Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló visited Orlando and Kissimmee on Monday to endorse U.S. Senator Bill Nelson, U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, locking down crucial campaign support for Democrats as their Republican opponents compete for a grip on Florida's contested Puerto Rican vote.
"I am grateful for his longstanding relationship with the people of Puerto Rico, and I am proud to say that I am endorsing Bill Nelson," Rosselló said during a news conference at Nelson's campaign office in Orlando. "This decision was a tough decision for myself... Governor Scott has also been a good friend, but I am here in spite of that because I believe in Bill Nelson," he added.
The Puerto Rican governor left roughly 20 minutes later for an event in Kissimmee, where he endorsed Democratic gubernatorial nominee Andrew Gillum during a campaign-sponsored voter outreach event.
Nelson, a three-term U.S. senator, is running for reelection against two-term Governor Rick Scott, who has been working overtime to woo Boricuas since he announced his candidacy in April.
And Gillum, who is vying to become Florida's first African American governor, is facing Trump-endorsee and former Congressman Ron DeSantis. Both Republican contenders are polling favorably among the Puerto Rican demographic, but Rosselló's sudden embrace of progressive candidates may change that.
"This might fall on deaf ears, but we need to steer away from, in every contest, to see who the villain is and who the superhero is," Rosselló said, adding that both Scott and Nelson are "two great people."
Scott visited Puerto Rico several times in recent months since Hurricane María obliterated much of the island's infrastructure last September, and has stumped in South and Central Florida's dense Latino communities as part of a broader, opportunistic effort from the GOP to appeal to Hispanic voters — a somewhat successful strategy thus far, according to a Univision-AARP poll
showing Scott with a 14 point lead among Hispanic adult men.
But Nelson's moderate record was a "critical juncture" in Rosselló's decision to endorse the 75-year-old senator over Scott. The difference between Nelson, who also has also visited the territory several times, and Scott, Rosselló said, was his support for the island's strive for statehood, racial equality and Medicaid expansion.
Nelson thanked the governor for his endorsement and said "the problems in Puerto Rico didn't just start with the two hurricanes."
"Certain we know that after the hurricane, Puerto Ricans have been treated as second class citizens," Nelson said. "And it was like that before because they didn't have the same bankruptcy laws as we have. The initial tax incentives to get businesses to Puerto Rico for jobs – those tax incentives were being taken away."
Rosselló also lauded Murphy, who stood next to Nelson during the press conference, for being "an enormous fighter for the people of Puerto Rico."
"You also have my commitment and my endorsement," Rosselló said of Murphy. A freshman lawmaker in a Central Florida congressional district encompassing the University of Central Florida, Murphy faces a familiar challenge from State Rep. Mike Miller, a hard-lined conservative and Trump acolyte similar to DeSantis, Gillum's gubernatorial opponent.
A Sept. 13 Rasmussen poll of 800 likely Floridian voters shows Nelson with 45 percent support compared to Scott’s 44 percent. "Nelson has a wide lead among blacks. Scott is ahead among whites, Hispanics and other minority voters," the report read.
In Kissimmee, Rosselló stumped for Gillum alongside U.S. Rep. Darren Soto during a "Grassroots Voter Registration and Education Event" at the Roberto Guevara Community Center.
Photo by Joey Roulette
Demonstrators protest Ricardo Rosselló as his motorcade leaves for an Andrew Gillum event in Kissimmee on Monday.
Rosselló interceding in Florida politics is seen as a step back for Republican campaigns that have invested extensively into the Puerto Rican demographic. Following the hurricane, Florida's Puerto Rican population skyrocketed by roughly 150,000, a diaspora both Scott and DeSantis have sought to take advantage of.
A throng of 30 activists gathered outside Nelson's campaign office Monday morning to protest Rosselló and Nelson's gaggle.
"We feel betrayed," Gary Berrios, the GOP's Director for Puerto Rican Engagement said during the demonstration after Rosselló and his staff left. Berrios and his party hoped Rosselló would remain neutral and avoid endorsing candidates in what has become one of the most lionized races in the country.
"Deep inside, I knew that the pressure from the Democratic Party on Rosselló was going to be unbearable, so he buckled," he added.
Just three blocks away from Nelson's office, two right-wing activists from the protest walked to Gillum's Orlando headquarters, entered the second floor workspace and heckled staffers for roughly five minutes before absconding off.
With almost a month until election day, Florida's campaign season is heating up. Former president Barack Obama levied endorsements
for Gillum, Nelson, Murphy and State House 47 candidate Anna Eskamani on Monday as Rosselló barnstormed the I-4 corridor.
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