The exodus of Puerto Ricans to Central Florida has given the political powerhouse a body of potential voters, but is it enough to finally have a voice?

The exodus of Puerto Ricans to Central Florida has given the political powerhouse a body of potential voters, but is it enough to finally have a voice?
Photo by Monivette Cordeiro

The Orlando skyline is gray and gloomy the Tuesday morning that Carlos Baerga arrives from Puerto Rico.

A few moments after getting off a plane at Orlando International Airport, the 20-year-old and his mother have stopped for some cafecito and a bite at one of the area's best-known Boricua restaurants, Melao Bakery. In mere hours, they uprooted their life in the mountainous municipality of Jayuya to join the mass exodus of Puerto Ricans who are fleeing from the financial crisis on the island to the U.S., especially to Central Florida.

"I've been here before, so I kind of already knew what it would be like," he says as he looks out the window toward the rain. "But I'm already feeling a little homesick."

By the end of 2014, 64,000 Puerto Ricans had migrated from the commonwealth to the mainland, and the amount of empty homes rose to 22 percent, according to the island's Institute of Statistics. Thousands continued to leave into 2015 as Gov. Alejandro Padilla declared that the territory had $72 billion in "unpayable" debt and was close to an economic death spiral.

"What we have seen in the last two years is a shift toward desperation," says Dr. Luis Martínez-Fernández, a history professor at the University of Central Florida. "People are saying 'Let's leave next week, forget about the house' or 'I'll find a job when I get there.' This crisis doesn't seem to have a solution any time soon."

As the situation worsens, Congress has opposed pleas from Puerto Rican representatives and activists to allow the colony to use bankruptcy protections permitted for states. It's important to note here that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, and although we allow them to enroll in the military and fight in our wars, they're not allowed to vote for U.S. president. Or have a voting representative in Congress. Or receive the same amount of Medicare and Medicaid funding. The list is pretty long.

In the midst of this turmoil, some local Puerto Rican politicians in Central Florida's Ninth Congressional District saw a bright spot. More migration into the district, which stretches south from east Orlando to encompass Osceola County and ends near the Yeehaw Junction, presents a body of new voters who could help the Florida diaspora become a stronger force in Washington. But growing lungs for a voice isn't easy, and Florida's congressional redistricting debacle and problems with Puerto Rican voter registration could make it harder.

Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis had a month to make a decision that would alter the political landscape of an entire state and kill a political career, or two.

He's in this position after Florida legislators, who were forced to redraw district lines because the Florida Supreme Court caught them gerrymandering districts to favor Republicans and incumbents, could not agree if they would choose the map from the House or the Senate. on a map. Through several days of drama in court, Lewis examined one map from the House, two maps from the Senate and four maps from plaintiffs in the original lawsuit. On Friday, he rejected maps from the Florida Legislature and chose one of the maps drawn by the plaintiffs, which include the League of Women Voters and Common Cause of Florida. Ultimately, Lewis' recommendation will go to the Florida Supreme Court for a final review.

A major source of contention between House and Senate legislators was where to draw the boundaries for the Ninth Congressional District. The district as we know it today didn't exist until Florida gained two more congressional seats in 2010, partly because the surge of Puerto Rican migration swelled the population, says Dr. Rick Foglesong, a political science professor at Rollins College.

Since the first wave of Puerto Ricans came to Central Florida in the 1970s when Walt Disney World opened, the population in Osceola and Orange counties has exploded, leading some to call it the new "Mecca" for Boricuas moving from the island and northern states. The number of Puerto Ricans on the mainland (4.9 million) eclipsed the population on the island (3.5 million) in 2012, according to the Pew Research Center. In Florida, the population is projected to hit 1 million soon, and about 400,000 Puerto Ricans are estimated to live just in Central Florida, according to the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at the City University of New York.

In 2011, Foglesong and a student were studying changing voting patterns in the Interstate 4 corridor and found a strong correlation between the Latino migration to the area and an increase in Democrats, with the correlation being most pronounced in Osceola County. In the "swing part of the swing state," the Puerto Rican community has neutralized Republican Cubans in South Florida and become the political power that determines national elections.

The new Democratic-leaning congressional district was created to be a minority-access seat for the Latino-based electorate, but U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson won election in 2012 and re-election in 2014, presumably on the strength of his liberal politics, Foglesong says. Puerto Rican candidates, like John Quinones, have run for the seat as Republicans, but lost in the primaries.

The recent redistricting showdown in Tallahassee has done a "disservice" to Latinos in Central Florida, says Matthew Isbell, a Democratic data consultant for Politico. The Legislature's base map divides the group between Ninth, Tenth and Seventh Congressional Districts, and adds white voters from Polk County.

Using the base map, the Latino share of the 2014 Democratic primary is low in a district where they made up the majority (almost 46 percent) in 2013. An amendment by Sen. Tom Lee in the Senate map changed the boundaries to take in more Latino voters and lose parts of Polk County, bringing the Latino share in the Democratic primary from 21 percent to 26 percent, making it a minority-coalition district, Isbell says.

