Ahead of midterm, Florida hopes to bridge gap with potential Puerto Rican voters

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

(WASHINGTON) — In less than a month, it will be one full year since 71-year-old Maria Diaz’ life was uprooted when Hurricane Maria made landfall in her home of Puerto Rico. Since then, things have changed substantially for Diaz.

“I lost everything, everything flooded, all of my shoes, my bed,” Diaz said in a rapid Spanish. “They told me they were coming to help, but the help never came. I don’t know where that help did go.”

After the hurricane made landfall, Diaz waited in Puerto Rico for four months before she was able to move in with a friend in Orlando, Florida. She has come to terms with the fact that she will not be returning to Puerto Rico, and with that has integrated herself into American life, including registering to vote.

Ahead of the midterm elections, Diaz and thousands of other displaced Puerto Ricans are now the voting targets of Florida’s elected officials — candidates for state and federal offices, as well as the state’s Republican and Democratic parties.

A mass exodus

Hurricane Maria made landfall Sept. 20, 2017. The Category 4 hurricane ravaged the island, thrusting it into complete darkness, causing nearly $140 billion in damage and claiming the lives of countless people.

The storm brought to light economic issues that had plagued the island for years: a weakened economy, a bankrupt utility company and a large disparity between those with and without money.

The island’s distance from the mainland, in addition to communications issues with smaller, mountainous areas, made it difficult to deliver supplies. Most residents spent months without power, with one of the last remaining families getting electricity in the last month.

In the days and weeks after the storm, the island’s airports were filled with people trying to make it to mainland United States. The exodus created a new political landscape as state and federal leaders scrambled to serve those temporarily or permanently displaced from their homes. Although exact figures are difficult to confirm, Florida by far received the most displaced Puerto Ricans.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency reported that 45 percent of evacuees, 18,013 people, relocated to Florida. Ranking second was New York, which received 3,683. Neither of those figures supplied by FEMA include people who left on their own and weren’t resettled by the U.S. government.

A March 2018 study breaking down relocation numbers by state from the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College CUNY, showed a 12 percent increase in Puerto Rican students enrolling in Florida’s school districts since December 2017, signaling a large number of displaced families were looking to stay in the state long-term or even permanently. According to the study, the biggest increases in school enrollment was in Central Florida along the politically coveted Interstate 4 corridor, Miami-Dade County and Broward County.

Political advantages and challenges

Latino voters have played a large role in a state like Florida for decades. Puerto Ricans, however, including those displaced by Hurricane Maria have one major difference: They are American citizens and therefore have a legal right to register to vote.

For a state in which the last two presidential elections have been decided by approximately 1 point — Barack Obama won Florida in 2012 by less than 1 percent and Donald Trump won the state in 2016 by 1.2 percent — this citizenship advantage in a midterm year could give candidates a leg up on courting that demographic. But they’re still facing the challenges of educating voters on the issues.

For example, Diaz registered to vote while she was signing up for the Florida Food Assistance Program, more commonly known as Food Stamps. However, she said that because of a lack of information, she doesn’t plan to vote in the primaries.

“I don’t think I’ll vote until November … because I don’t know who the candidates are or what it is they do,” Diaz said.

Orlando-area Democratic Rep. Darren Soto, of Florida’s 9th Congressional District, is running for re-election. Soto said one way they have helped educate displaced Puerto Rican voters is by discussing Donald Trump.

“We have had some help in defining the parties by saying that if you support Trump, you’re Republican, if you oppose Trump you’re a Democrat,” Soto said.

Still, many displaced potential voters are consumed with more immediate challenges.

“The challenges,” Soto said, “are establishing roots here, whether it’s getting a job or getting an apartment or house, getting s kids settled into school, certainly those basic needs are on the forefront.

Fellow Orlando-area Democratic State Rep. Amy Mercado agreed, adding that post-Maria many of those displaced lack trust in politicians.

“When they’re getting here post-Maria, the last thing they’re thinking is politics, especially when a lot of them believe what happened to them is politically driven,” Mercado said.

A lackluster federal response was accompanied by a tweet from Trump that Puerto Ricans affected by the storm “want everything to be done for them, when it should be a community effort.” The president visited the island a couple of days after that tweet and tossed paper towel rolls to survivors as if he was playing a basketball arcade game.

Outreach efforts

When it comes to outreach efforts for the highly contested Senate race, the most effective politician has been Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who’s visited Puerto Rico numerous times since Maria made landfall, participated in Orlando’s Puerto Rican Day parade and hosted a roundtable with Puerto Rican community members.

More important though, Scott has spoken to them on their airwaves and in their language, buying Spanish-language ads along the coveted I-4 corridor titled “Presente,” or “Present” in English. In the background of every shot featuring Scott is a Puerto Rican flag as his various supporters talk about his dedication to Puerto Rico.

“Helping Puerto in their time of need is not about politics,” said Scott’s senate campaign press secretary Lauren Schenone. “Governor Scott has remained committed to supporting the Puerto Rican community and families both here in Florida and in Puerto Rico. He will continue to fight for what matters most to them in D.C.”

Scott’s party has also reached out to displaced Puerto Ricans by interacting with them in their places of worship.

“A lot of folks in Puerto Rico are very faithful church-goers, and, sure, they might lean blue overall, but … that’s really how we’ve honed in on the folks who have similar values to us,” said Taryn Fenske, the Florida communications director for the Republican National Committee.

On the Democratic side, Executive Director of the Florida Democratic Party Juan Peñalosa said outreach efforts to displaced Puerto Ricans has been about providing access to resources and recognizing how far education has to go.

“It’s voter education of a group of people that didn’t exist in Florida prior to a year ago, who honestly were not aware of how the Democratic and Republican system works on the mainland,” Peñalosa said. “Margins in Florida, win or lose, are extremely tight cycle after cycle. The last four state elections and have been decided by 1 point or less. Looking to identify more voters who share our common values is key to our success as a party.”

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