Sway­ing the grow­ing ranks of Puerto Ri­cans in Florida

Elec­tion 2016 Can­di­dates tar­get ar­rivals from the is­land

Bloomberg Businessweek (Europe) - - POLITICS/POLICY - −Lau­ren Et­ter and Bill Faries

“Th­ese are the most swing vot­ers in … the most swing state”

More than a quar­ter-mil­lion Puerto Ri­cans have moved to the main­land U.S. since 2008, an ex­o­dus driven by the is­land’s fal­ter­ing econ­omy. About a third have set­tled in Florida, where there are now more than 1 mil­lion Puerto Rican-born res­i­dents—al­most equal to the num­ber of Cubans. The in­flux into the na­tion’s big­gest swing state has cre­ated a tan­ta­liz­ing prize for pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates. Al­though Puerto Ri­cans tra­di­tion­ally lean Demo­cratic, can­di­dates on both sides are in­vest­ing heav­ily in court­ing th­ese new­com­ers, who, as U.S. cit­i­zens, are el­i­gi­ble to vote in Florida’s March 15 pri­mary and in the Novem­ber gen­eral elec­tion.

In Fe­bru­ary, Hil­lary Clin­ton opened a cam­paign of­fice in Or­lando, at the heart of cen­tral Florida’s In­ter­state 4 cor­ri­dor, where the Puerto Rican pop­u­la­tion is con­cen­trated. Don­ald Trump’s cam­paign sent vol­un­teers there to dis­trib­ute bumper stickers and lawn signs. Marco Ru­bio, who suc­cess­fully pushed for a reg­i­ment of Puerto Rican veter­ans known as the Bor­in­que­neers to be awarded the Con­gres­sional Gold Medal, also plans to open an of­fice in the city. “The epit­ome of swing votes are Puerto Rican vot­ers,” says Christina Her­nan­dez, a Demo­cratic con­sul­tant who’s worked for Clin­ton and Pres­i­dent Obama. “Th­ese are the most swing vot­ers in the most swing ar­eas of the most swing state of the en­tire coun­try.”

The tug of war over the Puerto Rican vote has been qui­etly go­ing on for years. In 2012 the Li­bre Ini­tia­tive, a political ad­vo­cacy group backed by the bil­lion­aire Koch brothers, opened an Or­lando of­fice of­fer­ing English-lan­guage classes and dis­cus­sions about how free mar­kets and an evan­gel­i­cal faith re­flect Puerto Rican val­ues. Li­bre’s Florida staff has grown to five from one in 2012, and it’s open­ing a se­cond of­fice, in Tampa. In March it will make its first foray onto the is­land, host­ing a booth at an ex­po­si­tion tar­get­ing Florida-bound res­i­dents.

A grow­ing num­ber of Puerto Ri­cans in Florida are reg­is­ter­ing as in­de­pen­dents, says Mark Lopez, di­rec­tor of His­panic re­search at the Pew Re­search Cen­ter. Un­af­fil­i­ated His­panic vot­ers in the I-4 cor­ri­dor have grown 16 per­cent since 2012, com­pared with a 9 per­cent in­crease in over­all His­panic reg­is­tra­tions, ac­cord­ing to state fig­ures. “I’ve spent a lot of time in that com­mu­nity the last two years,” says Florida Lieu­tenant Gov­er­nor Car­los LopezCan­tera, a Repub­li­can. “They want to make sure that they have a job and that their chil­dren can have a job. They want to make sure their kids get a great education.”

The party is also tap­ping into the dis­il­lu­sion­ment of Puerto Ri­cans with their own is­land govern­ment, which is $72 bil­lion in debt and de­faulted on some of its bonds in Jan­uary. Five of the past six gov­er­nors of Puerto Rico have been Democrats. “It’s an easy story,” says Ber­tica Cabrera Mor­ris, a Repub­li­can con­sul­tant in Or­lando. “You left Puerto Rico, your is­land par­adise, to come here, and now you’re go­ing to sup­port the party that screwed you?”

Democrats aren’t let­ting Puerto Ri­cans go eas­ily. In 2011, Obama be­came the first sit­ting pres­i­dent since John F. Kennedy to pay an of­fi­cial visit to the is­land, earn­ing him a life-size bronze statue in San Juan. Clin­ton, who won the is­land’s Demo­cratic pri­mary in 2008, vis­ited in Septem­ber; she’s se­cured the en­dorse­ment of Puerto Rican singer Ricky Martin. In Fe­bru­ary she pub­licly chided Wall Street for its un­will­ing­ness to let the is­land re­struc­ture its debt. “Hold­ing the fu­ture of Puerto Rico hostage to max­i­mize prof­its for a group of hedge funds isn’t who we are as a na­tion,” she said in a state­ment.

In Wash­ing­ton, con­gres­sional Democrats are push­ing to give the ter­ri­tory the right to file for bank­ruptcy pro­tec­tion. Repub­li­cans ar­gue that the is­land should re­duce spend­ing and honor its debts to bond­hold­ers. With Congress dead­locked, Puerto Rico’s fu­ture could be de­cided by the next pres­i­dent. That’s not lost on Josany Cordero, a mother of three who’s work­ing at her aunt’s restau­rant in Kissimmee, south of Or­lando, while she de­cides whether to move per­ma­nently from her home in Bayamón, near San Juan. She says she’d reg­is­ter as an in­de­pen­dent and vote for Clin­ton: “I know this per­son will be good for the United States and help Puerto Rico.” The bot­tom line About 1 mil­lion Puerto Ri­cans live in Florida, in­clud­ing many re­cent ar­rivals who are be­ing courted by pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates.

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