National News

Must-Do for Florida’s Midterm Candidates: A Stop in Puerto Rico. Or Three.

Posted May 17, 2018 6:52 p.m. EDT

CAROLINA, Puerto Rico — Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida stepped out of an official-looking SUV, briefcase in hand, ready to survey a still-unfinished public housing development funded by the federal government — not in his home state but more than 1,000 miles away, in Puerto Rico.

“¡Hola! Un placer,” — a pleasure, he said in Spanish, shaking the hands of the cadre of local officials greeting him under the stinging morning sun.

The purpose of Nelson’s visit was to inquire about the recovery from Hurricane Maria, specifically, where Washington continued to be deficient. With any luck, Nelson, a Democrat facing his toughest re-election race yet, might also grab a headline back home.

“Are you from the Sentinel?” Nelson asked a notebook-wielding journalist, referring to the weekly Spanish-language newspaper in Orlando, Florida, which had indeed sent a reporter. Nelson smiled.

Holding political office in Florida increasingly requires trekking to Puerto Rico, the former home of a growing number of Florida residents. More than 1 million Puerto Ricans already lived in the state before the hurricane, and another 56,000 joined them in the first six months after Maria, according to an estimate by the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York.

Perhaps not all of them will stay, much less vote: Puerto Ricans have tended to cast ballots less reliably than other Florida Hispanics. But if they do — perhaps driven by the slow response to Hurricane Maria — they could emerge as a significant political force, and not just for Democrats. Though Puerto Ricans tend to lean left, many have also registered as Florida voters without party affiliation, giving Republicans an opening to make a play for their support. If Republicans are successful, they could grow their Hispanic conservative base beyond Cuban Americans.

In any case, the arrival of Puerto Ricans has not gone unnoticed in a state where premier election contests have routinely been decided by a single percentage point. The island’s recovery from Hurricane Maria has become an issue of critical concern in Florida, with candidates jostling to appear in touch with the state’s Puerto Rican diaspora.

This election season, it’s not just Nelson, who is facing a daunting Republican challenge from Gov. Rick Scott, vying for the Puerto Rican vote. Candidates down the ticket are also adopting the island’s cause.

State Rep. David Richardson of Miami Beach, a Democratic candidate for Congress, this month spent 48 hours on what he called a “listening tour” of the island. He is running in Florida’s 27th Congressional District, which is nearly 72 percent Hispanic and largely Cuban-American. His campaign research, however, revealed that about 25,000 Puerto Ricans live in the district, he said, so Richardson felt a trip to the island was in order.

The leading contender in the Democratic primary field, Donna Shalala, posted a photograph on Twitter last month with Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz of San Juan, who became a sensation in the wake of the storm after she emotionally rebuked President Donald Trump.

“What’s happening in South Florida is the Cuban-Americans are becoming a smaller demographic,” Richardson said in an interview. “Puerto Ricans are an important element of the district, and will have an important voice in the election.” Rep. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, who in 2016 became the first Puerto Rican elected to Congress from the state, said networking in Puerto Rico has become essential. “It shows you’re doing your job when you’re from Florida,” he said.

When he ran two years ago, Soto's campaign bought advertising time on WAPA-TV in Puerto Rico, knowing it would also be seen in his district, where Hispanic cable packages include Puerto Rican programming. Soto, who now faces a primary challenge from former Rep. Alan Grayson, did not rule out employing the same strategy this year.

But politicians would prefer it if reporters did not refer to their repeated excursions to the island as campaigning, thank you very much.

“This has nothing to do with the election,” Nelson insisted at the end of his daylong trip. It was his third since the hurricane, his office made sure to note.

Scott has notched five visits to the island since Maria, the latest one 11 days before the senator’s. Still, Scott’s campaign — which on April 28 emailed reporters photographs of the governor’s participation in a Puerto Rican festival in Orlando — characterized Nelson’s trip two weeks ago, and his subsequent Orlando airport news conference, as political opportunism.

