Florida politicians are courting displaced Puerto Ricans. But what are their motives?

Redacción Agencias | 1/12/2018, 7 a.m.
Florida politicians are courting displaced Puerto Ricans. But what are their motives?
Rick Scott | Foto Cortesía

In the three months since Grisel Robles fled hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico, she has been invited twice to meetings with the state’s highest-ranking politicians.

In October, the nurse and her 5-month-old daughter were among a group of Puerto Ricans who spoke to U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson at a Miami health clinic. Last week, Gov. Rick Scott met her at a university in Doral. Both politicians spoke to Robles about her family’s experience relocating to Fort Lauderdale and offered any assistance she might need.

Robles is among the state-estimated 300,000 Puerto Ricans who have come to Florida since Hurricane Maria’s Sept. 20 landfall as a catastrophic storm that knocked out power to the entire island and left a health crisis in its wake. With thousands of families seeking refuge in a state that was already home to more than 1 million Puerto Ricans, the community has the potential to form a significant voting bloc able to help or hurt any statewide candidate.

Along the I-4 corridor, a political bellwether for the state where the Puerto Rican community has grown faster than in any other locale in the country since 2010, Democrat strategist Steve Schale recently noted that the number of Hispanic voters doubled to more than 300,000 between 2006 and 2016. That growth heavily favored Democrats, but also included close to 50,000 independent voters.

And though Hispanic participation drops in off-year elections, an impassioned, growing group of voters could buck that trend come November. Nelson knows it. Scott knows it. And they’re acting like they know it.

With the two facing a potential showdown in November, the Republican governor, who has visited the island twice since the hurricane, appears to have amplified efforts in the new year to address the problems facing Puerto Ricans both in Florida and on the island. He spent last week talking up Florida’s disaster response and efforts to accommodate those who’ve fled their homes. On Tuesday, he sat with members of the Puerto Rican House of Representatives in Tallahassee.

Some Puerto Ricans, who traditionally lean Democrat, say the governor has a chance to win them over. Others remain skeptical of Scott’s motives.

“We all know he wants Bill Nelson’s position. We’re not stupid,” said Pura Delgado, a Puerto Rican activist who helped the Clintons campaign in Central Florida during the ’90s. “I don’t believe him at all.”

But as the governor has doubled-down in the new year on Puerto Rican outreach, his office insists his efforts are “absolutely not” related to any potential campaign for Nelson’s seat, which he is widely believed to be considering.

“Gov. Scott has been 100 percent focused on making Florida the most welcoming state to those displaced by Hurricane Maria,” said spokesman McKinley Lewis.

In the first two weeks of the year, Scott has criss-crossed the state talking Puerto Rico and Hurricane Maria, and his office has issued a list of Florida’s actions to assist. Over the last three months, the governor signed a “host state” agreement with FEMA to secure federal reimbursement for expenses related to sheltering and assisting evacuees, asked colleges to waive out-of-state tuition costs, and established relief centers staffed with state employees, FEMA and the Red Cross, among numerous steps to help.