Dems might assume they have the Boricua vote, but the GOP is working hard to court Florida's Puerto Rican voters 

Elección 2020

First, a little vocabulary lesson: When people move from one region of America to another for all the reasons people do – after hurricanes or earthquakes or wildfires or blizzards, to start a job or escape a horrible family, to live in the rain or the sun – it's not immigration.

"That's a pet peeve of mine," says Puerto Rican former state Rep. Bob Cortes. "When I hear the word 'immigrate' or 'migrate' [referring to] people from Puerto Rico." Puerto Rico has been a United States territory since 1898, its people American citizens since 1917. "We are free to travel to New York or Florida," says Cortes, "wherever we want."

Where Puerto Ricans want to go lately is Florida. From 2000 to 2017, the Puerto Rican population in Florida jumped from 480,000 to over 1.2 million, according to research by the Puerto Rico Research Hub of the University of Central Florida and the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York. Nearly one in five Latinx people in Florida is Puerto Rican. After Hurricane Maria hit the island in 2017, the University of Florida estimates 30,000 to 50,000 Puerto Ricans came to Florida.

Of those from the Maria surge, Central Florida has emerged as a favorite destination. According to a 2018 survey by the Census Bureau, Orange and Osceola counties saw a combined 12 percent Puerto Rican population bump. Osceola, home to Puerto Rican strongholds like Kissimmee and Buenaventura Lakes, saw the biggest increase (22 percent), which led to the population there eclipsing 120,000. More than 200,000 Puerto Ricans live in Orange County.

How the influx will impact state and local politics over the long term is unknown, but how Puerto Ricans vote in the 2020 presidential election will be an indication. And with what looks like a new voting bloc up for grabs, outreach from each side of the political spectrum has been fierce.

Dr. Fernando Rivera, director of UCF's Puerto Rico Research Hub and an associate professor of sociology at the university, acknowledges the stickiness of the misnomer that Puerto Ricans "immigrate," but also understands how someone might make that mistake. "Puerto Ricans resemble other immigrants [but] we have different cultural norms, a different language."

Because of those differences, many newly arrived Puerto Ricans are still taking time to understand American and Floridian politics before diving in.

"Many newcomers are nonpartisan, they don't know about the politics here," Rivera says. In Florida, residents have to register with a party in order to cast a primary vote for a party nominee. Waiting to choose until they're better informed, some Puerto Ricans elect to register with no party affiliation when they first get here – meaning many won't be active in the March 17 primary elections.

No matter what, the way the Central Florida Puerto Rican community votes won't be monolithic. "I would say that we have to be careful of the generalization of the entire community," says Rivera.

Rightward ho

Even among the die-hard Trump crowd at the Latinos for Trump rally featuring Vice President Mike Pence in Kissimmee in January, Alberto Esperón rocked one of the louder outfits: a red "Keep America Great" hat and a red and blue football jersey with "USA" and an American flag on the front and the number "2" and the word "amendment" on the back.

The 46-year-old systems engineer was born in Puerto Rico and left in 1998 for New York. He moved to Florida in 2001 and now lives in Melbourne. Esperón says he left both Puerto Rico and New York for "a better life."

In Esperón's view, the best party for Puerto Ricans, or anyone looking for steady jobs and a better life, is the Republican party – more specifically, a GOP led by Donald Trump. He references Black and Latinx unemployment hitting record lows last fall.

Esperón doesn't think Trump is racist or discriminates against Hispanics, and feels there is nothing wrong with the president's immigration approach, cages and all. "If someone cuts, is that fair?" Esperón asks rhetorically.

Richard Marrero, a retired New York state trooper living in St. Cloud, similarly shrugs off Trump's immigration tactics by likening immigration to the common queue. He says people who are already citizens lose tax money to prop up a "nanny-state" for people who immigrate illegally, by Trump's standards, justifying swift punishment.

"Now we're stuck with the mashed potatoes and peas. The ham is already gone because we let someone cut in front of us. It's not right," says Marrero, 54, sitting next to his wife, Maira, 52. Both maintain neither Trump nor the GOP is bigoted.

Marrero did say that although he thought Trump had done as much as he could as president to help Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, the president could have made a lasting impression with Puerto Ricans if he made more of a show on news channels and in trips of his commitment to the island territory. Esperón says the video of Trump tossing paper towels to Maria victims was edited nefariously and out of context. Marilyn Del Valle, 46, of St. Cloud, calls criticism of the video, and of Trump's efforts in the aftermath of Maria, harsher than anything Bush got for the lackluster FEMA response to Hurricane Katrina, and thus hypocritical.

The rally was held at Nación de Fe, an evangelical church on West Irlo Bronson Memorial Highway in Kissimmee where most of the congregants are Puerto Rican. All of the introductory speakers opening for Pence at the Latinos for Trump event were from Puerto Rico. A member of the church, Randy Candelario, 37, of Kissimmee, says he and his family and many in his church vote according to the Bible.

"We go by the book," Candelario says, which means voting for any party or candidate who is against abortion and for "family values." And he says that happens to be Trump and the GOP right now.

