Puerto Rican voters, battered by crisis, could be pivotal for Biden in Florida

Activists worry that these potential voters aren't being reached. "Do you know how many calls I have made to Puerto Ricans that didn't know there is going to be early voting?"
Primary election day Florida
A voter casts his ballot in the Florida primary at the Orange County Supervisor of Elections' office in Orlando on March 17. Joe Burbank / Orlando Sentinel / TNS via Getty Images file
By Suzanne Gamboa and Carmen Sesin

MIAMI — Jimmy Torres-Veléz, who hosts the Boricua Action Network radio program in Kissimmee, Florida, said he's voting for Joe Biden because, under the Trump administration, the country with the largest military force in the world allowed thousands of people "to die in Puerto Rico" following Hurricane Maria in 2017.

"People suffered so much on the incompetency — you should know better," he said, speaking as if he were addressing President Donald Trump. "You are the perfect guy to manage it. That's what you told people. People will never forget."

The estimated 600,000 people of Puerto Rican descent living along the Interstate 4 corridor from Daytona Beach to Tampa, as well as some of the 350,000 or more who live in South Florida, could be pivotal in deciding the presidential race. Hurricane Maria and Trump's response, some of it preserved in a record of tweets, is not far from the mind of many of those voters, who are also grappling with more economic woes from the coronavirus.

Torres-Veléz, who worked for months after the hurricane coordinating aid for the island, is trying to connect Florida's Puerto Rican communities through his nonprofit, Boricua Vota.

Feeling the urgency, Biden's campaign unveiled a plan for Puerto Rico at the start of his Hispanic Heritage Month visit to Florida on Tuesday. The plan, which accuses Trump of worsening the island's crises, calls for investing in Puerto Rico's recovery and elevating the island's needs by creating a group that would answer directly to Biden.

Recent polls show Trump faring well among Cuban American voters, most of whom live in South Florida and have higher turnout rates than other Latino groups. Trump has been trying to increase his Latino support among Cuban Americans and other Latinos as his white voter support has dropped below 2016 levels, NBC News reported.

But Democrats are banking on voters like Ernesto Morales-Ramos, 59, a communications teacher who settled in Miami after Hurricane Maria swept the island, robbing him of his university teaching job.

His grandfather founded the Popular Democratic Party on the island. Morales-Ramos registered to vote in Florida with no party affiliation and has requested a mail-in ballot — and he will vote for Biden.

"I was enraged by Trump's response, as well as the corruption and negligence of the Puerto Rican government at the time," Morales-Ramos said. But he ticked off a longer list of reasons for his disdain for the president: "Trump's stances against minorities, his vile corruption, his gross disrespect for women, his admiration and support of dictators that are sworn enemies of the USA."

A poll of 1,081 Latinos in Florida by EquisLabs, a Democratic polling group, found that 61 percent of people who identify as Puerto Rican preferred Biden. Trump lagged by 33 points behind among them. The pollsters said in a memo that they estimate that Biden may, at best, match Hillary Clinton's performance among Latinos in Florida but that it could still be enough to win the state. Biden could grow his Latino support among Puerto Ricans, some Cuban Americans and other voters with Latin American backgrounds.

Biden noted the importance of Puerto Rican voters to his bid for the White House in his speech in Kissimmee, Florida, Tuesday evening that followed speeches by top Latino celebrities Eva Longoria Bastón, Ricky Martin and Luis Fonsi, among others.

In his appeal for support, Biden said Hispanic voters "especially those right here in Florida" could help put the nation on a path moving forward.

"More than any other time, the Hispanic community, the Latino community holds in the palm of the hand the destiny of this country," Biden said. "You can decide the direction of this country."

Calls for more outreach

There have been rumblings in the community that Biden's campaign has not been mobilizing Puerto Rican voters.

Victor Vazquez-Hernandez, a Puerto Rico history professor at Miami Dade College, criticized the Biden campaign last month in an opinion article about weak outreach to Puerto Ricans. That followed a blistering internal letter written by a group of organizers in Florida saying the campaign was "suppressing the Hispanic vote."

Vazquez-Hernandez said he still has not seen strong outreach to the Puerto Rican community. There is still time to turn things around, but "we still need to see more," he said.

In a call with reporters over the weekend, Democratic Party Chairman Tom Perez said the party has expanded its voter files after having purchased 100 million cellphone numbers with the 787 area code of Puerto Rico.

"We wanted to identify Maria refugees, people who had been forced from the mainland. ... Many people left with their shirts on their back and their proud 787 numbers," Perez said. He said they also asked for cell numbers with the 787 area code in Pennsylvania.

Organizations have been working on registering people to vote and urging them to turn out, mostly through phone banking during the pandemic.

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Mi Familia Vota turned to the field in Central Florida two weeks ago.

The group, which is spending $10 million in several states to turn out Latino voters, has Puerto Rican leaders working the I-4 corridor. Along with voter registration, the group is distributing how-to guides on early and mail-in voting and will soon issue a "very strategic guide that shows the drastic differences between candidates," said Héctor Sánchez Barba, CEO and executive director of Mi Familia Vota.

"For Puerto Ricans, Cubans, for Mexican Americans, Trump is the biggest threat for all of us," said Sánchez, whose group dubbed its campaign #BastaTrump (#EnoughTrump).

Natascha Otero-Santiago, who founded Boricuas con Biden, a grassroots volunteer-led group on Facebook, estimated that 200,000 Puerto Ricans in Florida are not registered to vote. Efforts to mobilize people need to be cranked up in the next two weeks.

"Do you know how many calls I have made to Puerto Ricans that didn't know there is going to be early voting?" she asked.

Marcos Vilar, executive director of the progressive group Alianza for Progress, said the booming population of Puerto Ricans in Florida has created tough expectations for anyone to meet. Florida has had a big increase in the number of Puerto Ricans who have moved from the island, as well from other states. Vilar said a detailed policy plan for Puerto Rico was needed to energize voters.

Jenn Earle, 34, a chiropractic graduate student, lives in Orlando after having grown up in New York. She said she will cast a ballot for Biden in person.

"Issues with Puerto Rico affect me, because my family is from there and we have family that lives down there," Earle said.

"It's offensive," she said of what she described as Trump's disrespect toward Puerto Ricans. She also said he is "divisive for our country."

From island voters to Florida voters?

Puerto Ricans fleeing the island's fiscal crisis and later the hurricane were in survival mode when they first got to Florida, but they are now better positioned to become more engaged in elections, said María Rodríguez, executive director and co-founder of Florida For All, a political action committee that focuses on low-propensity voters.

The PAC conducted focus groups with the University of California, Berkeley and found that many of the new arrivals need more information about how to vote. Many did not feel secure about the process.

Rodríguez said the group has launched a campaign to persuade people to vote in Florida because there is misinformation that residents can also vote absentee in Puerto Rico. If they do, they give up their right to vote in Florida.

"I think we are getting to the point where the Puerto Rican vote is getting the recognition it deserves," Rodríguez said. "The powers that be or campaigns or parties are having to grow into the impact and the demands of what it is to engage a Puerto Rico electorate."

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Marianna Sotomayor contributed.