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You say progressive, yo digo progresista. Losses divide Florida's Latino Democrats

A young Hispanic family smiles for the camera while holding up a My Vote My Voice sign
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Miami-Dade County went red, or Republican, in the midterm elections, largely because its majority Latino vote went red.

For Florida Democrats, one of the most troubling things about their big mid-term election losses last month was the continued exodus of Latino voters to Republicans — a wave that has sharply divided the state’s Latino Democrats, especially in South Florida.

The rancor starts with the simple but Florida-fraught term "progressive."

Many Democrats, of course, like being labeled “progressive." In its conventional sense, it radiates what the party stands for most: social advancement. But in the 21st century, Republicans have worked hard to demonize the word as extremist, far left-wing.

And it gets worse in Florida, where “progressive” in Spanish is “progresista.” To the ears of many Cubans, Venezuelans or Colombians here — people whose families often fled leftist dictatorships or guerrillas in Latin America — progresista can (and often does) mean socialist or communist.

“The Democratic Party needs to understand that in Florida, calling themselves progresista shows a lack of cultural sensitivity," insists Evelyn Perez-Verdia, a Democrat who heads the communications consulting firm We Are Más in Fort Lauderdale.

 Florida Democratic activist Evelyn Perez-Verdia at the 2020 Democratic presidential debate in Miami.
Courtesy Evelyn Perez-Verdia
Florida Democratic activist Evelyn Perez-Verdia at the 2020 Democratic presidential debate in Miami.

Perez-Verdia, one of the most vocal critics of progresistas, says her own family was harassed by Marxist guerrillas in Colombia when she was a girl. Like many moderate Florida Democrats, she fears the party’s more liberal wing has gained an outsized voice here that alienates Latinos.

A 2020 poll, for example, showed 70% of Florida Latino voters would not vote for anyone or any party associated with the word “socialist.” And yet, Perez-Verdia complains, many Democratic activists in the state call themselves Democratic Socialists — and like to affect gestures like raised fists on social media à la Latin American revolutionaries.

“We’re creating a perception that we don’t want," Perez-Verdia says.

"If you don’t want to be called a socialista, don’t use symbols and words that mean exactly that. I don’t think that’s the only reason Miami-Dade went red, but it’s a big piece of it.”

Miami-Dade County went red, or Republican, in the midterm elections, largely because its majority Latino vote went red. Republicans have been remarkably successful at convincing Latinos here — albeit falsely — that Democrats are precisely socialistas like those back in Latin America.

READ MORE: Florida Latinos are red, national Latinos are blue — but will that script always be true?

But progressive Democrats argue semantics is not the problem. They say moderates need to focus more on explaining policy.

"The policies that Democratic Socialists defend align with Democratic values," argues Carolina Ampudia, an Ecuadorian-American physician in Plantation.

Until recently, Ampudia headed Florida’s Democratic Progressive Caucus — and she proudly calls herself a Democratic Socialist. She believes Democrats are losing Latinos in Florida because they’ve let Republicans define them as bad socialism, like Venezuela, instead of good socialism, like affordable healthcare.

“So what we need to do," Ampudia says, "is to educate the people. If you talk to Latinos about what their needs are, and the solutions for those needs, we’re pretty much in alignment with them.”

Democrats outside Florida, as polls in the rest of the U.S. indicate, have persuaded most Latinos in that regard. Many moderate Dems inside Florida say they agree the party needs to stress its policy profile more aggressively.

But moderates also contend the party’s outreach to Florida Latinos would still be hurt by progressives with national profiles — like New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders — who often give the impression they support or at least apologize for dictatorial leftist regimes like Cuba’s.

'I do not describe myself as a progressive Democrat here — even though I have progressive ideas — because [liberals like Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders] have tainted the word 'progressive,'" says Cecilia Tavera, a realtor in Coconut Grove and a longtime Democratic activist who recalls her family’s farm was forcefully confiscated by a left-wing dictatorship in Peru in the 1970s.

