Puerto Ricans may finally have a voice in the elections — some by proxy

Maria Cepeda, a San Juan resident, talks about the Puerto Rico political power that may be felt in mid-term elections in Florida, since many left the island for Florida after Hurricane Maria.
Maria Cepeda, a San Juan resident, talks about the Puerto Rico political power that may be felt in mid-term elections in Florida, since many left the island for Florida after Hurricane Maria.

Thirteen months after Hurricane Maria hit this island, will its roar be heard during Florida’s midterm elections? That’s what Puerto Rican activists and organizers are expecting.

After the deadly Category 5 storm slammed into the U.S. territory last September, tens of thousands of islanders fled to the mainland. Some 30,000 are thought to have settled in Florida alone, and the Nov. 6 midterms will be their first chance to make their voices heard.

With a total of 1.2 milion Puerto Ricans, Florida has now displaced New York as the capital of the island’s diaspora, and polls suggest they’re eager to vote with their island in mind, said José Calderón, the president of the Hispanic Federation, an advocacy group.

“These are recent transplants, and their ties to the island are still very strong,” he said. “What happens here [on the island] is still very top of mind for Puerto Ricans in Florida, who are American citizens and can vote. And that’s a game changer, because so much of the Latin community is unable to vote because of documentation issues, etc.”

The Hispanic Federation was in Orlando earlier this week encouraging the new arrivals to register in Florida and to vote next month. But they’ve also been working on the island, urging residents here to encourage their relatives on the mainland to cast their votes.

As an unincorporated U.S. territory, Puerto Ricans on this island of 3.2 million cannot vote for president or Congress. But as soon as they register in one of the 50 states, they can cast a ballot.

People on the island say they feel they have an influence through the proxy votes of their friends and family members. Valerie Mercado, 27, said several of her friends left Puerto Rico after Maria, and they stay in touch with her to find out what’s happening ahead of next month’s vote.

“What’s happening on the island is the reason they had to leave and so that’s definitely weighing on their decisions,” she said. “Everyone has a friend who went to Florida — I don’t know why — but particularly after the political disaster that was Maria.”

Conventional wisdom is that Puerto Ricans — particularly the Maria exiles — will vote for Democratic candidates. But experts warn that it’s hard to pigeonhole Puerto Rican voters. Gov. Ricardo Rosselló is a registered Democrat and is supporting Sen. Bill Nelson, for example, but he’s often praised Republican candidates and causes.

Shortly after coming into office in 2016, Rosselló celebrated the Republican victories in the U.S. Congress and the presidency, because the party had the issue of Puerto Rico’s self-determination and statehood in its platform. And Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, has visited the island on numerous occasions and is seen as supportive of the new arrivals in his state.

At the same time, many in the community are still fuming at the treatment the island received from President Donald Trump after the storm. It took the president almost two weeks to visit the ravaged island, and his playful tossing of paper towels to desperate citizens struck many as callous.

He also publicly doubted the number of dead, which now rests near 3,000. And that has political activists expecting Puerto Ricans to be on the leading edge of a potential blue wave.

Luis Miranda Jr. is a founding partner of the MirRam Group — a lobbying and political affairs firm — and a longtime Democratic operative in New York. He’s also the founding president of the Hispanic Federation and the father of Broadway sensation Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Lin-Manuel Miranda is the public face of a multi-million dollar, five-year effort that’s being spearheaded by The Hispanic Federation and includes heavy-hitters like Starbucks, Nespresso and the Rockefeller Foundation.

MirRam recently conducted surveys in Florida to understand the Hispanic political sentiment. What they found is that Puerto Ricans now represent almost one-third of the state’s Hispanic electorate, with another third being represented by Cubans. While the Cubans tend to be Republican, Puerto Ricans largely lean Democratic, he said.

“The Puerto Ricans have become the cornerstone of this shift toward the Democratic party,” he said. “Florida has become the largest diaspora of Puerto Ricans in the United States now, and so we have to make sure that we develop our own institutions, that we move up the ladder, that we develop political power and that we become the force the numbers indicate that we can become.”

The poll that MirRam led, and was supported by a coalition of Hispanic organizations, provided some surprises.

Miranda said that all Hispanics — including Cubans, Colombians and Venezuelans — saw the issue of Puerto Rico “and the poor federal response to the island after Maria” as being very important. They also named climate change as one of their principal concerns, he said.

“For the first time, 87 percent of Latinos in Florida — Cubans, Puerto Ricans, everyone — indicated that they believe climate change is a real problem and needs to be addressed. A problem like climate change has become for Latinos in Florida an issue as important as jobs, housing and health,” he said.

Ramon Cacho, a lawyer in San Juan, said Puerto Ricans don’t feel bound by U.S. party affiliation — rather, they’ll follow the candidate who seems “to be the most effective and the most willing to help Puerto Ricans,” he said. “Puerto Rican voters are generally pragmatic.”

A year after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico the island remains in a state of recovery. The official death toll now stands at 2,975, making Maria one of the deadliest natural disasters in U.S. history. Narration by Rita Moreno.

If this year’s primary vote were any indication, the Puerto Rican population in Florida is energized and ready to vote, said Calderón.

“Puerto Ricans, by and large, are turning out to vote and they are doing so in record numbers,” he said. “You will see the direct impact in these midterm elections in the state of Florida and even more so during the next general election in 2020.”