Trump held his 2020 campaign kickoff rally in Orlando, a strategic overture to the Hispanic community in Florida, a swing state, and has gone after the Puerto Rican and greater Hispanic vote since he began campaigning for president. In 2016, 28 percent of Hispanic voters chose Trump. In the close 2018 wins for both Sen. Rick Scott (over Bill Nelson) and Gov. Ron DeSantis (over Andrew Gillum), the slim margins of victory in both races were attributed to more intentionally Latinx-leaning campaigns with more events to address specifically Hispanic and Puerto Rican needs.

Cortes became the first Puerto Rican mayor in Seminole County when he was elected in Longwood in 2014, and then the first Puerto Rican legislator in Seminole County, representing the 30th district in the State House. He was DeSantis' Puerto Rican outreach director during the 2018 gubernatorial campaign. He says DeSantis' consistent efforts to hold events for Puerto Ricans and his pledges to fight for things they wanted, like helping Puerto Rico recover with aid and job creation and backing school choice, stirred Puerto Rican support.

A Hispanic candidate like Sen. Marco Rubio, who is Cuban-American, will resonate with Puerto Ricans, he says. But "Anglos" like DeSantis and Rick Scott can also find success with Puerto Ricans, says Cortes, who also volunteered for Scott's campaign. According to Cortes, Scott did it by learning how to speak Spanish, backing Puerto Rico becoming a state, and, while governor, signing executive orders to send aid to the island.

To the left, to the left

Latinx populations in other states, like California and Nevada, helped Democratic candidates eke out victory in the 2018 midterms. In Florida, Republicans have been hustling for votes from Hispanic people who the Democrats may not be pursuing as vigorously.

"To be honest with you," says Juan Peñalosa, executive director for the Florida Democratic Party, "I think Democrats have dropped the ball a bit. Republicans have invested a great deal in the Puerto Rican community."

That investment by the Republicans, Peñalosa says, was in messaging that sows "misdirection and misrepresentation."

Peñalosa says the Florida Democrats have learned their lesson, hiring more staff, adding more volunteers and logging more hours than in 2016, even starting their efforts earlier than in the previous presidential cycle. "Ten thousand votes, 20,000 votes, 30,000 votes, that comes down to individual conversations, what we call 'field margins,'" he says.

Hustle always matters, notes Peñalosa, but local Democrats also need to work on a stronger, more engaged message than "Trump is bad." He says the party needs to work on reminding people that Trump's confident rhetoric and the patriotic bluster from the GOP doesn't translate into much in the way of quality of life for Puerto Ricans and Hispanics.

When Trump touts lower Hispanic unemployment numbers, says Peñalosa, he doesn't add that many of those jobs are held by Latinx people working multiple part-time gigs without sick leave or health insurance. He says people need to be reminded that a GOP-led government ignores the climate breakdown, that right-wing politics hurts the odds of becoming a nation with affordable healthcare and good public education.

He also says that messaging for the Hispanic vote needs to be as varied and specific as the community here.

"The Hispanic community in Florida is very diverse," Peñalosa says. "I myself am Colombian, Luisana (Pérez Fernández, Florida Democrats' deputy communications director) is Venezolano, our political director is Ecuadorian, our deputy field director is Cuban. We have a deep understanding of each part of the community."

The progressive Hispanic community held an event themselves the day before Pence's rally in Kissimmee, a "Latinos Against Trump" press conference.

"We need to wake up," says Kissimmee Mayor Jose Alvarez, who was born in Cuba and came to America when he was 7 years old. "The fate of the future of our children and grandchildren is in jeopardy under this administration." Alvarez, who is leaving City Hall to make a run for the Osceola County Commission, is the first Hispanic mayor of Kissimmee, an area he says has always been a landing spot for Hispanics, and particularly Puerto Ricans.

"Trump's inhumane treatment toward Puerto Rico will not be forgotten," says Cristina Robinson, communications manager for Alianza for Progress, an Orlando-based nonprofit that focuses on building progressive leaders and initiatives within Puerto Rican and Latinx communities, at the Latinos Against Trump presser. "His aid budget cuts, his neglect, his carelessness, even on Twitter."

She mentions a tweet from the president in October that read: "We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in P.R. forever!"

Robinson says Trump's promises are only followed up by callousness toward the territory, and that will impact how Puerto Rican Floridians vote for him and the GOP.

"He has only endangered, neglected, damaged and pained Puerto Rico, the diaspora and thousands of Hispanic immigrants seeking refuge," says Robinson. "We will never forget his inhumane treatment toward Latinos, his hate, racism and division of families."

In a conversation with Orlando Weekly, state Sen. Vic Torres, D-Orlando, who split his formative years between Puerto Rico and New York before moving to Florida, also says he believes local Democrats need to work harder at attacking the holes in the Republican pitch for the Puerto Rican vote, and reaching single-issue voters like some Puerto Rican evangelicals.

"Nobody likes abortion," says Torres. "But you need to understand if you vote with the [GOP] party because of that ... what about other issues? Things like housing, jobs, apprenticeship programs." The Democratic Party concerns itself with bettering anything that impacts someone's life, not just one subject, says Torres.

Messaging and field sweat are both vital to winning, agrees Peñalosa. But, given the influx of voters from the island who still need to register in Florida, a huge factor in deciding the way Florida swings in the 2020 election will be the race to simply register the new voters.

"We're building the electorate we need to win," Peñalosa says, "not accepting the electorate that we have."

This story appears in the Feb. 19, 2020, print issue of Orlando Weekly. Stay on top of Central Florida news and views with our weekly Headlines newsletter.

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