The plaintiff map chosen by Lewis on Friday is very similar to the House map except for some parts of South Florida. In Central Florida, the House Map and the plaintiff map altered District 10, currently held by Rep. Daniel Webster, to be more Latino and lean Democrat.

For this reason, Isbell preferred the Senate map because it did a better job at keeping Latinos concentrated in District 9 where they could influence primaries. He adds that legislators should have taken into consideration Central Florida's Puerto Rican population growth and given the population more influence in upcoming elections because if they aren't able to elect someone now, the Puerto Rican community will have to wait until 2022 to get a seat.

Another roadblock affecting the Puerto Rican vote is that many register as having no party affiliation because they know little about how the political parties work on the mainland, says Vivian Rodriguez, president of the Democratic Hispanic Caucus of Florida. In Osceola County on Sept. 24, the majority of Latinos registered were listed as Democrats at 33,773, but 27,400 were registered as no party affiliation, says Amber Smith, community relations coordinator for the Osceola County Supervisor of Elections office. Smith adds that these numbers are extremely fluid and may not be representative of the entire demographic because people are not required to state their race or nationality on voter-registration forms.

Registering as having no affiliation shuts Latinos out of the state's closed primaries, Rodriguez says, which is where many Puerto Rican candidates in Central Florida have lost. Election day in Puerto Rico is also treated as a national holiday, with festivals and caravans, which many attribute to the island having a higher national voter turnout. The key to getting through this block is by educating the local Puerto Rican community on voting rules, she says.

"The people in this community want to see someone who looks like them and knows the struggles we are facing, before and after campaign season," Rodriguez says. "We're very excited for that chance."

When U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson put in his bid for presidential hopeful Marco Rubio's seat in the Senate, a flurry of candidates expressed interest in representing the largely Latino community of the Ninth Congressional District.

Among the contenders is heavyweight Susannah Randolph, a well-known progressive in the area and district director for Grayson. She's already won endorsements from high-profile movers and shakers in Central Florida, like former Rep. Patricia Schroeder, the first woman elected to Congress in Colorado, and attorney John Morgan of Morgan & Morgan, who's one of the biggest local donors to the Democratic Party. In a statement Randolph says she has spent her career registering Latinos and African Americans to vote, insuring their votes are counted. She adds that most of the 70,000 Orange County voters she helped register in 2008 were from Puerto Rico.

"As a Congresswoman, I will ensure that those efforts continue and that Puerto Ricans who are moving to Central Florida are able to easily find their voice in our political process and that their interests are well represented," she says.

Valleri Crabtree, former Osceola County Democratic chair, and Dr. Dena Minning, a biochemist and Grayson's girlfriend, have also registered as Democratic candidates. Crabtree feels she can represent the Puerto Rican community, saying she has educated herself on the issues plaguing the island for the past couple years.

"I'm making a strong commitment to the Puerto Rican population and other Hispanic cultures to not only demonstrate that I care, but also become knowledgeable about the challenges they face," she says. "Just because I'm a woman, I don't expect other women to vote for me, so I trust the community would vote for the most qualified person who will do the best job."

Puerto Ricans also have the opportunity in 2016 to elect the first Puerto Rican congressional representative from Florida. The favorite among local Puerto Rican Democrats is Florida Sen. Darren Soto. Other Puerto Rican candidates who are said to be vying for the seat but have not yet registered include one Democrat, former state Rep. Ricardo Rangel, and two Republicans, state Rep. Mike La Rosa, R-St. Cloud, and Kissimmee Vice Mayor Wanda Rentas.

Only one Republican candidate, Wayne Liebnitzky, has filed with Florida's Department of State to run, says Osceola County Republican chairman Mark Oxner. Oxner adds that in past years, his party has put forth many Republican Latino candidates to run against Democrats.

"Politically, we have good Hispanic candidates for this upcoming race," he says. "I mean, what's the point of having a majority Hispanic area if Hispanics aren't representing them?"

At a September political fundraiser in downtown Kissimmee's Buchito, the smell of empanadas and Cuban sandwiches wafted over donors waiting for Soto. The Orlando lawyer, who's said to work across the aisle, told political allies his priorities include bringing high-paying jobs to the area, diversifying the local economy and protecting the environment. But as many people reiterated through the night, it's equally important to send one of their own to Congress and finally have a seat at the table. Puerto Rican representatives don't just represent their constituents on the mainland, Dr. Luis Martínez-Fernández says. In a way, they're also a voice for those on the island who have been denied a voting member of Congress.

"The fact that I could be the first has been inescapable to me," Soto says. "We've waited decades for representation. Hopefully one of the Puerto Rican candidates from Florida can be a member of Congress. It will be a historic election."

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