Orlando bus driver Victor Torres Jr. will be a thorn in the side of the Republicans who control both houses of the Florida Legislature (and the governor’s mansion) thanks to gerrymandered state House and Senate districts following the 2000 census.
Orlando, Florida - Bus driver Victor Torres Jr. cares about the passengers he delivers every morning to their jobs at this city's hotels and famed theme parks. But he cares as much for people like his regular riders - working class voters who so often go unrepresented in the Florida House of Representatives in Tallahassee.
Torres, who is heading for certain election to the state legislature in November, is not bashful about his allegiance to the low-paid gardeners, cooks and maids who make the region's tourism economy work, and who crowd the seats and center aisle of his 43-passenger public bus. And to the legions of the area's unemployed.
"I come from the working class, always worked," he told the Orlando Sentinel. "My family has always worked. My friends are working class."
Without opposition in either the Democratic primary or the general election, the 64-year-old Bronx-born, part-time Orange County bus driver is going to Tallahassee in January. By registration, his 48th House District, with 156,000 registered voters, is about half Hispanic, which in Central Florida means largely Puerto Rican, and Democratic-leaning. When it became clear he would win, Torres released a statement that read, in part:
I pledge to continue my advocacy on behalf of Florida's working class families.... My district will have a tireless representative who will always remember that, too often, too many are left behind. We will be changing that in the next legislative session.
Republicans have controlled the both houses of the Florida Legislature (and the governor's mansion) for 14 years, rolling up increasingly large and increasingly more conservative majorities, thanks to gerrymandered state House and Senate districts following the 2000 census. Two "fair representation" state constitutional amendments were passed in 2010 by 2-to-1 margins to govern the latest post-census redistricting.
Despite these popular measures - and the fact that registered Democrats in the state outnumber Republicans - legislators still drew new state and federal districts that favor the GOP - Democrats are not fielding candidates in 47 new state House districts. Nonetheless, there appear to be a few bright spots for progressive Democrats, like Victor Torres's state House district.
In recent decades, class has largely become a taboo subject in mainstream American political discourse. A candidate who refers to income inequality - even obliquely - is immediately accused of "waging class warfare." It may be a forbidden term because of the long-standing myth that America is a classless society. Even progressive Democrats prefer the construction "working people" to "working class," or if pressed, "working poor."
In President Obama's case, it's "middle-class families" and "working Americans," as he put it in August here at Rollins College in Winter Park, a tony Orlando suburb. In that speech, as in others, Obama focused his appeal to suburban swing voters (in a swing state) more critical this year, seeming to take for granted the nation's evaporating blue collar, manufacturing constituency - on whose muscular shoulders the Democratic party rose to, and remained, in power for a good part of the last century.
Not so Victor Torres, whose political and trade union roots are deep. Before moving to Orlando in 2003 to be near family members, Torres, a Vietnam-era Marine veteran, had a career as a New York City transit police officer, finishing a 20-year career there as a detective. There, he was a member of the Patrolman's Benevolent Association and the Transit Police Hispanic Society.
In Orlando, he belongs to the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, and his current union, the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 1596 Orlando, as well as serving as a trustee of the Greater Orlando Central Labor Council.
Until 2010, Torres worked fulltime for the area's chronically underfunded public transit authority, called Lynx. That year, the longtime Democratic activist shifted from fulltime status, earning $19.81 an hour, to part time in order to walk neighborhoods and knock on doors in the unsuccessful campaign of his stepdaughter, Amy Mercado, who challenged the powerful Republican House Speaker Dean Cannon. His wife Carmen is a longtime member of the Democratic National Committee.
With super majorities, and the backing of Governor Rick Scott, the Republican-controlled legislature has become notorious for passing voter suppression measures, challenging Obamacare, rejecting hundreds of millions of federal dollars for Medicaid and job-generating mass transit. It was one of the first states to pass the ALEC-backed "Stand Your Ground Law" and only narrowly averted passing a measure that would have legalized "dwarf-tossing."
Efforts to require welfare recipients to be drug-tested, and to prohibit pediatricians from asking parents about the presence of guns in their home ("Docs vs. Glocks") have been challenged in federal court, as have voter suppression acts, running up legal bills to the state's taxpayers of nearly a million dollars. Up next: a drastic cut in food stamps for the state's poor.
In sharp contrast, Torres supports gay marriage and federally-funded commuter rail, as well as a path to citizenship for undocumented workers. But his election, and those of an expected handful of other new Democrats, is unlikely to have much of an impact on the 120-member Florida House of Representatives, or the state Senate. Still, someone needs to stand up for the working class. It might as well be Victor Torres, someone who knows whose side he's on, and is not afraid to claim it.
"For too long," Torres proclaims, "the collective voice of Florida's working class families has been silenced in Tallahassee."