Puerto Rican voters, battered by crisis, could be pivotal for Biden in Florida

MIAMI — Jimmy Torres, who hosts the Boricua Action Network radio program in Kissimmee, Florida, said he’s voting for Joe Biden because under the Trump administration, the country with the largest military force in the world allowed thousands “to die in Puerto Rico” following Hurricane Maria in 2017.

“People suffered so much on the incompetency — you should know better,” said Torres, speaking as if he were addressing President Donald Trump. “You are the perfect guy to manage it, that’s what you told people. People will never forget.”

The estimated 600,000 people of Puerto Rican descent living along the Interstate 4 corridor, a swath of land stretching from Daytona Beach to Tampa, and some of the 350,000 or more who live in South Florida could be pivotal in deciding the presidential race. Hurricane Maria and Trump’s response, some of it preserved in a record of tweets, is not far from the mind of many of those voters, who are also grappling with more economic woes from the coronavirus.

Torres, who worked for months after the hurricane coordinating aid for the island, is trying to connect Florida’s Puerto Rican communities through his Boricua Vota non-profit.

Feeling the urgency, Biden’s campaign unveiled a plan for Puerto Rico at the start of his Hispanic Heritage Month visit to Florida Tuesday. The plan lambasted Trump, saying he made the island’s crises worse. The plan calls for elevating Puerto Rico’s needs by creating a group that will answer directly to Biden and investing in the island’s recovery.

Recent polls show Trump faring well with Cuban American voters, who live mostly in South Florida, and have higher turnout rates than other Latino groups. Trump has been trying to increase his Latino support with Cuban Americans and other Latinos as his white voter support has dropped below 2016 levels, NBC News reported.

But Democrats are banking on voters like Ernesto Morales Ramos, 59, who settled in Miami after Hurricane Maria swept the island, robbing him of his university teaching job there.

A communications teacher, his grandfather founded the Popular Democratic Party on the island. He registered to vote in Florida with no party affiliation, has requested a mail-in ballot — and will vote for Biden.

“I was enraged by Trump’s response, as well as the corruption and negligence of the Puerto Rican government at the time,” Morales Ramos said. But he ticked off a longer list of reasons for his disdain for the president.

“Trump’s stances against minorities, his vile corruption, his gross disrespect for women, his admiration and support of dictators that are sworn enemies of the USA,” he said.

A poll of 1,081 Latinos in Florida by EquisLabs showed 61 percent of people who identify as Puerto Rican preferred Biden. Trump lagged 33 points behind with the voters. The pollsters said in a memo that they estimate Biden may at best match Hillary Clinton’s performance with Latinos in Florida, but that may still be enough to win the state. Biden could grow his Latino support with Puerto Ricans, some Cuban Americans and other voters in the state with Latin American backgrounds.

To that end, Biden planned to visit Central Florida Tuesday, with a kickoff celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month featuring many Latino celebrities.

Calls for more outreach

There have been rumblings in the community that Biden’s campaign has not been mobilizing Puerto Rican voters.

Victor Vazquez, a Puerto Rico history professor at Miami-Dade College, criticized the Biden campaign last month in an opinion article on weak outreach to Puerto Ricans. That followed a blistering, internal letter written by a group of organizers in Florida saying the campaign was “suppressing the Hispanic vote.”

Vazquez said he still has not seen strong outreach to the Puerto Rican community. There is still time to turn things around, but “we still need to see more,” he said.

In a call with reporters over the weekend, Democratic Party chairman Tom Pérez said the party has expanded its voter files after purchasing 100 million cell phone numbers with the 787 area code of Puerto Rico.

“We wanted to identify Maria refugees, people who had been forced from the mainland…many people left with their shirts on their back and their proud 787 numbers,” Pérez said. He said they also asked for cell numbers with 787 area code in Pennsylvania.

Organizations have been working on registering people to vote and urging them to turn out, mostly through phone banking during the pandemic.

Mi Familia Vota turned to the field in Central Florida two weeks ago.

The group, which is spending $10 million in several states to turn out Latino voters, has Puerto Rican leaders working the I-4 corridor. Along with voter registration, the group is distributing how-to guides on early and mail-in voting and will soon issue a “very strategic guide that shows the drastic differences between candidates,” said Héctor Sánchez Barba, CEO and executive director of Mi Familia Vota.

“For Puerto Ricans, Cubans, for Mexican Americans, Trump is the biggest threat for all of us,” said Sánchez, whose group dubbed its campaign #BastaTrump (#EnoughTrump).

Natscha Otero, who founded “Boricuas con Biden,” a grassroots, volunteer-led group on Facebook estimated around 200,000 Puerto Ricans in Florida are not registered to vote. Efforts to mobilize people need to be cranked up in the next two weeks.

“Do you know how many calls I have made to Puerto Ricans that didn’t know there is going to be early voting?” she asked.

Marcos Vilar, executive director of the progressive group Alianza for Progress, said the booming population of Puerto Ricans in Florida has created tough expectations for anyone to meet. Florida has seen a big increase in the number of Puerto Ricans who have moved from the island as well from other states.

Jenn Earle, 34, a chiropractic graduate student, now lives in Orlando after growing up in New York. She said she will cast a ballot for Biden in person.

“Issues with Puerto Rico affect me because my family is from there and we have family that lives down there,” said Earle.

“It’s offensive,” she said of what she qualified as Trump’s disrespect toward Puerto Ricans. She also said he is “divisive for our country.”

From island voters to Florida voters?

Puerto Ricans fleeing the island’s fiscal crisis and later the hurricane were in survival mode when they first got to Florida, but are now better positioned to become more engaged in elections, said María Rodríguez, executive director and cofounder of Florida For All, a political action committee that focuses on low propensity voters.

The PAC did focus groups with the University of California, Berkeley and found that many of the new arrivals need more information about how to vote. Many didn’t feel secure about the process.

The group has been supporting grassroots “influencers,” people online with many followers to help provide information. It has largely been promoting Amendment 2 on the ballot, raising the minimum wage.

Rodriguez said the group also has launched a campaign to persuade people to vote in Florida because there is misinformation that residents can also vote absentee in Puerto Rico. If they do, they give up their right to vote in Florida.

“I think we are getting to the point where the Puerto Rican vote is getting the recognition it deserves,” Rodríguez said. “The powers that be or campaigns or parties are having to grow into the impact and the demands of what it is to engage a Puerto Rico electorate.”

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