After relief debacle, Puerto Rico’s governor looks for political revenge in Florida

ORLANDO, Fla. — Puerto Rico’s Gov. Ricardo Rosselló reached his breaking point three months after Hurricane Maria laid waste to the U.S. territory on Sept. 20, wrecking its power grid, damaging most of its dwellings and triggering a mass exodus of residents to the U.S. mainland.

Still in his first year in office, Rosselló had already seen his share of daunting challenges by the time Maria made landfall as a Category 4 storm. He inherited a massive debt crisis and, fewer than two weeks earlier, had watched Hurricane Irma knock out power to millions. The second storm that month proved even more powerful, and suddenly Rosselló found himself thrust into cringe-worthy photo ops with President Trump, including an Oct. 19 Oval Office meeting during which the president gave his own administration a perfect 10 for its underwhelming relief efforts, then urged the reluctant governor to publicly do the same.

It wasn’t until Dec. 19, however, that Rosselló fully realized that securing Puerto Rico’s future meant he would have to get involved in mainland politics in a way that no other governor had before him. Though he had spent weeks explaining to members of Congress why stripping tax breaks from manufacturers operating in Puerto Rico would deal the island a “crippling blow,” his pleas ultimately fell on deaf ears as Republicans looked to give Trump his first substantive legislative victory and passed a tax reform bill that did just that.

President Trump with Gov. Ricardo Rosselló of Puerto Rico at the White House in October 2017. (Photo: Kevin Dietsch— Pool/Getty Images)
President Trump with Gov. Ricardo Rosselló of Puerto Rico at the White House in October 2017. (Photo: Kevin Dietsch— Pool/Getty Images)

“At that juncture, it just dawned on me that, even though conceptually, at a high level we knew we had to start some sort of a movement, that unless we started a robust, results-oriented structure, we were always going to be on the short end of the stick,” Rosselló told Yahoo News in a classroom at Ana G. Mendez University in Orlando, Fla.

Analysts estimate that the loss of business incentives could cost Puerto Rico hundreds of thousands of jobs when it desperately needs to get new tax revenue in order to keep pace with its staggering $123 billion bond and pension obligations.

“We had congressmen who came to Puerto Rico and pledged their support, and we had the opportunity to explain why it [the tax reform bill] would be devastating. They just couldn’t move the needle, so it was very frustrating,” said Rosselló, who at 39 years old is youthful looking and photogenic, and is the son of former Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Rosselló.

Rosselló is a former tennis prodigy who studied biomedical engineering and economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before getting a PhD in the former from the University of Michigan. He does not need experts to explain to him that the tax bill provision coupled with the excruciatingly slow progress of restoring power and running water to the island’s 3.4 million residents meant that even more Puerto Ricans would soon be packing their bags and leaving for the mainland. He, therefore, decided to turn the situation into an advantage.

The governor was in Central Florida last Tuesday to announce the formation of Poder Puerto Rico, a nonpartisan 501(c)4 organization that aims to register displaced Puerto Ricans living in swing states so as to give a political voice to those still “living in a state of powerlessness” on the island. Puerto Rico sends a nonvoting representative to Congress, and its residents do not cast votes in presidential elections.

“I recognize that the situation of Puerto Rico is hard to explain. I mean, we’re talking about a colonial territory in the 21st century, the oldest, most populated colonial territory in the world, and it is under the biggest democracy in the world,” said Rosselló, who was a delegate for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election.

Gov. Ricardo Rosselló of Puerto Rico poses for pictures at Ana G. Mendez University in Orlando, Fla., on April 24. (Video still: Robert Thomas/Yahoo News)
Gov. Ricardo Rosselló of Puerto Rico poses for pictures at Ana G. Mendez University in Orlando, Fla., on April 24. (Video still: Robert Thomas/Yahoo News)

After arriving on the mainland and establishing residency, Puerto Ricans who register are immediately eligible to vote, so long as they don’t change their address. In Florida, officials estimate that as many as 385,000 islanders could put down roots by the end of the year, a number more than big enough to potentially swing an election in a state where election margins have been razor thin in recent cycles.

The fight for Florida

The same day Rosselló unveiled his new political organization in Orlando, Florida Gov. Rick Scott was paying his fifth visit to Puerto Rico since Maria hit the island. When Scott returned to an Orlando agricultural equipment factory for a campaign rally two days later — he is running for the Senate seat now held by Democrat Bill Nelson, in what is likely to be the most expensive Senate race in the nation this year — Yahoo News asked him if he agreed with Trump’s evaluation of his administration’s relief efforts.

“We had Irma, and a year ago we had Matthew and before that we [Florida] had Hermine. I think my expectation, I think everybody’s expectation, is that they want their power back on immediately,” Scott said, avoiding any mention of the president.

Nelson, by contrast, routinely blasts Trump, FEMA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Washington speeches and on his own visits to San Juan, Puerto Rico,  over what he sees as an incompetent relief effort.

