News Column

GOP Hispanic Outreach Director Jumps to Dems

May 16, 2013

May 15--The Republican Party of Florida's effort to salvage and build upon its battered image among Hispanic voters has lost the allegiance of the man once hired to lead it.

Pablo Pantoja, named by RPOF last year as its state Hispanic outreach director, has abruptly switched his registration to the Democratic Party in response of rhetoric tied to Republicans opposed to the immigration reform bill now pending in Congress.

Pantoja, 33, a Puerto Rican from Orlando, said he was offended by the controversial recent study by the Heritage Foundation concluding that legalized immigrants would be a future $6-trillion drain on America. That was compounded by news that one of the advisors on that study, Jason Richwine, had written in a doctoral dissertation that he believed Hispanics have lower IQs than non-Hispanic whites.

Pantoja said Tuesday he waited for a mainstream Republican backlash. But he said he heard little outrage.

"There was a bland response. I don't want to single out specifics, but overall, it was: 'Where's the indignation?'" said Pantoja, who announced his conversion Monday through the blog, The Florida Nation.

Pantoja, whose Republican campaign work included U.S. Sen. John McCain's 2008 presidential run, was appointed the RPOF's Hispanic outreach director in early 2012. He left the post later in the year for The Libre Initiative, a non-partisan, non-profit Hispanic issues group, where he's now a regional director.

The Republican Party of Florida declined to comment on Pantoja or his switch.

This was supposed to be a time for the GOP to reach out to Hispanics, the rapidly growing bloc who voted 70-30 for Barack Obama in 2012. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, was emerging as what Time magazine declared in February as a "Republican savior," and in March the Republican National Committee announced a new $10-million national Hispanic outreach initiative.

Then came attacks from GOP conservatives against Rubio's immigration proposal and other initiatives from former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a Hispanic favorite. And then came the Heritage report.

Pantoja said as an active campaigner, he had occasionally been frustrated over the years by comments made by some Republicans regarding immigration and Hispanics. But he thought the party had the better ideas. Over time, however, he said he began to feel the anti-Hispanic comments were tolerated by too many.

"You kind of just brush it off and say, 'Whatever,' and you brush it off. And then now you see," he said of his conversion.

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(c)2013 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)

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