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
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
"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,"
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
"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."