Abelardo and Lucy Gomez, like many of their generation who fled Cuba, have voted for every Republican U.S. presidential candidate for the past 40 years.
Their son is another story.
Albert Gomez, 39, who works in the family business in South Florida, has a bobblehead doll of President Barack Obama perched on his desk. A self-described pacifist who campaigned against offshore oil drilling as a teenager, he has voted for a Republican presidential candidate just once.
“I’m very upset with my son,” said Lucy Gomez, 65, interviewed at her $2 million home in a gated Coral Gables neighborhood along a canal near Biscayne Bay. “He’s my son and he has a big heart. But Albert is a Democrat.”
Like Albert Gomez, the children of Cuban-American immigrants are increasingly likely to buck their parents’ Republican allegiance and vote for Democrats, according to polling data. This change helped President Barack Obama become the first Democrat in 68 years to win Florida twice and creates new hurdles for Republicans, who are searching for ways to win favor among Hispanic voters after losing four of the last six presidential contests.
Cuban-Americans account for just 3.3 percent of the 54 million Hispanics in the U.S., Census data show. Yet two-thirds of the nation’s 1.8 million Cubans-Americans live in Florida, creating a powerful voice in what has been the largest electoral prize for more than a decade among states considered competitive by both political parties.
Obama won 48 percent of the Cuban-American vote in Florida this year, nearly twice as much as Al Gore, the Democratic presidential candidate in 2000, according to exit polls from Miami-based Bendixen & Amandi International, a polling firm specializing in Hispanic community surveys. The change is due to a generational shift in political views, according to the firm.
“The trend shows a real danger for Republicans,” said Dario Moreno, a Florida International University political science professor and adviser to Marco Rubio, the state’s Republican and Cuban-American U.S. senator. “They’re losing support among one of their strongest bases.”
Even though he votes for Democratic candidate, Albert calls himself a moderate and isn’t affiliated with a party. He has one sister, Lissette Arevalo, 40, who’s a registered Democrat and another, Ivette Alvarez, 42, a Republican.
When the Gomez family gathers for regular Sunday dinners at Abelardo’s and Lucy’s home, decorated with art from Cuba and the Dominican Republic, political discussions can “go nuts, go crazy if we go too deep,” Albert said.
Debates can grow heated over abortion, gay marriage and welfare programs as they try to convince their son to vote Republican, according to Abelardo Gomez, 75.
“They try to tell me what’s what,” Albert said about his parents. “But I’m pretty savvy. I make my own opinions.”
The Republican roots for Abelardo and Lucy, like thousands of Cuban-born voters, can be traced to the Bay of Pigs military invasion under then-President John F. Kennedy, a Democrat, that failed to oust Fidel Castro and the communists.
That was in 1961, 12 years before Albert Gomez was born.
Albert, whose dark, combed-back hair is graying above the ears, initially registered as a Republican and cursed “that damn JFK who left us on the beach.” The U.S. failed to come to the rescue of Cuban exiles who landed at the Bay of Pigs when they were overcome by Castro’s forces.
His Republican affiliation was a rite-of-passage in the Cuban-American culture, Albert said. He dropped it when he was in his 20s because the party didn’t represent his political philosophy, he said.
“Republicans abandoned the social principles that were the framework of the party,” Albert said. “Those social ethics are really important to me.”
His parents say Democratic social policies are ruining America. There are signs of communism in an American culture that relies on “handouts,” increasingly supports gay marriage and where men no longer wear suits to work, Abelardo said.
He also pointed to young Cuban-Americans favoring Democrats.
“When Castro took over, the first thing he did was try to destroy the family: son against father, husband against wife,” Abelardo said. Cubans were encouraged to report family members who weren’t loyal to Castro, he said. “I see that division taking place in the United States. Maybe not to the same degree, but it’s happening.”
For Lucy, whose cheeks rise toward her dark brown eyes when she smiles, the experience of losing everything in Cuba and having to rebuild in the U.S. reinforced her belief that Republicans represent the party of personal responsibility.
She wants “investigators” stationed outside welfare offices to make sure those receiving cash assistance aren’t driving fancy cars.
Lucy and Abelardo both came to the U.S. in the months after the Bay of Pigs.
When they met years later, Abelardo had four jobs, including one collecting money for a bookie. Lucy had three: Two at insurance companies and another at a coffee shop.
She was caring for two younger brothers, including one who would steal milk when they needed it from the doorsteps of Miami homes where he delivered the morning newspaper.
“I had to put Black Flag on the legs of the bed so the cockroaches won’t eat us at night,” Lucy said.
The work was a culture shock for Lucy, who grew up in a sprawling Havana home with marble floors, matching columns and its own chapel. Her mother, imprisoned after helping to free her sister -- Lucy’s aunt -- from jail, gave up her home to Castro’s government in exchange for her freedom.
The life that led to her Republican values is not one she’d want for her son, she said.
“I went through a process that Albert never had to go through,” Lucy said, explaining their political differences. “And I will never allow it for him to go through that.”
Abelardo, whose gray-blue eyes open wide when he speaks of baseball or cigars, was an only child in what he described as an upper middle-class family. His father oversaw sugar production for the government while his mother ran a store, called La Quincallera, selling medicine, shampoo and perfume. As a teenager, Abelardo had his own shop, La Quincalla, selling books, guayaberas and other items.
“I remember being 10 years old and taking my bike and collecting money from people that owed money to my mother,” he said. “We’ve been business people from the very beginning.”
One of Abelardo’s jobs in Miami was cleaning bathrooms at a manufacturer. On his second day, the owner demanded to see the new janitor. “He said he never saw a bathroom so clean in his life,” Abelardo said.
Abelardo eventually became the company’s vice president of marketing and sales, the second-highest position. After 20 years, he opened his own sales company out of his garage.
Today, he runs two companies that assemble and sell components for manufacturers. Industrial Components and I.C. Assemblies have about $36 million in yearly sales, he said.
Some years, Albert is his father’s best salesman. He’s the worst performer other times, as in 2010 when Albert spent weeks in Haiti after the earthquakes. A phone call from a friend wanting to respond to the disaster led to Albert coordinating the delivery of more than $15 million in food and medical supplies on 30 flights and five boats.
Albert, who went to Catholic school and studied geology at Florida International University before earning a bachelor’s degree in marketing, is volunteering in New York after Hurricane Sandy. He and his colleagues have focused on Rockaway, a community in the New York City borough of Queens where they’re trying to solve mold and other health issues.
Albert’s time away from the family business is an issue.
“He’s not helping the way he should be helping us,” Abelardo said. “But he’s doing a super job on this other thing. He’s helping the guy who doesn’t have anything.”
Growing up in a home along a golf course in suburban Miami, Albert said he was interested in science and always “civic minded.” He joined campaigns in the 1980s to oppose offshore drilling and the Turkey Point nuclear plant near Miami.
Reading about deforestation and strip-mining as a youngster gave him reservations about his family’s manufacturing business, he said. He was upset by the violent protests in 1999 of the World Trade Organization conference in Seattle. Later, he joined his parents’ company.
“The only way I could do any kind of social innovation was to get into the belly of the best,” Albert said. “Coming in with money has given me the latitude to look at social problems and see it’s bigger than just taking care of yourself.”