Scott has bestowed much attention on Puerto Ricans since the storm, opening assistance centers in Florida for new arrivals, sending law enforcement officers to the island and, like Nelson, pushing for federal aid for Maria’s desperate victims. Scott’s campaign this week released a Spanish-language television ad in the Orlando and Tampa media markets highlighting his efforts.

“Rick Scott has been there. He has been present,” a woman identified as Jeannie Calderin says in the ad. “He has helped.”

For his efforts, Scott has reaped political rewards: This month, he secured the endorsement of Rep. Jenniffer González-Colón, Puerto Rico’s nonvoting member of Congress and a Republican. He already had the backing of another Republican, Luis Rivera Marín, Puerto Rico’s lieutenant governor and secretary of state, who introduced the governor at his Senate campaign launch in Orlando. He called him a “good friend of Hispanics.”

Not to be outdone, Gov. Ricardo A. Rosselló of Puerto Rico, a Democrat who has not formally endorsed in the race, introduced Nelson during his recent visit, alternately as a “friend,” a “great friend” and “the best friend Puerto Rico has.” Few mainland politicians are well known on the island. Nelson is not one of them.

In brief remarks, including some in halting Spanish, Nelson said it was unacceptable that thousands of electric utility customers, including a man he met in the town of Las Piedras, still did not have power more than seven months after the hurricane. “There is no excuse,” Nelson said.

Come Election Day, he said in an interview later, Puerto Ricans on the mainland will remember being treated “like second-class citizens.”

“They’re going to look at how Puerto Ricans have been treated by this administration,” he said. “I don’t think they’re going to be very happy.”

Puerto Ricans say they appreciate politicians’ interest in drawing attention to ongoing problems. But the locals also know some patience is required to explain Puerto Rico to outsiders.

At the housing project, Nelson seemed eager to learn how buildings and residents had survived the storm. But the development was new and uninhabited, so those questions were moot. “Are we going to see the squatters?” Nelson then asked an aide, who indicated that would be at a later stop, at a century-old neighborhood situated along the banks of a canal, now clogged.

To grow Puerto Ricans’ political influence, Rosselló has spearheaded the formation of a political nonprofit, Poder Puerto Rico, to try to increase the electoral participation of the mainland diaspora.

“Historically, Puerto Rican turnout over here has been very low, whereas in the island, it has been very high,” Rosselló said in an interview during a recent visit to New York. “We’re 5.6 million strong here in the United States, so we felt that there is a great opportunity to define elections.”

The problem, said Jorge Bonilla, a Puerto Rican and past Republican congressional candidate from Central Florida, is that Puerto Ricans on the mainland are more focused on rebuilding their lives than on taking sides in elections.

“They’re not worried about going to the polls,” said Bonilla, who left the Republican Party in October, in part over the Trump administration’s slow response to the hurricane, and is now registered without party affiliation. “They’re worried about getting a job. Democrats are overplaying their hand. Republicans are unsure what to do. Really, neither party knows how to engage Puerto Ricans.” Puerto Ricans registered to vote in Florida without party affiliation are ineligible to vote in partisan primaries. They remain independent in part because the defining question of the island’s politics isn’t red or blue — it’s whether Puerto Rico should remain a commonwealth, become a state or seek independence.

Puerto Ricans most recently voted for statehood in nonbinding plebiscites in 2017, though the election had relatively low turnout.

During his recent tour, Richardson, the congressional candidate from Miami, said that until then, he hadn’t realized just how much the status question dominated island politics.

“In my district, people are not talking about those issues,” he said. “They’re talking about affordable housing. They’re talking about jobs. They’re talking about getting their kids in school.”

Rosselló is a statehood proponent. Scott endorsed statehood this month, and Nelson said during his trip that he would support statehood — if that’s what Puerto Ricans want.

“I should know better than to get involved in Puerto Rican politics,” he said.