MIAMI — Puerto Ricans in this city, who have long felt like a sideshow in Florida politics, are mobilizing to gain a larger voice at the ballot box, motivated in part by the devastation and the response to Hurricane Maria, which “showed our powerlessness," as one attorney and activist says.
“Puerto Ricans are galvanized and unified for the first time,” says Natascha Otero-Santiago, a publicist and community activist, referring to the aftermath of Hurricane Maria and the drive for political empowerment. “I’ve never seen anything like it here in my 25 years in Miami.”
Otero-Santiago points to the “summer revolution,” the popular uprising that drove Puerto Rico’s then-Gov. Ricardo A. Rosselló from office. “It brought us all together, Puerto Ricans on the island and Puerto Ricans here in solidarity and gave us the incentive and energy to raise our voice.”
Some longtime residents and activists see an opening as the parties, especially Democratic presidential candidates, see the growing potential of Puerto Rican voters ahead of 2020.
Democratic presidential candidates are showing up in the state with an eye on its 29 electoral votes and key to victory are the state’s 3 million eligible Latino voters. Puerto Ricans, the fastest growing Latino group in the state with 1.2 million people, command one-third of that vote, about the same as Cuban-American voters.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, who had been here for the first debate in July and for private fundraisers, recently timed his first public rally in Miami to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D- Mass., visited San Juan early in her campaign and unrolled a debt-relief plan to stabilize the island. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., enlisted the mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulin Cruz, as one of his campaign managers. South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg recently held a grassroots rally and a private gathering with Puerto Ricans in Orlando and has expressed support for statehood. Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, the only Latino presidential candidate, made Puerto Rico the first stop in his campaign.
While candidates court prospective voters, Otero-Santiago and other political organizers and activists say voting is just part of it.
“We must elect more Puerto Ricans to local and state offices and Congress,” she says. The 27-member Florida congressional delegation has one Puerto Rican member, Rep. Darren Soto, a Democrat from Central Florida, which is home to a substantial and growing Puerto Rican population.
Only three Puerto Ricans hold seats in the state Legislature and there's only one Puerto Rican mayor, Joel Flores, of Greenacres in Palm Beach County.
Growing numbers, but voters?
The number of island-born, eligible Puerto Rican voters in Florida has increased 30 percent since 2016, according to Pew Research. But that doesn't immediately translate to votes. During the recent midterm cycle, the four Florida counties with the largest Puerto Rican populations had slower Latino voter registration growth, and Puerto Ricans lagged behind other voters in the midterms.
Frederick Vélez III, 29, a Puerto Rican activist who got his start in politics as a scheduler for Rep. José Serrano, D-N.Y., came to Miami last summer after working to get out the vote in Orlando. He said that among some of the approximately 50,000 to 70,000 Puerto Ricans who have settled in Florida in the two years since Maria, there is still a lack of familiarity with mainland and state politics, and some speak little English.
“On the island, they vote every four years, no midterms, no school board and city council elections." Vélez said, adding that voting on the island is a holiday and turnout can be as high as 80 percent. "Here, they don’t vote up to their numbers," and activities such as fundraising or getting involved in local campaigns have not been part of their past experience.
Advocacy organizations such as the Hispanic Federation and the Alianza for Progress have been mobilizing to reach out to prospective voters. On Oct. 16 in Orlando, the Hispanic Federation launched Que Vote Mi Gente, a voter registration drive aimed at the Puerto Rican community.
The kickoff included Broadway star and "Hamilton" creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose father Luis Miranda founded Hispanic Federation, as well as salsa singer Frankie Negrón. The organization is planning a full-blown campaign deploying social media, television advertising and get-out-the-vote rallies, according to Otero-Santiago, a member of the Hispanic Federation.
Appealing to Puerto Rican voters means focusing on issues that are specific to their community. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, so while immigration is not a priority, the question of Puerto Rico's reconstruction and financial recovery, as well as the prospect of statehood are key issues.
For the GOP, Florida is fertile ground. President Donald Trump won the state by 112,000 votes in 2016 and has the support of the state’s two Republican U.S. senators, Sen. Marco Rubio and Sen. Rick Scott, as well as Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and dozens of state and local officials.
In targeting Latino voters, Republican organizers and officials are sticking closely to the president's playbook, slamming Democrats and their policies as socialist and talking up the economy.
“President Trump values the Hispanic community and the strong Latino support for him and his policies will be instrumental to his re-election in 2020,’’ Danielle Alvarez, a Trump campaign spokeswoman, says. So far in this cycle, according to the campaign, GOP volunteers and organizers participated in Puerto Rican faith fairs and festivals; promoted anti-abortion and other conservative social issues that appeal to evangelical Puerto Ricans and launched Latinos for Trump in Miami, where the president lost in 2016.
