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Puerto Rican activists voice concern Democrats are not doing enough to engage Florida voters

"I just think there is a disconnect between leadership and our communities,” a Puerto Rican Democratic state organizer said.
Voters Head To Polls As Early Voting Starts In Florida
A voter arrives at the Jimmie B. Keel regional library polling station to cast an early vote in Florida's elections on Oct. 22, 2018 in Tampa, Floa.Joe Raedle / Getty Images file

MIAMI — A blistering letter written last week by a group of organizers for the Florida Democratic Party listing several grievances, including claims that the campaign is “suppressing the Hispanic vote,” has raised concerns among activists that Democrats are not doing enough to engage Puerto Rican voters.

The internal letter, first reported by The Miami Herald, makes multiple allegations including how organizers have been moved to handle areas they are not familiar with, often with little notice, after spending months organizing in their own communities.

According to one of the organizers who signed the letter, the problems began when the Florida Coordinated Campaign moved in. The campaign includes previous staff members of former New York city mayor and Democratic presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg.

“Everything has gone downhill since the Coordinated Campaign came in,” said an organizer who asked not to be named since he's not authorized to talk to the media. “You have people from other states that don’t understand Florida politics.”

The organizer said they were trained by the Democratic National Committee to organize within their communities through personal experiences and in their native languages, but now people are being brought in from states like New York who have no connection to the community.

"I don't think there is bad intention," the organizer said. "I just think there is a disconnect between leadership and our communities."

The letter, viewed by NBC News, states that the Florida Coordinated Campaign is suppressing the Hispanic vote by removing Spanish-speaking organizers from Central Florida, an area with a large concentration of Puerto Ricans, without explanation.

The organizer said most Puerto Ricans support former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, but “the problem is talking to them and communicating with them so they vote.”

The Florida Coordinated Campaign and the field organizers’ union, IBEW Local 824, are currently in talks to address the issue, according to a Democratic operative familiar with the talks.

One of the concerns among organizers, which has been echoed among Democratic activists, is what they say is a lack of attention to the growing number of Puerto Ricans in the state, who number over 1 million. Over one third of eligible Latino voters in the state are Puerto Rican, similar to the share of Cuban Americans.

Out of the 94 field organizers who signed the letter, only a few are Puerto Rican, the organizer said.

In the 2016 presidential election, Puerto Ricans voted overwhelmingly against Donald Trump, but in the 2018 midterm election their turnout was soft, which worried Democrats.

Trump won Florida in the 2016 presidential election by 1 percent, and the latest poll has Biden leading in the state by 5 points.

Puerto Rican votes can be key

Natascha Otero-Santiago, a board member of the National Puerto Rican Agenda, who is involved with numerous Puerto Rican organizations in Florida, said that “the situation with the organizers is they believe that the campaign is not taking the right steps and using 100 percent of their knowledge and experience with the Puerto Rican community.”

Otero-Santiago said she had been advising Democrats in Florida and nationally for months that more needs to be done to court Puerto Rican voters.

She expressed a need for more Puerto Rican senior advisers in Florida and for more attention to be paid to the group. She said that with less than 100 days before Election Day, it’s easier to energize Puerto Ricans so they turn out than to convince Latino Republicans to change their minds about Trump.

“We are hopeful this will be a successful campaign. But there are things that need to change and soon,” Otero said.

Marcos Vilar, executive director of the progressive group Alianza for Progress, echoed a similar sentiment. Vilar, a Puerto Rican, has been based in Central Florida for years, working with the Puerto Rican community, and he says he understands the frustration among the organizers.

“National Democrats and Democrats in general are a lot more aware of the Puerto Rican community than they were six years ago. But I think Florida is very confusing for national Democrats,” said Vilar pointing out the diverse Latino community in the state.

He feels that a lot of the improvement in outreach has been because of activists who have been working in Florida for decades.

"There are groups, like Alianza for Progress, that will bring out the Puerto Rican vote. But the missing ingredient is a little bit of energy, a little bit of attention from the candidates themselves," he said.

The coronavirus pandemic has hampered excitement among voters, at a time when Latinos, especially younger ones, have shown less enthusiasm about the 2020 elections in general than they did earlier in the year and at this point in 2016, according to polling firm Latino Decisions, which was hired by the Biden campaign.

Florida is a pivotal swing state that many experts agree the president must win to be re-elected.

Tatiana Matta, a national Latino adviser for the Biden campaign, said that "as a Puerto Rican, I joined this movement to make Donald Trump a one-term president with a particular fire under me.”

“Every vote matters to our campaign and we take that statement very seriously, which is why we are making necessary investments to turn out the Hispanic Vote, including by reaching out to my fellow Puerto Ricans in Florida," she said in a statement.

Matta pointed out that the campaign has released ads specific to the community, hired a diverse team of Spanish-language organizers and supported the efforts of organizing groups like Boricuas con Biden.

Rep. Darren Soto, D-Fla., who is Puerto Rican and serves a Puerto Rican-heavy district in Central Florida, said he has asked that organizers be brought back to the neighborhoods they were working in.

“Upon speaking to them, I have a good comfort level that they’re going to be making those adjustments in the next couple of days or weeks,” he said.

He pointed to virtual events the Biden campaign has held to discuss issues important to the Puerto Rican community, like one last week in which he participated with state Rep. Amy Mercado.

Stephen Nuño, a senior analyst with Latino Decisions, said, “We often say that members of organizations have two options when they see something wrong; they can voice their grievances or they can leave.”

“Whichever option they choose can be a function of their investment in the campaign," he said, "and in my view, young Latinos, using their voice rather than leaving, is a good sign for the Democrats in Florida.”

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