Democratic debates didn't address Puerto Rico despite island's possible early primary

Of the 24 candidates, only 13 have taken a stance on the island's territorial status, its financial crisis and post-hurricane situation, says a coalition of groups.

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By Nicole Acevedo

The two-day Democratic presidential debate hosted in Miami ended on Thursday without addressing issues affecting Puerto Rico, even though Puerto Ricans on the island and the mainland are able to vote in presidential primaries and an estimated 1.2 million live in Florida.

Power4PuertoRico, a coalition of organizations and leaders who advocate for the island and Puerto Ricans living in the states, called out debate participants on Twitter for ignoring Puerto Rico during the first 2020 Democratic presidential debate. “20 candidates, 5 moderators, 2 debates and only ONE mention of Puerto Rico,” said one tweet.

Hundreds of flags of Puerto Rico fly above people taking part in the National Puerto Rican Day Parade on June 9, 2019, in New York.Craig Ruttle / AP file

The only mention of the U.S. territory happened on Wednesday night when Julián Castro, the only Latino candidate in the crowded race, mentioned that Puerto Rico was his first campaign stop.

After Castro’s visit, Power4PuertoRico spearheaded an initiative to demand presidential candidates to both take definitive stances on a series of issues affecting the island's 3.2 million residents and come up with “a comprehensive platform.”

Since March, over 55 organizations and individuals have come together to lead the effort as candidates seek to stand out in a crowded race.

According to Erica Gonzalez, director of Power4PuertoRico, the organization has “had conversations with several of the campaigns” since the coalition released an open letter earlier this year outlining the topics they are asking candidates to address.

Of the 24 Democrats running for president, only 13 have taken stances on issues around the island’s territorial status (including possible statehood) and the ongoing financial crisis and hurricane recovery, among other matters, according to the group who has been keeping track of candidates under the #ShowUSYourPRPolicy campaign.

While Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont “have offered a vision for helping Puerto Rico through major issues like its unaudited debt, no candidate has released a comprehensive plan,” Gonzalez told NBC News via email.

Except for the border crisis surrounding immigration, the debates didn't touch on other salient issues regarding the Caribbean and Latin America, including the ongoing crisis in Venezuela and U.S. relations with Cuba. This, despite the fact the debates took place in South Florida, which is majority Latino and where these topics are front and center for many voters.

Where do the candidates stand on Puerto Rico?

Even though the coalition is demanding candidates pay attention to dozens of issues, a handful of them are at the top of their list.

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The group has been urging candidates to publicly support “full participation of island residents in critical federal anti-poverty programs,” such as Medicaid and food stamps. Since Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory and not a state, it does not get the same federal funding and instead manages these programs through block grants. Health care spending, for example, has been one of the island's biggest costs, since they get substantially less money than states do.

Puerto Ricans and allies in this effort are also calling for parity on the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit, and a repeal of the century-old Jones Act, which raises the cost of imported goods to Puerto Rico by limiting foreign ships from going there; only American-built vessels and crews can deliver shipments to the island. In addition, they back a Marshall Plan-type mobilization to rebuild after Hurricane Maria, which led to the deaths of at least 2,975 people.

Warren, who like Castro also visited the island shortly after declaring her candidacy, has addressed at least seven of the concerns brought up by these Puerto Ricans, according to Power4PuertoRico’s tracker. Trailing Warren is Sanders, who has publicly addressed at least four issues.

In May, Warren released a “comprehensive debt relief” plan for Puerto Rico to restructure approximately $120 billion of debt and pension obligations on the same day she reintroduced a bill that could help achieve such restructuring. The legislation was co-sponsored by fellow senators and presidential candidates Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Kamala Harris of California and Sanders.

Warren’s campaign also gave away flyers during the National Puerto Rican Day Parade that touted her support for both an independent audit of Puerto Rico’s debt and the Marshall Plan-type plan to rebuild the island after two devastating hurricanes in 2017, an effort that Sanders has brought forward in the past.

Sanders introduced legislation in June to “correct long-standing inequities in federal health care funding for Medicaid and Medicare” that exist in U.S. territories. Gillibrand, Harris and Warren, as well as Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, another fellow presidential nomination opponent, co-sponsored the bill.

The only candidate that has taken a stance in regards to the Jones Act is Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, who said that while she does not support a repeal of the law, she would be open to discussing exemptions for Puerto Rico.

At least eight candidates have weighed in on Puerto Rico’s territorial status debate.

Booker, Castro, Warren, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, and former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke have said they support Puerto Rico’s “right to self-determination” while former Maryland Rep. John Delaney, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and entrepreneur Andrew Yang support statehood.

An early primary in Puerto Rico could change everything

While Puerto Rican residents can’t vote in presidential elections, they can, as U.S. citizens, vote in presidential primaries, meaning that Puerto Rico could give Democratic candidates a boost in rising above an already crowded field.

Carlos Vargas-Ramos, a research associate who studies the impact of migration on Puerto Rican political behavior at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College-CUNY, previously told NBC News that the island has a larger population than 22 states, making its pool of delegates "a sizable" one.

According to the Puerto Rico Delegate Selection Plan for the 2020 Democratic National Convention, “Puerto Rico has a total of 59 delegates and five alternates.”

Charlie Rodriguez, chair of the Democratic Party in Puerto Rico, told NBC News that Puerto Rican officials have been working on legislation to move up its 2020 primary date, now set for early June, to March 29.

The Puerto Rican legislature recently approved an amendment introduced by Gov. Ricardo Rosselló to “move up the date of the Democratic presidential primary,” creating a favorable environment for the implementation of such change, Rodriguez said.

As Vargas-Ramos explained, for people who do not get to elect the person who presides over their territory, an early primary can be crucial.

“Their vote would be more powerful because it could help decide, early on, who will become the nominee — not later on when the election is almost a given,” he said.

Rosselló seems to agree.

“By making Puerto Rico an early voting state, candidates will be forced to pay attention to our needs,” he said in a statement.

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