Marc Caputo

Marc Caputo: Mexican-accent controversy nags Gov. Rick Scott campaign

Florida Republicans had a well-scripted plan to showcase their Latino outreach last week, as an immigrant-friendly tuition bill passed the state House and national Republicans unveiled their Florida Hispanic Advisory Council.

Then came the Mexican-accent controversy.

On Friday, the Miami Herald reported that Gov. Rick Scott’s top campaign-finance co-chairman, Mike Fernandez, raised a concern in an email last month about campaign associates joking around in over-the-top Mexican accents.

Insiders whispered about the email for weeks, but some of the contents became public only after Fernandez suddenly quit his campaign post, citing the need to spend more time with his family while expressing confidence in Scott’s chances.

Fernandez, however, also expressed some dissatisfaction with the direction of the reelection effort.

The Scott campaign went into double-damage-control mode, reeling from Fernandez’s abrupt departure and downplaying the Mexican-accent issue, which apparently played out in a van en route to a Mexican restaurant in Coral Gables.

“Mike was not in the van,” Scott’s campaign manager, Melissa Sellers, said in an email to the Herald.

“I spoke to every staffer in the van,” Sellers wrote. “If something was said in an accent, no one remembers what it was. We are a diverse organization and we do not tolerate inappropriate comments.”

Fernandez, born in Cuba, won’t comment about internal campaign conversation or about the email. Nor would Sellers confirm whether she received it.

It appears from the context of Fernandez’s resignation, and the private comments from his friends, that he was less worried about the “insensitive” statements (whatever they were) and was far more frustrated and concerned about the campaign’s messaging, such as the quality of the campaign’s emails and videos. Fernandez kept fundraising all the while, pulling in about $35 million, which Fernandez said was his goal.

Democrats aren’t waiting to find out what was said and immediately began highlighting the Mexican-comment issue as part of their campaign to keep Hispanics away from the GOP.

The Republican Party and Scott — who’s struggling in polls — can ill-afford the news that operatives might have been joshing around like Speedy Gonzalez, especially if it happened around, or got back to, Fernandez.

At the age of 12, Fernandez arrived penniless from Cuba. Now 61, he’s a self-made billionaire healthcare CEO. He’s an emerging source of deep pockets for the GOP, although he gives more to charity. And he’s advocating behind the scenes for the just-passed state House immigrant-tuition bill.

Fernandez donated and raised as much as $8 million for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in 2012, but watched with dismay as the Republican candidate alienated Hispanics in talking about “self deportation.” Romney and Scott, incidentally, are headlining a Republican Governor’s Association fundraiser Monday that Fernandez is hosting at his Coral Gables home.

Romney lost the Hispanic vote by 44 percentage points.

In that election, for the first time, the number of Florida Hispanics who registered as having no party affiliation exceeded the number of registered Hispanic Republicans. So before they cast their ballots, Hispanics were already letting Republicans know they didn’t identify with the GOP, which has become far whiter than the rest of Florida.

After Romney’s drubbing at the hands of Hispanics, the Republican National Committee sought to do better with this fast-growing and crucial demographic.

“Among the steps Republicans take in the Hispanic community and beyond, we must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform,” an RNC report said. “If we do not, our Party’s appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only.”

But Republican lawmakers went on to oppose immigration reform in Congress. And these days Republicans are focused more heavily on the unpopularity of Obamacare.

While Republicans, like Sen. Marco Rubio, helped pass immigration reform in the Democrat-controlled Senate in 2013, a majority of his caucus opposed the measure and his poll numbers dropped due to opposition from the right.

About that time, a congressman from Alaska referred to Mexicans as “wetbacks” and another from Iowa suggested that more southern-border crossers were drug mules than possible valedictorians. Republican leaders condemned the comments.

The Republican-controlled U.S. House refused to take up the Senate bill and has stalled immigration reform.

Immigration activists and Democrats have started demonstrating at the home offices of House Republicans.

On Friday, one of those demonstrators — national union leader Eliseo Medina — was arrested by Doral police for refusing to stand on a sidewalk instead of near an entrance door that led to Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart’s office.

Though he is pro-immigration reform, Diaz-Balart’s relationship with some activists has been strained. His office repeatedly insisted that security in the building called police and not congressional staffers.

Republicans, who control the state Legislature, have adopted a more-friendly attitude to immigration-related issues than Congress.

Last year, the Legislature passed a bill that would allow some undocumented immigrants to get temporary drivers licenses.

But Scott vetoed the bill.

On Thursday, the Florida House passed its bill giving in-state tuition rates to the children of undocumented immigrants. A majority of Republicans supported the bill, although all 33 opponents were all Republicans. A similar measure barely made it out of a committee in the GOP-led state Senate.

Scott says he generally supports the legislation.

Unlike in his 2010 campaign, Scott is no longer advocating for an Arizona-style immigration crackdown law. And Scott has a new running mate who’s Hispanic, former Miami-Dade Property Appraiser Carlos Lopez-Cantera.

The RNC is also helping with outreach, showcasing its Florida Hispanic Advisory Council at a Friday event in Miami.

“The Republican Party is working to build genuine and permanent relationships with Hispanics across Florida,” RNC Chairman Reince Priebus said in a written statement, “and our state advisory council will help make that a reality.”

But word of jokes about Mexicans will make it all the tougher.