Osceola's new district lines may boost Hispanic political clout

By Jeannette Rivera-Lyles

Orlando Sentinel

July 16, 2011

A shift toward majority-Hispanic commission districts that began four years ago in Osceola County is likely to accelerate next year, potentially changing the balance of political power in the county.

In 2007, the U.S. Justice Department cited a "consistent pattern of discrimination" against minority voters and required reluctant Osceola officials to redraw commission districts. The order required one of the districts to have a majority Hispanic population.

That action led to the election of the county's only Hispanic commissioner. Now, sheer growth could help elect more.

In the county's new district map, two of the five County Commission districts are more than half Hispanic, and two others are at least 40 percent Hispanic. The map reflects the tremendous growth of Hispanics, who at 122,000 strong account for 45.5 percent of Osceola's population, the highest of any Central Florida county.

"This opens the door to have more Hispanics in office," said Betsy Franceschini, a Hispanic-outreach coordinator with the Florida Democratic Party. "We have the numbers. This gives us better opportunities."

Under federal law, governments have to redraw district lines every 10 years, using the most recent U.S. census data. A citizens advisory committee appointed by the County Commission drew the new lines, which were adopted last week in a public hearing with only minor changes. They will take effect in 2012, when voters will elect commissioners in three of the districts. The other two seats will be on the ballot in 2014.

Of the three districts to be decided in 2012, one is 53 percent Hispanic and another is 42 percent. If Hispanics are elected in those, the County Commission would have a Hispanic majority that would also include John Quiñones, currently the only Latino on the commission.

"The committee approached this in a very methodical, nonracial, nonpartisan way," said Quiñones, whose district comes up for election in 2014. "They weren't trying to favor Hispanics. They followed the law, and the lines fell where they fell."

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