- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 26, 2004

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Republican Senate candidate Mel Martinez campaigned here yesterday, courting Hispanic voters, who say they’d like to see one of their own in the U.S. Senate.

The Cuban-born former Housing and Urban Development secretary might see a good turnout on Tuesday in no small part because of his heritage. The Hispanic voters who listened intently yesterday in Orange Park said they want to see a member of their ethnic community in the Senate.

“I am proud to say that he is Hispanic and that is a plus, and he is very positive on the war and education,” said Sharon Loor, 33, a resident of Clay County.

During the hourlong visit at the Fleet Reserve Association Center, Mr. Martinez discussed his platform with voters.

“I will work hard for more money for after-school programs and increase homeownership for minorities,” he said.

Mr. Martinez and Democratic opponent Betty Castor debated for the second time on Monday night for the seat being vacated by Sen. Bob Graham, a Democrat.

The candidates agreed on many issues, such as the death penalty, environmental protection against offshore drilling and working to stabilize Haiti, but the top issue was a state constitutional amendment to raise the $5.15 minimum wage to $6.15.

Mr. Martinez, who opposes the increase, said: “I remember what it was like in Orlando at 16 looking for a minimum-wage job, so I know that when government-proposed minimum wage goes up, we lose jobs.”

Mrs. Castor, however, told Hispanic voters, that they make up a majority of minimum-wage earners and that it was a mistake not to support the increase.

“There is evidence it would not hurt small business, and with 400,000 Floridians working for less than $11,000 a year, largely Hispanic, working for restaurants, small retail and in agricultural farms, we need the increase to protect families,” she said.

Some Democratic supporters said Mr. Martinez will be hurt by his stance against the wage increase.

“The minimum wage is what has motivated people to get to the polls,” said Clifford Goff, 33, a poll volunteer.

Tarsha Ware, 34, a Jacksonville native and Kerry campaign volunteer, said Mr. Martinez cannot be trusted as a compassionate conservative.

“How can you call yourself compassionate and not support a minimum wage to help families?” she said.

But Mrs. Loor, whose husband owns a small floral business in Clay County, said that despite backing the wage increase, she will vote for Mr. Martinez.

“At first, it was hard for us to agree with it, but we think in the long run it will be fine, so I will support it and Mr. Martinez and President Bush,” she said clutching her daughter Bianca, 7.

The former Cabinet member dazzled Republicans in the state when he beat out former Rep. Bill McCollum in the primary, in large part by taking 90 percent of the Cuban vote, Hispanic pollster Sergio Bendixen said.

It looks as if backing Mr. Martinez also will pay dividends for the White House.

“A vote for Mel is a vote for President Bush,” said George L. Espada Sr., president of the Greater Clay County Hispanic Republican Council.

“The Latino vote is going to make this election, and Mel is going to open the door for more Hispanics to run for office just like Ken Salazar in Colorado. Although he is a Democrat, we won’t hold it against him,” said Mr. Espada, a New York native who moved here four months ago.

He said many Florida Hispanics view Mr. Bush as strong on the war on terror and don’t want to “go back to the drawing board” by electing Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry.

Polls here show Mr. Bush and the Massachusetts senator in a dead heat, but Mr. Espada said that doesn’t reflect the statewide voter-registration movement.

“The picture is not so bleak as everyone is painting it to be, because our registration is way up,” he said.

Election officials said registration is up by nearly 100,000 in Duval County, which includes Jacksonville, with similar numbers reported in the surrounding counties.

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