News Column

Latino Group Threatens to Sue Orange Over Districts

June 28, 2012

David Damron

A Latino civil-rights group has issued a warning to Orange County leaders: Either talk about its concerns over new county districts by the middle of next month or get ready to go to court.

Latino Justice said in a letter sent Monday that it first would like to sit down with Orange officials "to attempt to amicably resolve this matter" and set a meeting deadline of July 15.

"In the event we are unable to convince the [board] to respect the rights of the Orange County Latino community and expeditiously resolve this matter, we are prepared to immediately bring suit," wrote Juan Cartagena, preside of the New York-based group.

A spokesman for Mayor Teresa Jacobs said that a response to the group was being drafted, but county officials would not comment for now because of the threat of litigation.

"If they think we're bluffing, we'll go to court," said Cartagena by phone Wednesday, who added that Orange County was the only place in Florida where it is currently mounting a potential redistricting challenge.

During a brutal redistricting fight here last year, Hispanic, black and Democrat Party activists asked Orange commissioners to create one district the contained about 50 percent voting-age Hispanics, arguing it would help ensure elected Latino representation in the future.

After a surge in the past 10 years, Hispanics now make up 27 percent of the county. And an elected Latino has historically held the District 3 seat on its most powerful board over the past two decades.

However, the removal of Commissioner Mildred Fernandez in 2010 on corruption charges changed that. Two temporary appointees replaced her: the first was a non-Hispanic, Lui Damiani, and later it was John Martinez, the Cuban-American son of former U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez.

Damiani is running for that seat in the fall amid a crowded field that includes two Latinos, but Commissioner John Martinez is not seeking re-election.

What troubled activists in last year's once-a-decade redistricting process was that Orange leaders voted to lower the District 3 Hispanic seat from 41 percent voting-age Latinos, to 38 percent. In nearby District 4 -- never held by a Hispanic -- leaders raised the voting-age Latino percentage from 35 to 40.

"The numbers are there," Cartagena said. "This is a lawsuit we think we can win."

Jacobs and other supporters of the final voting maps argued that it left two districts in play for Hispanics.

Given that Mel Martinez won a countywide mayor's race with Latinos as an even smaller percentage of the population, there is little proof Latinos could not win with the borders county leaders finally adopted, Jacobs has said.



Source: (c)2012 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)


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