The Puerto Rican couple sitting across from me at a birthday party last weekend had only been living in Florida since May, but were politically aware, articulate and sharp-eyed about statewide issues on the ballot. And yes, these newcomers were excited to be voting in this presidential election.
Like many of the 400,000 Puerto Ricans in the Orlando area, they came fleeing the island’s debt crisis and economic woes. They couldn’t sell their house in a resort town on the east end of the island, but they rented it, and intend to permanently settle in this booming tourist town where home builders are visibly catering to Hispanics with bilingual staff and photographs of Puerto Rican model families in pristine suburban settings.
“Our first priority was finding a good school for our son, and we did,” the husband tells me. “We’re here to stay.”
Some pundits and media have called the Puerto Ricans in Central Florida “Hillary Clinton’s secret weapon.” That’s because with the help of newcomers who are arriving in unprecedented numbers, Puerto Ricans are becoming a political force to be taken as seriously as Cubans in South Florida.
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More than a million strong along the I-4 corridor that runs from Tampa to Daytona Beach, according to the CUNY Center for Puerto Rican Studies, these Hispanics are American citizens and can register to vote as soon as they arrive.
Instant voters. And an October Latino Decisions poll concluded that 74 percent of Puerto Rican voters favored Clinton.
The Democratic tilt isn’t surprising. They’re not only transplants from the island, but from the Northeast, where Hispanics tend to vote blue. You know those people of color Donald Trump wouldn’t rent to in New York? The discriminated were not only African Americans, but Puerto Ricans too.
“There were so many Puerto Ricans from NY at this office I’ll call it South Orlando meets the Bronx!” tweeted Sonia Manzano, aka “Maria” of Sesame Street fame, who was campaigning here on Saturday for Clinton.
Seeing the enthusiasm of Puerto Ricans for the elections — besides religion, it was all you heard about on Orlando Spanish-language talk radio — made me wonder what impact the voting bloc may have on other issues and races.
They’re not exactly a group Tallahassee has given a hoot about — and that might work to the GOP establishment’s detriment this time around. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, for instance, recently got booed off a stage at a Latino event in Orlando.
During statewide redistricting hearings in 2011, Republican state Sen. Alan Hays discounted Central Florida Hispanics with contempt. He said that most of them were “illegals” who didn’t have the right to vote and didn’t need to be taken into account.
The Florida Supreme Court saw right through the politicking and ruled that the maps drawn were the product of unconstitutional gerrymandering and ordered eight districts redrawn where the court said the Legislature “needlessly” divided minority communities to benefit the Republican incumbents.
Hays, a dentist, has since abandoned his Senate seat to run for Lake County elections supervisor this year — and the GOP has funded him well against his Democratic and independent opponents. I hope by now that the voting eligibility of Puerto Ricans has been made clear to him. But this election is an opportunity to show people like him that Hispanic voters matter.
If Puerto Ricans turn out to vote in large numbers in this election, they could help deliver Florida to Hillary Clinton and help make history. President Obama won Florida by a narrow margin in 2012 after a similar expansion of the electorate. That’s why it took a court challenge to get Florida Gov. Rick Scott to extend the deadline for registration after Hurricane Matthew interrupted the efforts.
Could Democratic Puerto Ricans replace Republican Cuban Americans in Miami as the most influential Hispanic group in presidential races in the swing state?
Not likely, not yet — and definitely not at all if they don’t act on their U.S. citizenship rights and turn out to vote.
But they can form a powerful voting bloc in Florida along with the growing number of Cuban-American Democrats and Republicans who’ve vowed #NeverTrump.
There’s a popular saying in the Caribbean, a line from a poem by Lola Rodríguez de Tió, who was born in a southwest Puerto Rico town and died in Havana: “Cuba y Puerto Rico son de un pájaro las dos alas.” Cuba and Puerto Rico are the two wings of a bird.
In Florida, that should worry those who belittle Hispanics.