"That’s the problem for us here. We need to show the Latino voters in South Florida that we are moderate.”

 Democratic National Committee member Thomas Kennedy on the Spanish-language TV talk show Ahora con Oscar Haza last month.
YouTube
Democratic National Committee member Thomas Kennedy on the Spanish-language TV talk show Ahora con Oscar Haza last month.

Progressives say the Democratic Party needs to show instead that it’s present in Florida’s Latino community. It's not really present these days compared to the Republican Party, which engages Florida Latinos hard, year-round, especially in the media with Spanish-language radio and in the neighborhoods with offerings like GOP community outreach centers.

"For the Florida Democratic Party this is more of a problem of infrastructure and of execution — a story of massive organizational failure” among the state's Latinos, says Thomas Kennedy of Miami, a progressive and member of the Democratic National Committee.

Kennedy, who's been known to disrupt GOP Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' events, worked for Sanders' leftist presidential campaign in 2020. He became a statewide lightning rod of sorts when, just before last month's midterms, he led a call for Florida Democratic Chairman Manny Diaz, a moderate, to resign.

Kennedy’s family lived under a right-wing dictatorship in Argentina. He advises Democrats who are angry that Republicans call them “socialistas” that they should take off the gloves themselves and, for example, call out right-wing former President Donald Trump for cozying up to North Korea’s communist dictator, Kim Jong-un.

"Who's the party embracing dictators?" Kennedy asks, mentioning also Hungary's "right-wing, racist Prime Minister Viktor Orbán," who was an invited speaker at this year's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Dallas.

"Democrats need to stop playing paddy-cakes with [Republicans] in the Latino voters community," Kennedy says.

He added that they "need to get smarter, with more strategies like micro-engagement" of Florida's balkanized array of Latino communities. It is an approach Republicans have effectively used with historically Democratic diasporas like Colombians, to make them feel as important in state and national politics as Cubans have long been treated.

Moderates like Perez-Verdia have also made strong calls for tactics like Latino micro-engagement. But for the moment, Florida's moderate and progressive Latino Dems see more differences than common ground.

Lost decade

Which is strange, say local political analysts, because it wasn't that way just a decade ago — when it was the Republicans who were the ones losing Florida Latinos. In 2012, in fact, then Democratic President Barack Obama came within just a couple points of winning even the state's reliably Republican Cuban vote.

"In 2008, and especially in 2012, Democrats took an unprecedented approach to capturing the Latino vote in Florida — which helped them win the state two times," says Cuban-American Fernand Amandi, who heads the Democratic polling firm Bendixen & Amandi International in Miami.

That included, Amandi recalls, an aggressive micro-engagement-style social media campaign to Latinos, but especially Latino-outreach funding and policy-messaging, like Obama's support of more Cuban-American travel and remittances to Cuba.

But after that, say critics, Democrats simply got complacent. Their Latino-outreach ground game, especially money for it, has fallen off dramatically — as has the party's force and funding in Florida in general as the state turns redder.

"For reasons I will never understand," says Amandi, "Democrats have chosen since then not to recreate their winning formula — and Democratic support amongst Latinos voters here has consistently eroded."

Analysts like Amandi, and others WLRN spoke with, don’t blame just progressive or just moderate Democrats for the dysfunction. They blame both.

"I don't know how much more evidence Democratic Socialists need that Latino voters in Florida reject their messaging," Amandi says. "And on the moderate-pragmatist side, I think it's crystal clear you can't expect to win those voters without putting the necessary institutional infrastructure in place."

The two sides may need to listen to each other a lot more now if they hope to revive any, well, progress on this key Florida front.

Copyright 2022 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida. He has reported on Latin America for almost 30 years - for Newsweek as its Mexico City bureau chief from 1990 to 1996, and for Time as its Latin America bureau chief in Mexico and Miami (where he also covered Florida and the U.S. Southeast) from 1996 to 2013.