Politics & Government

Florida Sen. Rubio's Aponte vote draws criticism from Hispanic leaders

Sen. Marco Rubio on Tuesday abruptly canceled a meeting with a high-level State Department official after learning that Democrats had described his vote Monday against the ambassador to El Salvador as an insult to the Puerto Ricans he represents in Florida.

The Senate failed to get enough votes Monday night to take up the nomination of Mari Carmen Aponte, who has been serving on an interim basis as ambassador to El Salvador. The White House lashed out at Republicans for blocking the vote, calling their move Monday night one that played “politics with America's national interests.”

In a call Tuesday afternoon, Hispanic leaders accused Rubio and other Republicans of abandoning fellow Hispanics. Aponte is the first Puerto Rican woman to serve as a U.S. ambassador. But she has a complicated past — a former boyfriend was accused of being a Cuban spy. The FBI cleared Aponte, who later received two top security clearances, but not before the chatter scuttled her 1993 nomination by President Clinton to serve as ambassador to the Dominican Republic.

“Once again, one of the victims of this political agenda here in Washington, D.C., is someone who is very qualified and happens to be a stellar member of the Latino community,” said Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., in a call put together by the Democratic National Committee. “Most of us are not only disappointed but angered to see politics played at the expense of someone who is so capable.”

A spokesman for Rubio said the Obama administration was playing “ethnic politics,” and said the Florida senator would abandon efforts to work with the administration on Aponte's nomination. She's been serving as the ambassador to El Salvador since mid-2010, when President Obama appointed her during a recess.

Rubio's spokesman,Alex Conant,said he didn't know why the DNC was “injecting itself into serious policy discussion on issues of democracy and the western hemisphere.”

“For them to try to play ethnic politics shows that they're not serious or acting in good faith,” Conant said. “We're canceling that meeting because it's clear the White House and administration is more interested in playing politics than in getting anything done.”

Yet Hispanic Democrats in Florida have taken notice, too. They include Florida state Rep. Darren Soto of Orlando and Annette Taddeo-Goldstein, who ran against Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, in 2008 and again unsuccessfully for Miami-Dade County Commission last year. Taddeo-Goldstein on Monday urged people to call Rubio's office to criticize his vote.

Soto said in the DNC call that Rubio should be more conscious of what his “no” vote means to the thousands of Puerto Ricans who live in Florida and will vote in the presidential election.

“You would think because he represents the state, because he represents so many Puerto Rican Americans here, that it would have some consideration,” Soto said. “This would have been an easy way for him to cross the aisle and perhaps pick up some more support in Central Florida for the 2012 elections.”

Other Republican senators also opposed Aponte's nomination, including Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., who was critical this week of an op-ed Aponte wrote in a Salvadoran newspaper praising the country for its support of a U.N. declaration that calls for eliminating violence against gays and lesbians.