Democratic presidential candidates are countering the GOP message, attacking the president's record regarding island issues.
"Vice President Biden is absolutely making a concerted effort with the Puerto Rican community,” Isabel Aldunate, Biden’s Hispanic media press secretary, says. She pointed at a Biden campaign video lambasting Trump’s careless handling of Puerto Rico after and since Maria. The campaign recently hired Laura Jimenez, a Floridian with experience in the Puerto Rican community as its national Latino vote director.
Warren named Kimberly Diaz Scott, a Latina, as state campaign director, the first such appointment by a Democratic presidential candidate in this cycle.
Democratic organizers concede that amid conflicting goals, groups and fundraising issues, prospective voters are responding to the attention with varying degrees of enthusiasm.
“Puerto Ricans who relocated after Maria and the economic collapse on the island are tired of politics and polarized,” Nicole Rodriguez, 42, president of the Democratic Hispanic Caucus of Miami-Dade, says explaining why some are disengaged. "They have soured on politics on the island, on the corruption and the bad economy and come here to get away from that and want nothing to do with politics here.”
But Rodriguez is optimistic. “The numbers are there. The issues are simple. We need to make more noise.”
Republican political strategist and commentator Rick Wilson, who's fiercely critical of Pres. Trump, says that when it comes to Puerto Rican voters, Democrats need to learn a lesson from Republican Sen. Rick Scott's victory in November.
"He won a surprising amount of the Puerto Rican vote by going out to them, spending millions of dollars and to his credit, going repeatedly to Puerto Rico," said Wilson, adding it would be "political malpractice" if Democrats don't have hundreds on the ground registering Puerto Rican voters. "They lose it because they get outhustled."
Will they gain clout?
Cuban and Puerto Rican comparisons are inevitable in South Florida. Puerto Rico’s political power here reached its peak in 1973 when Maurice A. Ferre, a member of a prominent Puerto Rican family, became the city’s first Hispanic and the first Puerto Rican mayor in the United States. But after his twelve years in office, it was the city's growing Cuban American population which become a powerful political voice in the city and the state.
“Cubans always had a North star, Cuba, Castro,” explains Francisco J. Cerezo, 49, an advocate for Puerto Rican issues and a law partner at DLA Piper, who studied law and worked in New York City until moving to Miami 20 years ago. “That unified them, gave them a common purpose ... We did not have a North star until recently. Our North star may well be Maria.”
“The hurricane tore apart our illusions,’’ he says, looking over Biscayne Bay from his 25th-floor office downtown. “It showed our weaknesses, our powerlessness. It affected rich and poor. It brought Puerto Ricans together on the island and on the mainland. It may be the closest thing we’ll have to a North star. It may be our rallying cry.”
It was for Gabriela De Jesús, 28, a Florida International University master’s candidate who is running for a Democratic seat in the state Legislature. “The treatment Puerto Ricans received after Hurricane Maria infuriated me,” she says.
De Jesús, who prefers to be called Gaby, was born in Puerto Rico and grew up partly in the Dominican Republic (her father is Puerto Rican, her mother Dominican). When she was 25, she endured a yearlong illness that forced her to give up a small catering business but inspired her to run for office.
“She’s a force of nature!” Otero-Santiago says, watching Gaby speak to a crowd of supporters gathered in a South American restaurant in a shopping mall near downtown. The youngest and the first Puerto Rican woman to run for office in South Florida, she couches progressive ideas in moderate terms, emphasizing human capital and the need to fight racism and culture shock that she says many Latinos feel in this country.
Days later, over coffee at Joe’s Take Away in South Beach, De Jesús recalls her early years in the U.S. “I was shocked, unable to speak and relate when I arrived at Manhattan College in the Bronx. It was all so different and I didn’t speak good English and felt lost.”
About newly arrived Puerto Ricans, she says, “they are suddenly here and they don’t speak English well and they don’t vote because they don’t know the system and they are afraid. I know what that feels like.”
Apart from De Jesús, there are two other Miami Puerto Ricans running in local races: Eleazar Meléndez, running for a district seat in the City Commission, and former state Rep. Robert Asencio, who's running for a Miami-Dade County Commission seat.
For her part, De Jesús is officially kicking off her campaign this month, with Frederick Vélez as her manager. She talks about the need for transparency and unity, about a broken system. In doing so, she's hoping to win a voice for Puerto Ricans in the state — and perhaps a boost to her party.