House District 48 features two candidates who’ve spent many years working behind the scenes in Orange County’s Puerto Rican community, which is heavily represented in that district.
Democrat Daisy Morales, a supervisor in the Orange County Soil and Water Conservation District, has been active in community and Democratic Party affairs, focusing on the environment and social services.
Of Puerto Rican descent, Morales grew up in New York and Puerto Rico before moving to Orlando. She has worked for the U.S. Navy and other federal agencies, including the Department of Justice and Department of State, most of the time in passport and immigration processing. For years, she cared for a sister, who has Downs syndrome, and her mother. Her concerns about health care access led her into politics. She has been on the Soil and Water Conservation District board since 2014, working on environmental and agriculture issues.
“The people know me, and I know them,” Morales said. “I know their needs.”
Republican Jesus Martinez is a real estate mortgage broker, a church pastor, a former Spanish radio and TV show host, and a mentor to youth. Last year President Donald Trump‘s administration invited him to the White House to serve in a conference advising on Hispanic concerns.
Martinez is from Puerto Rico. He was running a business that helped Puerto Rican companies open facilities in Central Florida, and eventually, in 2000, he came to Orlando himself. Like Morales, Martinez has long had concerns for getting more support for people with disabilities. For decades, through his church and various organizations, he also has traveled the world on humanitarian missions and has mentored youth locally.
He holds bachelor’s degrees and master’s degrees in public affairs from universities in Puerto Rico and a law degree from Barry University in Orlando.
“I decided to run because I believe that the government needs servants of heart. And have the heart of service,” Martinez said. “The second thing is I know the people of the district because I’ve been there. I know their needs, and I want to be able to represent them properly.”
The seat is open because incumbent Democratic Rep. Amy Mercado is running for Orange County Property Appraiser rather than for reelection.
House District 48 stretches through the east side of Orlando in a relatively narrow band and then across a large swath of southern Orange County. The district includes most of Orlando International Airport and some large industrial and distribution centers. But it otherwise lacks some of the more diverse and high-end economic engines of the region such as Lake Nona, Medical City, and Orlando’s tourism corridor, which all are just outside HD 48.
The district includes the communities of Azalea Park, Pine Castle, Taft, Meadow Woods, and parts of Hunters Creek, most largely of modest incomes and heavily Hispanic. The region has been a magnet to Puerto Rican migrants for a couple of generations. That was especially true in the late 2010s when Puerto Rico suffered from an economic crisis and Hurricanes Irma and Maria, and hundreds of thousands of islanders came to Florida. The latest census numbers said the district was 56% Hispanic. That majority likely has increased significantly in recent years.
The district leans heavily Democratic. The voter registration gives Democrats a 30-point cushion over Republicans as of the latest book closing numbers from the Florida Division of Elections. That could suggest Morales should win the seat easily. Orange County’s Latino voters, however, have been notoriously independent despite party registrations. Several prominent Central Florida Republican Hispanic political figures have lent support to Martinez’s candidacy.
Martinez did not have a primary.
The district is home to many thousands of workers in the tourism industry and other service industries that have been hard hit by the economic downturn. The region also has had some of the highest COVID-19 infection rates in Orange County.
Morales sees those problems continuing into 2021, especially the economic concerns. The virus might abate, but concerns over wages, attracting more jobs to the area, improving the state’s unemployment system, and expanding benefits will persist, she said. That is going to take bipartisan efforts, she said, to get things done and to retain the trust of people. For her, that includes the need to expand Medicaid in Florida, to increase the minimum wage, and to expand services to people with special needs.
“This is a new stage we are entering. No one knows the outcome. We are going to have to work together,” she said.
“When I get to Tallahassee, I want to work on Legislation that will increase the employment benefits, help our workers get back on their feet,” Morales said. “I want to bring transparency. I want to increase the minimum wage … up to at least $15 an hour. I want to demand more jobs in technologies and agriculture, so they can be sustainable.”
Martinez also sees the need to overhaul the state’s unemployment benefits program, including increasing benefits. A basketball player who works in youth sports, he also likes to inspire people to lead more healthful lives and wants to see health care costs contained. Martinez is a big supporter of state support for school choice. At the same time, he is married to a public school teacher, and so he said he also wants to see more respect and freedom for public teachers. He is an advocate of government consumer protection and said he wants to focus on legislation that would protect people from scams.
He calls the region’s shortage of affordable housing “my forte” because of his background and experience in the real estate business, and said he wants to get involved in plans to improve the supply.
“I would like to create incentives to build affordable units. We need them not only for families but for our seniors. Our seniors are suffering,” Martinez said. “And a lot of people in our district have two jobs. I want a comprehensive plan to help people get educated because education is the key. Most of the people who have two jobs … don’t have the proper education to go to the next level. These are professional certificates. It’s very important for me to address that issue.
He also said he provides the kind of background that the district’s many Puerto Rican migrants “can trust.”
“I know the exact process that families go through when they come here because I did the exact same thing,” he said. “You know? They didn’t know the language. It took me a long time to find a job, more than six months, because I didn’t speak the language. I know exactly what they go through. I know I will have their confidence.”