“Tomorrow marks seven months since Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, and yet Puerto Ricans are still dealing with constant setbacks and unreliable power,” Nelson said on the Senate floor on April 19. “This is just simply unacceptable.”

Nelson voted against the tax bill and described its passage as a knife “put to the neck of Puerto Rico.” Scott supports it, but with an asterisk, saying he would look to amend the legislation to restore some tax breaks for Puerto Rico if elected to the Senate.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott holds a U.S. Senate campaign event at Ring Power corporation in Orlando on April 26. (Video still: Robert Thomas/Yahoo News)
Florida Gov. Rick Scott holds a U.S. Senate campaign event at Ring Power corporation in Orlando on April 26. (Video still: Robert Thomas/Yahoo News)

“I’m for reduced taxes, but you’ve got to be fair. So I’m glad that they passed tax reductions in the past year, but you’ve got to treat Puerto Rico fairly,” Scott, wearing a blue-and-gold Navy baseball cap that has become a fixture on the campaign trail, told Yahoo News. “If you stop to think about it, there’s 2.4 million people there and you’ve got to help them get their economy going again.”

As Scott and Nelson continue to tailor their pitches to a growing population of transplants, a host of other groups is already at work trying to parlay the frustration of displaced Puerto Ricans into midterm votes. UnidosUS, formerly known as the National Council of La Raza, is the nation’s largest Hispanic advocacy group, and has field offices in Central and South Florida that hope to register 50,000 new voters by October to give Democrats an edge.

“The trend down here over the past 10 years or so is that all of these races are very tight. So you don’t need a large number of people to sway an election,” Jared Nordlund, senior strategist at UnidosUS told Yahoo News over a dinner of roast pork and mofongo, the Puerto Rican delicacy made from fried-then-mashed plantains, at Orlando’s Melao Bakery. “You can swing an election with 20,000 people.  It’s going to have an impact.”

Unlike inpast election cycles, Nordlund says, the hurricane will motivate a higher percentage of people to vote in this year’s midterm.

“The way Puerto Rico was treated, there’s a lot of anger about that,” Nordlund said. “There’s frustration with how aid was rolled out, to not be treated like a citizen.”

At the Puerto Rican bakeries, cafés and restaurants that dot neighborhoods around Orlando and the southern suburb of Kissimmee, it’s not hard to find those who have an opinion on the Trump administration’s relief efforts.

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., listens to displaced Puerto Ricans living in Central Florida at a meeting in Kissimmee, Fla., April 20, 2018, to address concerns that FEMA was planning to stop providing temporary housing assistance to hundreds of families who fled the island after the devastation of Hurricane Maria. (Photo: Joe Burbank/TNS via ZUMA Wire)
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., listens to displaced Puerto Ricans living in Central Florida at a meeting in Kissimmee, Fla., April 20, 2018, to address concerns that FEMA was planning to stop providing temporary housing assistance to hundreds of families who fled the island after the devastation of Hurricane Maria. (Photo: Joe Burbank/TNS via ZUMA Wire)

“We live up in the mountains, so my grandmother was without any water or electricity for like two months. And now again, last week, it went off again,” Jessica Feliciano, a 30-year-old office manager, told Yahoo News outside of Arepera La Nueva, a fluorescent-lit restaurant in a rundown strip mall in eastern Orlando. “I get upset, because it felt like nothing was barely done. All those people and they were just way too long without any help. I think that it woke Puerto Ricans up, and they’re pretty pissed off right now.”

Joel Figueroa, who works at Orlando’s Valisa Bakery in a more upscale strip mall 2 miles up N. Semoran Blvd. from Arepera La Nueva, echoed a sentiment heard often among the diaspora.

“I was in Texas when Harvey hit, and so I saw how quick the response to Texas was. And then two weeks later a hurricane hit Florida, and I was already back home, so I saw the response to that. It was really quick, it didn’t take more than a day to get the power back. But then for Puerto Rico, you know, it took months,” Figueroa, 20, said. “There was a lack of response to Puerto Rico and I don’t know if it was because it was an island and it was a little bit further away or that he [Trump] didn’t care because it wasn’t a state.”

Feliciano and Figueroa are just the kind of voters that UnidosUS and Poder Puerto Rico hope to enlist.

“I’m getting my family more involved because after the hurricane they saw a lack of interest the U.S. has towards Puerto Ricans, especially in Puerto Rico, who are going through so much,” Figueroa said. “So I think that has inspired them to also get involved.”

Jessica Feliciano at the Arepera La Nueva restaurant in Orlando, Fla., on April 24 (Video still: Robert Thomas/Yahoo News)
Jessica Feliciano at the Arepera La Nueva restaurant in Orlando, Fla., on April 24 (Video still: Robert Thomas/Yahoo News)

Although the failures of the relief effort clearly motivate most Puerto Ricans in Florida, it’s unclear whether Rosselló’s message on the tax bill will have the same resonance.

