Florida Politics

Florida politicians are courting displaced Puerto Ricans. But what are their motives?

Florida Gov. Rick Scott has promoted his efforts in the new year to assist displaced Puerto Ricans as he considers a possible run at Bill Nelson’s U.S. Senate seat.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott has promoted his efforts in the new year to assist displaced Puerto Ricans as he considers a possible run at Bill Nelson’s U.S. Senate seat. cjuste@miamiherald.com

In the three months since Grisel Robles fled hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico, she has been invited twice to meetings with the state’s highest-ranking politicians.

In October, the nurse and her 5-month-old daughter were among a group of Puerto Ricans who spoke to U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson at a Miami health clinic. Last week, Gov. Rick Scott met her at a university in Doral. Both politicians spoke to Robles about her family’s experience relocating to Fort Lauderdale and offered any assistance she might need.

Robles is among the state-estimated 300,000 Puerto Ricans who have come to Florida since Hurricane Maria’s Sept. 20 landfall as a catastrophic storm that knocked out power to the entire island and left a health crisis in its wake. With thousands of families seeking refuge in a state that was already home to more than 1 million Puerto Ricans, the community has the potential to form a significant voting bloc able to help or hurt any statewide candidate.

Along the I-4 corridor, a political bellwether for the state where the Puerto Rican community has grown faster than in any other locale in the country since 2010, Democrat strategist Steve Schale recently noted that the number of Hispanic voters doubled to more than 300,000 between 2006 and 2016. That growth heavily favored Democrats, but also included close to 50,000 independent voters.

And though Hispanic participation drops in off-year elections, an impassioned, growing group of voters could buck that trend come November. Nelson knows it. Scott knows it. And they’re acting like they know it.

With the two facing a potential showdown in November, the Republican governor, who has visited the island twice since the hurricane, appears to have amplified efforts in the new year to address the problems facing Puerto Ricans both in Florida and on the island. He spent last week talking up Florida’s disaster response and efforts to accommodate those who’ve fled their homes. On Tuesday, he sat with members of the Puerto Rican House of Representatives in Tallahassee.

Some Puerto Ricans, who traditionally lean Democrat, say the governor has a chance to win them over. Others remain skeptical of Scott’s motives.

“We all know he wants Bill Nelson’s position. We’re not stupid,” said Pura Delgado, a Puerto Rican activist who helped the Clintons campaign in Central Florida during the ’90s. “I don’t believe him at all.”

But as the governor has doubled-down in the new year on Puerto Rican outreach, his office insists his efforts are “absolutely not” related to any potential campaign for Nelson’s seat, which he is widely believed to be considering.

“Gov. Scott has been 100 percent focused on making Florida the most welcoming state to those displaced by Hurricane Maria,” said spokesman McKinley Lewis.

In the first two weeks of the year, Scott has criss-crossed the state talking Puerto Rico and Hurricane Maria, and his office has issued a list of Florida’s actions to assist. Over the last three months, the governor signed a “host state” agreement with FEMA to secure federal reimbursement for expenses related to sheltering and assisting evacuees, asked colleges to waive out-of-state tuition costs, and established relief centers staffed with state employees, FEMA and the Red Cross, among numerous steps to help.

“We are working hard to help all the families that are arriving in Florida and everyone impacted by the hurricane,” Scott said in strained Spanish during a visit to Doral’s Albizu University.

Rick Scott
Gov. Rick Scott listens during a roundtable discussion in Kissimmee in November 2017 about the influx to the Orlando area of Puerto Rico residents affected by Hurricane Maria. Joe Burbank TNS

Hector Diaz, who as head of the Puerto Rican Professional Association met with Scott in Doral last week, said the governor has been responsive to requests for assistance since the hurricane hit. But as with most politicians who’ve made highly publicized visits to the island and overtures to displaced islanders, he said it’s difficult to gauge whether his intentions are pure.

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Homes and other buildings destroyed by Hurricane Maria lie in ruins in September in Toa Alta, Puerto Rico. Gerald Herbert AP

“It’s hard to tell until they’re in the position to see if they’re going to keep their promises,” he said. “There’s a lot more that we have to see that [Scott] can do. We’re going to have to see it.”

As Scott appears to court Puerto Rican voters, his opponents and critics have sought to undercut his efforts.

In Orlando Tuesday, former Miami Beach mayor and current gubernatorial candidate Philip Levine reminded a small crowd sitting in Delgado’s home that Scott chaired a pro-Trump Super PAC and is “the president’s BFF.” Trump remains controversial among Puerto Ricans for his slow response to the hurricane, which Levine, a Democrat, called “one of the most embarrassing moments in American history.”

“It’s time for Puerto Ricans to register, to vote, and to remember what happened and who was there and who wasn’t,” said Levine, who delivered supplies to Puerto Rico aboard a plane he chartered immediately after the hurricane.

Only a few days before Levine’s visit, the governor was pressed for housing solutions during a meeting with officials in Central Florida, home to the state’s largest concentration of Puerto Ricans. While Scott’s efforts to talk up the state’s response to Puerto Rico were boosted by FEMA’s decision to extend vouchers for displaced Puerto Ricans, activists and community leaders remain worried about the options greeting displaced families who are largely staying with relatives right now but will need to find their own living quarters should they choose to remain in Florida.

U.S. Rep Darren Soto, a Puerto Rican Democrat representing Kissimmee, believes housing will be among the most significant benchmarks for anyone courting Puerto Rican voters, who as American citizens can seamlessly register to vote upon moving to the mainland.

“It’s nice that people are courting the Puerto Rican vote, both existing and new arrivals. But I think most people are going to be judged on the results. Did they actually deliver on the promises they made?” he said. “We’re a proud people. And when there are issues affecting the island it crosses geographic differences, age differences, even party differences. This right away makes folks who’ve just arrived here likely voters.”

bill nelson
Sen. Bill Nelson, left, met with a group of Puerto Rican community leaders at Borinquen Health Care Center in Miami in October to discuss relief and recovery efforts in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Jose A. Iglesias jiglesias@elnuevoherald.com

Exactly how many Puerto Ricans are migrating to Florida, much less registering to vote in the state, isn’t known. This week, the Orlando Sentinel reported that professors from the University of Florida pegged the number of Puerto Ricans likely to stay in the state at around 50,000.

Nelson, who seems convinced that Scott will mount a challenge ahead of the November election, also has made sure to reach out to displaced Puerto Ricans and visit the island twice. He’s been cool to calls to end or waive the Jones Act, which has helped Jacksonville’s shipping industry by requiring ships transporting goods within the country to be built, owned and operated by U.S. citizens or permanent residents. But Nelson is working with Soto to push for disaster relief funding, and has promised to fight against aspects of the recent Congressional tax overhaul that have implemented new financial constraints on Puerto Rico’s economy.

“The elected officials running for office in Florida have to be told, and we’re saying this over and over: Puerto Ricans here are voting for Puerto Rico,” said Luis de Rosa, president of the Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce of South Florida. “If you vote against helping Puerto Rico help itself, then we’re going to vote against you, whoever you are. I don’t care if you’re a Democrat or a Republican.”

In the meantime, Robles, who asked Scott to help her with complications related to working as a nurse in Florida with a license based out of Puerto Rico, has told reporters that she likes both Scott and Nelson. Come November, she may need to choose one.

“Everyone wants to help. It was hard the first two months, but now we’re getting used to it,” Robles told Miami Herald news partner WLRN after meeting with Scott. “We are Floridians.”

McClatchy staff reporter Alex Daugherty and WLRN reporter Wilson Sayre contributed to this report.

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