Praise for Sotomayor in Florida underscores GOP's dilemma

Caller after caller to a radio show popular in Central Florida's booming Puerto Rican community gushed Tuesday over President Barack Obama's decision to nominate one of their own to the nation's highest court.

Even the Republicans.

"I thought partisan lines would prevail, but they did not," said the show's host, Fernando Miguel Negron, who endorsed Obama last year but has supported Republican candidates. "There's a saying in Puerto Rico that our coffee may be sour, but it's our coffee, and I think that's what it is in a nutshell. People may disagree with some of her views but they can identify with her."

The overwhelming response during Negron's four-hour show to Sonia Sotomayor and her inspiring story — from Bronx housing project to Yale Law School to federal appellate judge — illustrates the challenge her nomination poses for the Republican party, which is struggling to make up the ground lost with Hispanic voters during heated battles over immigration reform.

Though conservative groups assailed Sotomayor as a "liberal'' and an "activist judge," most Republican leaders in Florida and nationwide treaded gingerly.

Sen. Mel Martinez, who backed former President George W. Bush's more conservative choices for the Supreme Court and was considered a potential nominee for an earlier opening, said he hoped for a "fair and thorough'' confirmation process.

"I take great pride in seeing the nomination of an Hispanic person to serve in this high position — a historic first," Martinez, the first Cuban American to serve in the Senate, said.

Miami's Ninoska Perez Castellon, a frequent and fierce Obama critic, said of Sotomayor on her Spanish-language radio show: "Only in America."

"As a Cuban you have to feel proud," Perez Castellon, a founder of the conservative Cuban Liberty Council, said in an interview. "It should be an inspiration to women and to all of us who came here from different countries, especially Hispanics."

Miami's three Cuban-American Republican members of Congress -- Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Mario Diaz-Balart and Lincoln Diaz-Balart -- were silent on the nomination. And many national and state party leaders held their fire in what is typically a fierce political battle.

"For today, we congratulate Judge Sotomayor on this accomplishment and look forward to the coming weeks as members of the United States Senate face the daunting task of carefully analyzing Judge Sotomayor's qualifications and experience . . ." said Jim Greer, chairman of the Republican Party of Florida.

Republicans were divided over Sotomayor when she faced Senate confirmation in 1998 for a seat on the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Among the 25 Republicans backing her was then-Florida Sen. Connie Mack.

Gov. Charlie Crist, the leading Republican candidate to replace Martinez in the Senate in 2010, said of Sotomayor's nomination: "I'll take a look at it."

The only prominent Florida Republican to issue a statement critical of Sotomayor was former House Speaker Marco Rubio, who is aggressively courting the party's conservative wing as he challenges Crist for his party's nomination.

"Judge Sotomayor deserves a fair hearing and respectful treatment, but there is much in her legal background that is troubling and demands scrutiny and honest discussion," Rubio said.

Carlos Curbelo, chairman of the state party's Hispanic Leadership Council, noted that Democrats blocked Bush's potentially historic nomination of a Hispanic to the U.S. Court of Appeals. The filibuster of Honduran-born Miguel Estrada was the first ever to be used against an appeals court nominee.

"I would hope Democrats don't apply a double standard if Republicans oppose Sotomayor based on her legal philosophy," Curbelo said. "Efforts to politicize it based on race should be rejected."

But some Democratic leaders immediately touted Sotomayor's potential to make history. U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor of Tampa said, "I am particularly excited that President Obama chose an Hispanic woman for this critical role . . . An Hispanic woman serving on the highest court in the land is an accomplishment for which we can all be proud."

Obama visited Kissimmee, hub of Central Florida's fast-growing Puerto Rican community, during a major campaign swing right before he claimed the nomination and again six days before the election. Republican nominee John McCain also made repeated visits.

Unlike the Cuban-American community in South Florida, which has long standing ties to the Republican party, the Puerto Rican community in Central Florida is known for its political independence. Obama's investment in the Orlando area paid off when Hispanic voters statewide favored the Democratic presidential nominee for the first time in decades.

"The party already made those gains, and now it's a matter of keeping them," said Democratic state Rep. Darren Soto, the only Puerto Rican member of the state Legislature, who said he would hit Orlando-area radio talk shows this week to promote Sotomayor.

"Certainly there were rumblings early on whether Obama would make any big Hispanic appointments," he added. "Particularly in Central Florida, with her being Puerto Rican, this is going to be a huge point of pride."

Another Florida factor: Sotomayor's mother, Celina Sotomayor, now lives in Margate, a suburb north of Miami, in a condo she bought in 2001, acccording to property records.

The White House noted in its biography of Sotomayor that she talks to her mother, "who now lives in Florida, every day."

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