With his accomplishments as an attorney and civic leader in the Orlando area, plus his stint as a Bush Cabinet member, Martinez seems the embodiment of a new generation of Republican Hispanics in America.
Why is the emergence of the Hispanic voting bloc and candidates such as Martinez so important to the GOP? For one, decades of attempts by the party to reach out to minorities, especially African Americans, have borne little fruit. Both the party and blacks and other minorities have consistently refused to acknowledge any merit in each other's point of view. Many African-American leaders still view Republican leadership with a jaundiced eye. And even though Republicans now seem all too willing to create what are in effect massive expansions of government -- the new Medicare benefits package, for example -- they are still in public denial that they too can support entitlements and other social programs.
Partly because of the longstanding conservative and anti-Castro philosophy of the Cuban-American community, the Republican Party has long had a toe-hold on the broader Hispanic community in this country. But America's Hispanic community goes way beyond Cuban Americans. For example, many residents of the commonwealth of Puerto Rico have chosen to live stateside. Politically, they are split between those who favor statehood for Puerto Rico and who tend to vote Republican, and those who oppose statehood and tend to vote Democratic. Remember, it was a Republican House of Representatives, led by then-Speaker Newt Gingrich, that produced the only legislation ever passed that would have allowed Puerto Ricans to vote yes or no on statehood.
Now the president has a new proposal to relax laws on illegal Mexican immigrants in the United States. All of this collectively is starting to take a toll on the Democratic Party. While polling surveys consistently show that a huge majority of African Americans still vote for Democrats in major elections, the Hispanic-American community's growing clout at the ballot box in many states may soon prove to be enough to offset blacks' reluctance to vote Republican.
When national observers start to examine the 2004 presidential race in Florida, they might be wise to consider the effect Mel Martinez's candidacy could have on the presidential outcome. If George Bush's re-election in the state comes down to the wire, Martinez could be the reason for four more years of a Republican in the White House.
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