Puerto Rican Evacuees Could Sway Florida Politics

Oct 6, 2017

Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, shutting down the island’s roads and power systems, leaving many isolated and in the dark. Now thousands are evacuating the U.S. territory for the mainland. Many may settle in Florida’s purple counties ahead of the 2018 elections.

Credit jvoves/ flickr / https://www.flickr.com/photos/jvoves/

Florida’s lawmakers are stepping up for Puerto Rico. The 3.4 million U.S. citizens who call the island home don’t have a voting representative in Congress. Florida Senator Marco Rubio is taking on some of the responsibility.

"I can tell you this, having lived through multiple storms in my whole life in a subtropical region, nothing good happens after eight days in the tropics without water, without electricity, without food," Rubio said.

State Representative Rene Plascencia landed on the island in the days after Maria made landfall. He was shocked by the lack of organization. He spoke with CBS’s David Begnaud on September 28th.

“We’ve got our own security team. We’ve brought our own water, we brought our own food. We are not going to be a burden on anything that happens here," Plascencia said.

“Ok so you need fuel and a vehicle? That’s what you need?” Begnaud asked.

“That’s what we need," Plascencia replied.

Reports of the devastation and the utter lack of basic necessities continue to come forward. Thousands of residents are lining up at airports and marinas to get off the island. Governor Rick Scott declared a state of emergency and opened up shelters to accept them.

“So we’re going to do whatever we can. Do they need a job? Do they need housing? Do they to find a family and friend? Is there a host family that could help them? Do their kids need to get into K-12 education?” Scott said.

"It behooves any elected official that's running for statewide office in Florida...to recognize that the Puerto Rican vote is a powerful one."

Lawmakers, residents and their families are urging the U.S. government to amp up a response that many are calling too little, too late. There are concerns that President Trump’s handling of the crisis could reflect poorly on other Republican lawmakers. Esteban Garces with Hispanic outreach organization Mi Familia Vota says the 2018 stakes are high.

“We have a gubernatorial election. We have a U.S. Senate seat that’s up. We have many state Senate, all the state House races, many municipal elections across the I-4 corridor, where likely this Puerto Rican voting block is going to start settling in,” Garces said.

There are about 1 million Puerto Ricans already in Florida. By 2020, the community is expected to out-number Florida’s Cuban population, long thought to be the state’s most significant Hispanic demographic. Florida International University Professor Eduardo Gamarra spoke to WFSU about the rising power of Puerto Rican voters ahead of the 2016 elections.

“One of the important things about them is in contrast to other Latinos or Hispanics, they are U.S. citizens at birth. And while they can’t vote on the island, as soon as they arrive in Florida they can,” Gamarra said.

"If she's going to start all over again she may as well stay here!"

Garces says Puerto Rican activism is already visible in the I-4 corridor. That’s the area between Tampa and Daytona Beach, Florida’s epicenter of swing voters.

“There are groups that were doing caravanas. Which are something you really only find on the island. But it’s essentially…caravans of loudspeakers and boisterous and joyous music encouraging people to go vote,” Garces said.

Garces says Puerto Rican voters are among the most politically engaged. Orange County attorney Anthony Suarez hopes to prove that. He’s hosting family who fled the island.

“I have my uncle. He’s 81 years old. I don’t know if he will want to stay here. He may go back. But my cousin who is 54, she lost her job with the city. The city is basically bankrupt and out of business. I don’t know if she’ll want to go back to Puerto Rico to start all over again. If she’s going to start all over again she may as well stay here!” Suarez said.

If they stay put, Suarez says he’ll make sure his family will vote.

“I’m going to take my uncle and I’m going to take my cousin right down to the Motor Vehicles, get them an identification card and get them registered to vote,” Suarez said.

According to the Rick Scott’s office, 6,000 Puerto Ricans have landed in the state so far. The island’s governor worries that number will continue to rise.

Garces says lawmakers should pay attention to the state's growing Puerto Rican community.

“It behooves any elected official that’s running for statewide office in Florida or that is running for any type of office in Central Florida to recognize that the Puerto Rican vote is a powerful one.”