As midterms approach, Puerto Ricans hold potential influence

With the influx of thousands of Puerto Ricans to the mainland United States after hurricane Maria, organizations from across the political spectrum are registering the new arrivals to vote – and hoping to sway them in the upcoming elections. 

John Raoux/AP
Michelle Ortiz (l.), who was born in New York to Puerto Rican parents and recently moved to Florida, registers to vote with the help of volunteer Carmina Redonet (r.) on April 12 in Orlando, Fla. Local efforts to engage Puerto Ricans politically have become especially aggressive in Florida.

A small street festival outside Miami features booths adorned with Puerto Rican flags. A band plays salsa music as vendors offer specialties from the Caribbean island such as rice with pork and chickpeas. There's also a woman working her way through the crowd with a clipboard, her white T-shirt emblazoned with the words "Your vote, your voice, your future."

She's searching for people like Shaimir Berrios, who recently relocated to South Florida from Puerto Rico but has not yet registered for the upcoming US elections. That makes her a prized commodity in what is expected to be a midterm election season with many close races.

Ms. Berrios, selling natural soaps from one of the booths, moved to Florida in the aftermath of hurricane Maria and she's eager to vote for the first time in a mainland election to show her anger over what she views as a tepid response by the US federal government to the Sept. 20, 2017, storm that devastated the island.

"People have to look for change because it affects us. We have to get involved," she said, filling out the paperwork to register on a recent Sunday.

The intensity of political attention is new for Puerto Ricans, who are accustomed to not having much political clout. While they are US citizens, they cannot vote in the presidential election while on the island, which is a territory not a state. Their single representative in the House of Representatives has only limited voting power and they have no senators. But their votes have the same weight as other Americans when they move to the mainland, as hundreds of thousands have done over the past decade, first because of a deep economic recession and then because of hurricane Maria.

Political operatives, pollsters, and politicians in at least four states are working hard to find people like Berrios – Puerto Ricans who are eligible to vote and whose party affiliation may be up for grabs. The efforts are particularly aggressive in Florida, where tens of thousands of people from the island relocated after the hurricane, but political types are also busy in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Connecticut.

In Florida, where President Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by only about 1 percentage point and Latino turnout was lower than expected, the votes of Puerto Ricans are potentially valuable in upcoming congressional and statewide races, said Susan McManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

"The bottom line is that mobilizing and getting out the vote of the Puerto Ricans is going to be critical," she said.

At least 450,000 Puerto Ricans moved to the US mainland over the past decade, causing the island's population to drop for the first time in modern history. It now has about 3.4 million people. How many have permanently relocated because of hurricane Maria is not yet known, but estimates range from 115,000 to 200,000. There are now about 5.3 million Puerto Ricans on the US mainland and they are concentrated in the Northeast and Florida.

The recent street festival in the Miami suburb of Kendall is just one of many get-out-the-vote efforts aimed at Puerto Ricans. Organizers of the event said they are not affiliated with any party and voter registration was conducted by volunteers with the non-partisan League of Women Voters.

"We are just working so the Puerto Rican community can have its voice heard," the volunteer, Marisol Zenteno, said as she took a break from working a line of people waiting to buy pork and rice. "They have the right when they come here to vote."

But others are overtly partisan efforts.

The Republican Party has hired three people to take charge of reaching out to displaced Puerto Ricans and to defend the Trump administration's response to the disaster and remind voters of the more than $20 billion in aid.

"It's an important vote for us," said Yali Nunez, a Republican National Committee spokeswoman.

The Democratic Party is registering Puerto Ricans, especially in Florida, and has a "voter education program" aimed at helping people who fled Maria and at winning their vote, spokesman Francisco Pelayo said. The Latino Victory Fund, a nationwide Latino outreach effort co-founded by actress Eva Longoria, is also working to mobilize people who fled the island.

A conservative effort is combining education and politics. The LIBRE Institute, which is funded by the billionaire activist Koch brothers, offers "Welcome to Florida" classes aimed at newly arrived Puerto Ricans. They teach English and job-hunting skills, concluding with a pitch for what Cesar Grajales, director of coalitions at the LIBRE Initiative, a parent organization, describes as "free-market" principles.

"We don't talk about candidates, but we do talk about public policies," said Mr. Grajales.

Around 80 people were attending three separate classes on a recent evening near Orlando, part of the Central Florida region where a majority of the Puerto Ricans in the state have settled.

Dinette Rivera, one of the students, came to the mainland days after the hurricane knocked out power and water to most of Puerto Rico but she says hasn't found full-time work as a nurse yet because her English isn't fluent. Coming with her husband and two children from the southeastern coastal town of Maunabo, she said she has already registered as an independent and is eager to vote.

"We can choose someone who can help us," she said outside the class in an office park.

The people in the classrooms are also being targeted by the main candidates for the US Senate in Florida: Republican Gov. Rick Scott and Sen. Bill Nelson (D). Both have campaigned in the Orlando area and visited Puerto Rico. Governor Scott has gone to the island five times since the storm.

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello, who held a campaign-style rally of his own outside Orlando, has urged people from the island who are on the mainland to get involved in local congressional races in states such as New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, and Florida to support candidates who have been responsive to the needs of the island and to punish those who have not.

"The call is to every Puerto Rican to be electorally active in the United States," Governor Rossello said while announcing an initiative to mobilize Puerto Rican voters.

At the street festival in Kendall, one newly registered voter said she was preparing to do just that. Aida Merced Lopez, a retiree, said she was looking forward to being able to punish Mr. Trump, who angered many on the island by tossing paper towels to storm survivors in what some felt was a disrespectful way and quarreling publicly with the mayor of San Juan.

"It would be great if Puerto Rico could vote. If we could then maybe that guy wouldn't be here," Ms. Lopez said of the president.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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