Two ambitious Cuban-American legislators have been invited into the inner sanctum of the Florida House, assuming leading roles as the Republican Party looks to tighten its hold on the state's Hispanic voters.
Speaker Johnnie Byrd, who presides over the strongest GOP House majority in the modern era, today is expected to appoint Rep. Marco Rubio as majority leader, giving the 31-year-old son of exiles a leading voice in shaping his party's message over the next two years.
The post, one of five on Byrd's leadership team, makes Rubio a leading contender to become Florida's first Hispanic state House speaker in 2006, a race that has already begun in a highly competitive system in which leadership is determined years in advance.
As majority leader, Rubio will assist Republicans in crafting their message for constituents, raising campaign dollars and funneling bills through committees -- tasks that will ingratiate him with many of the legislators who will vote to determine the 2006 speaker.
Byrd will also name Rep. Gaston Cantens, who once had hoped to ascend to the speakership in 2004, to become the majority whip, a more loosely defined role but still in the inner circle.
Rubio, of Coral Gables, and Cantens, of Miami, join state Sen. Alex Diaz de la Portilla of Miami as the most influential Cuban Americans in Tallahassee. Diaz de la Portilla, a close ally of Senate President Jim King, was named to a leading post in that chamber and is expected to have King's ear on key issues.
Hispanic voters have emerged as one of the most important swing blocs in Florida politics, with both parties focusing intensely on young Cuban Americans and non-Cubans, including hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans who have moved to the state. Nationally, with Florida in play again for the 2004 presidential race, all of Florida's Hispanic legislators are certain to enjoy high-profile roles.
"What this shows is that in the Republican Party anybody can aspire to positions of leadership," Rubio said.
Sources say the appointments of Rubio and Cantens send a signal from Byrd, a white lawyer from rural Plant City who preaches smaller government and less taxes, that he is ready to help lead an ethnically inclusive GOP.
Of the House's 81 Republicans, 12 are Hispanic. Two of the 39 Democrats are Hispanic.
"What I have learned about Johnnie Byrd is he doesn't care where you were born or what language your parents speak," Rubio said. "What he cares about is how hard you're willing to work."
Today's announcement by Byrd ends months of speculation among state political insiders about whom the speaker will rely on for leadership. It is the first public move by a man who is largely a mystery. Due to term limits, Byrd is the most enigmatic speaker to date, having been elected just six years ago.
Byrd today will name his leadership team, including 16 committee chairmen to help guide policy over the state's $50 billion annual budget, the environment, education and heated social issues such as divorce, gambling expansion, gay adoption and perhaps abortion.
His selection process for the leadership has been highly secretive and sensitive. With 81 Republicans, many of whom aspired to leadership, some will learn today that they did not make the cut, creating the potential for malcontents who would feel free to challenge Byrd on hot issues.
As majority whip, Cantens will be partly responsible for ensuring that such complications do not arise, according to sources in the speaker's office. With Cantens no longer a candidate for speaker -- he abandoned his campaign for the post as part of a deal with the man in line for the job, Rep. Allan Bense of Panama City -- Cantens need not fear angering colleagues.
Other key leaders on Byrd's team are said to include Bense and Reps. Dudley Goodlette of Naples, Lindsay Harrington of Punta Gorda and Randy Johnson of Orlando.
As Byrd finalized his leadership moves Monday, the 39 House Democrats continued their search for relevance during a closed-door retreat at a North Florida state park.
They assessed the party's dismal performance in the 2002 elections, said House Democratic leader Doug Wiles, and pledged to find ways to regain seats in two years.
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