updated 5:10 p.m. 04/15/14 with full story on the issue. The full text of Lew Oliver's apology follows at the bottom.
Orange County’s Republican chairman Lew Oliver issued an apology for comments he made about Puerto Rico last week, yet many Puerto Rican leaders expressed concern Tuesday that the party continues to turn off Hispanic voters.
Last week, while trying to explain declining GOP voters, Oliver said that Puerto Ricans moving to Central Florida would register as Republicans if they considered the economic and political conditions they left.
In a statement to the Orlando Sentinel, Oliver called Puerto Rico “a basket case” and stated, “If you like a semi-socialist government where the highest aspiration is a nice secure government job, Puerto Rico is heaven on earth.”
He issued a lengthy apology late Monday night.
“I apologize without reservation or equivocation to the Puerto Ricans in particular for my words. It was not my intention or desire to malign, impugn, insult or criticize any Puerto Ricans as a group, or as individuals. However, it is clear that my choice of words was insulting to many,” Oliver wrote in part.
Several Republican Puerto Ricans told the Sentinel that people in Orange County’s Hispanic community were calling for Oliver’s ouster. Oliver, though, said no one had personally asked him to resign.
Republican Party of Florida spokeswoman Susan Hepworth said, “Lew’s comments were unfortunate, and they do not reflect the views of our party. We are pleased that he has apologized.”
Oliver’s longtime ally Anthony Suarez, a former state representative, has been taking him to Spanish media in the past week to explain himself and his long history of supporting Puerto Rican candidates and groups.
“it’s been difficult,” Suarez said of countering the party’s problems with recent Republican leaders statements about Hispanics. “And Lew Oliver’s statements, if they carried on without explanation, it would make it even more difficult.”
Last month a top Republican fundraiser, Mike Fernandez, quit Gov. Rick Scott’s re-election campaign committee and complained about reports of insensitive remarks about Mexicans attributed to campaign staffers. Hispanic leaders including Suarez cringed over recent hard-line anti-immigration remarks made by national Republican figures Donald Trump and Mike Huckabee. And when former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush defended many undocumented workers acting out of love, his comments were harshly rejected by others in the party.
Democrats are relishing Oliver’s misstep.
Democrat James Auffant, who is running for Orange County Clerk of Courts, said he has heard no Republican leaders who have “called him out on it,” leaving unchallenged an impression that Republican leaders are out of touch with the Puerto Rican community.
Democrat Val Demings, who is running for Orange County mayor against Republican Teresa Jacobs, called Oliver’s comments “delusional.”
“We cannot work together solving the problems of strengthening the economy and securing our future if people like Lew Oliver bring the politics of division to the County, or if people like Teresa Jacobs ignore the degrading comments of her supporters,” Demings said in a written statement.
Late last night Oliver issued the following apology press release:
One week ago, I made some hastily written, poorly chosen, unedited written remarks to Orlando Sentinel Reporter Scott Powers regarding Puerto Rico. I want to make the following statements about those remarks:
1. I apologize without reservation or equivocation to the Puerto Ricans in particular for my words. It was not my intention or desire to malign, impugn, insult or criticize any Puerto Ricans as a group, or as individuals. However, it is clear that my choice of words was insulting to many, and even close friends think that someone who did not know anything more about me could have concluded that it was my intent to be insulting. I should know better. I therefore deserve the criticism and accept responsibility for that and for my words; I wrote them, and in public life you are responsible not just for what you intend but also what you carelessly say, intent or not. I am not going to attack the critics, say I was misquoted or taken out of context, nor will I defend myself with new word twist, nor will I blame the messengers or limit my apology only IF by chance someone "decided to take my remarks out of context, etc.". I hate weasel apologies and I'm not going to issue one. I take responsibility for my words, they were wrong and I apologize for them, period. I have tried to say this a few times on broadcast media, but I think it is important to make this clear in writing for the record.
2. I wish also to apologize to all my very kind friends and supporters for embarrassing them and making them feel they had to come to my defense, particularly so many in the Puerto Rican community who have been so very, very kind this last week. My job is to help them, not the other way around, and I am sincerely embarrassed as well as ashamed to have caused them grief and time and heartache.
3. When dealing with relatively sensitive and personal accusations of something as harmful (to all involved) as insults to an entire community, even in the subtle forms, I believe it is appropriate to consider the context and the history of the individual so accused. I have spent more than 25 years of my life putting my money, time, reputation and heart where my mouth is on Puerto Rican Empowerment. I have consistently - in both a personal donor capacity and as chairman of the Republican Party - supported Puerto Rican and Latino candidates, causes, issues, redistricting and grievances, and have sometimes privately disagreed with my own party on matters ranging from immigration reform to redistricting to college tuition, etc. I have more or less begged that the Governor and others to appoint Puerto Ricans and other Hispanics to positions of influence in our community, and have been successful in that, even to the point of irritating many with my insistence. My law partner and more than half of the staff in my private business is Puerto Rican, as are many clients and colleagues. I am a member of organizations dedicated to the Hispanic community in real estate and other endeavors. In short, I think 25 years of money and actions and advocacy ought to count for something against a handful of words written hastily and thoughtlessly (in literally 10 minutes) on a very busy Monday morning at work in the private sector.
4. I have very great respect and admiration for Puerto Ricans and always have. Puerto Ricans are quintessential Americans in the very best traditions of this nation. People who leave their beautiful home island, their friends, their families, a familiar culture and language to travel thousands of miles to places that are often cold and unfamiliar, so they can build a better life for their families are courageous, risk-taking, ambitious and hard-working. I see that every day in my business life and in politics. In short, they are just like millions of other Americans who built this country. Additionally, Puerto Ricans are often MORE patriotic than other Americans - their rate of volunteering for the United States military is, for example, HIGHER than other Americans, a fact I observed in person every day of my life growing up as an "air force brat" all over this country. Consequently, there is simply no way not to admire the Puerto Rican people. Which is another reason I so regret the injury my remarks have caused.
5. My point in my comments was and is the same: Puerto Ricans by the millions - whether they realize it consciously or not - have already voted emphatically against Democrats with their feet by leaving the places run by Democrats to arrive in a state run by Republicans. All have in common, in addition to Democrat-run governments, is the absence of promising prospects for a prosperous future. Around the country, "red" states generally have better growth and economies than "blue" states (just as internationally the countries that favor business growth and entrepreneurship - such as South Korea and Poland - have brighter futures than those who have created comfortable "nanny states" such as France and Greece). It was my hope to "connect the dots" between votes already made with feet by moving families across the country and votes made by hands in voting booths. No more and no less. It is my fault - and mine alone - that I have instead insulted the very people I hoped to persuade.
Lewis M. Oliver III, Esq. ("Lew")Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun