst is County Commissioner Les Miller, who has been making the case, one that didn’t get enough traction last year, that commissioners representing fewer constituents — about 70,000 fewer — would make for more responsive government. It’s a case with obvious merit.

But no less importantly, it would increase chances for an Hispanic commissioner. And, no, this is not some pandering ploy to gin up Democratic votes or put the token card in play. This is a concession to reality and more meaningful representative government.

Currently, there are no Hispanic commissioners — in a county that is one quarter Hispanic, which amounts to 300,000 residents. Nearly a third of the 200,000 Hillsborough County School District students are Hispanic. About half of the Catholic churches in the diocese that includes Hillsborough provide Mass in Spanish. Approximately 15 percent of registered voters are Hispanic.

Census figures further underscore the ongoing pattern. The number of Hispanics immigrating to this county increased more than 200 percent from 1990 to 2010. More than 20,000 Cubans alone have moved into Hillsborough within the past decade. The future, manifestly, is now.

Ironically, we are an area that annually celebrates the mythical pillaging of José Gaspar, glories in the historic visitation of José Martí, venerates the memory of Cuban lectors and cigar rollers and routinely sponsors Hispanic Heritage galas, festivals, leadership classes and even essay-and-poster contests. But we are also an area that is still challenged by the very concept of elected Hispanic political leaders at the county level. In 2013, in Hillsborough County, Florida, that is not acceptable. That has to change. Joe Maddon would agree. We need to keep hearing more from Les on district changes.

Buena suerte, Sr. Miller.

Sink is out

It’s now officially official. Alex Sink will not be running for governor again. It’s one and done after nearly being won and one more. The former banker and state CFO lost by less than 1 percent last time and there will be no next time.

That’s politics — as well as candidate variables and electorate dynamics. But it’s also something else: misleading.

Regardless of Scott’s obscenely self-funded gubernatorial campaign — and despite it being an anti-incumbent party year — that election was absolutely Sink’s to lose. And she surely did. Her opponent was an awkward, charisma-challenged outsider with unconscionable connections to Medicare fraud. And this is Florida! His rhetorically shifty deposition from hell was the only political ad she needed to run.

But hers was an amateurish campaign — right through taking a campaign aide’s call during a debate. She spoke at the University of Central Florida and misidentified it. Were not the Democratic alternatives unknown Nan Rich, all-too-well-known Charlie Crist and septuagenarian Sen. Bill Nelson, the Sink speculation would not have had legs as long as it did. Word was she wanted to run — but knew she couldn’t raise the money. That had been less of an issue in her CFO days.

Right thing vs. incumbency

We’ve heard the argument countless times. A number of politicians, typically non-tea party Republicans but also some Democrats in conservative-leaning districts or Republican states, have to tack right to avoid running afoul of grassroots zealots. They’re necessarily limited in their options and maneuverability. To do otherwise is to invite defeat at the polls.

Do you ever find yourself saying: “So what if you lose? Since when does doing the right thing matter so much less than your incumbency? Take one for Team Integrity. And, by the way, what’s the worst that can happen as a result of losing while standing for something? You become a lobbyist? You go back to chasing ambulances? Deal with it.”

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