“We supported the overall tax reform bill because it pushes what we’ve been talking about for a long time. It spurs the economy. It helps the middle class,” David Velazquez, executive director of the Libre Initiative, a conservative advocacy group, told Yahoo News. “But we did not agree with the way that they were speaking about Puerto Rico as a foreign entity.”

Funded by conservative megadonors Charles and David Koch, the Libre Initiative doesn’t register voters in Florida, but teaches English classes to Puerto Rican arrivals at several locations in the state. In addition to language skills and résumé building workshops, Libre Initiative also imparts a small government, traditional Republican philosophy in its classes and may end up endorsing Scott in Florida’s Senate race.

“Everybody’s been after the Puerto Rican vote,” said Velazquez, who attended Rosselló’s Tuesday press conference. “Do I think that the governor’s group can have an impact? Sure I do. I think it can have a big impact, as long as folks make it a priority to get out and vote.”

There are reasons to be skeptical about whether November will see a marked surge in Hispanic turnout. Although upwards of 85 percent of Puerto Ricans on the island vote in territorial elections, that figure drops to around 30 percent in U.S. elections for those who have relocated. So even though it’s clear that Puerto Rican anger at Trump could boost turnout, it remains to be seen how it will impact races like the Senate contest between Scott and Nelson.

“I think there’s a false sense among people in my party that all these demographic things that play out well for my side organically turn into wins,” Steve Schale, Democratic strategist and the former Florida manager for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, told Yahoo News. “One of the flags that I’ve been raising for six months now is that, whether it’s a huge delta or a smaller delta, there still a gap between the number of people that have come here after Maria that are going to stay and the people that have registered to vote.”

Joel Figueroa at the Valisa Bakery in Orlando, Fla., on April 24 (Video still: Robert Thomas/Yahoo News)
Joel Figueroa at the Valisa Bakery in Orlando, Fla., on April 24 (Video still: Robert Thomas/Yahoo News)

That said, with respect to Florida’s marquee Senate contest, Schale sees the Puerto Rican vote trending heavily toward Nelson.

“If you’re going to show up to vote because you’re angry at Trump and the way that he handled the island after the hurricane, are you going to send that message by voting for Rick Scott?” Schale asked. “Probably not.”

Yet Schale stresses that the Puerto Rican vote is only one part of the broader mosaic that either candidate needs to assemble to win in November.

“Let’s say that you add 50,000 people to the voter rolls and 60 percent of them vote, which would be a higher percentage than normal, and let’s say you win those voters 2 to 1, then you end up netting 10,000 votes out of that,” Schale said. “Now, Rick Scott ended up winning his last election by 60,000 votes, so 10,000 votes is not insignificant, but it’s just one piece of the puzzle. It’s a big chunk in the right direction.”

‘Eat the mofongo’

For more than two decades, activist Natascha Otero-Santiago has watched U.S. politicians clumsily attempt to lure the Puerto Rican vote in the final months of an election, and has coined an expression that sums up her advice on how to succeed.

“They need to eat the mofongo,” Otero-Santiago told Yahoo News in the sunbaked parking lot at Ana G. Mendez University following Rosselló’s rollout for Poder Puerto Rico. “The work that has to be done with the Puerto Rican community needs to be done not two months before the election. It needs to be networking and education and a way of looking at Puerto Ricans as a part of the community.”

Otero-Santiago is hopeful that Rosselló’s group will turn out displaced Puerto Ricans to vote in November, but isn’t holding her breath.

“Post-Hurricane Maria citizens that have arrived in Florida are looking for jobs and are looking for affordable housing and are looking for education for their children. How do you get to these Puerto Ricans?” Otero-Santiago said. “It’s also concerning to people like me, who have been for 23 years in Florida, to realize that some of the people who have been here that long are still not even going out to vote.”

A San Juan resident hugs Gov. Ricardo Rosselló as the National Guard arrives at Barrio Obrero in Santurce to distribute water and food to those affected by Hurricane Maria in September 2017. (Photo: Carlos Giusti/AP)
A San Juan resident hugs Gov. Ricardo Rosselló as the National Guard arrives at Barrio Obrero in Santurce to distribute water and food to those affected by Hurricane Maria in September 2017. (Photo: Carlos Giusti/AP)

With bondholders demanding to be paid, a new tax law sure to hamper job growth, and an estimated 10 percent to 15 percent of his island’s population likely to move to the mainland this year, Rosselló can’t afford to wait two decades for Puerto Ricans to come around to voting in the U.S.

“Florida is essentially ground zero,” the governor told Yahoo News. “There are other states that we aim to pinpoint in this midterm elections and other districts as well, but really because of the [thin] margin, because of the large population, because of the attention that has been brought to the races over here, I think that it is a good initial step to showcase what we can do. So, yes, I think we can be influential in Florida and that goes to registering people and then getting them out to vote.”

(Cover tile photo: Evan Vucci/AP)

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