This article will appear in the Spring 2018 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.
Battered and bruised by Hurricane Maria and mired in a power crisis, Puerto Rico remains in shambles. While economic strains on the island led to a painful, decade-long increase in migration to the mainland, the hurricane made the exodus spike, landing tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans in the perennial swing state of Florida.
As U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans can vote as soon as they register in their new homes. Initially framed as a potential boon for Democrats in 2018, the new Puerto Rican arrivals are not firmly in either political camp. What’s unfolding is a high-stakes duel between progressive organizers and corporate money.
Puerto Ricans reliably vote for Democrats in states like New York, Connecticut, and Illinois, but not necessarily in Florida, where Hispanic and Spanish-speaking Republican politicians have had success over the years in Latino communities. “The assumption that Democrats are making is that the trend of young Americans voting blue combined with a disapproval of Trump among Hispanics will be enough to win the Puerto Rican vote,” says Susan MacManus, a political analyst and professor at the University of South Florida. But she is quick to add: “The keyword when it comes to the Puerto Rican vote in 2018 and 2020 is uncertainty.”
Clustered along Florida’s I-4 corridor, a political bellwether for the state, Puerto Ricans in central Florida are increasingly considered a counterweight to the state’s Republican-leaning Cuban American population, over half of whom voted for Donald Trump. In the wake of Hurricane Maria, a state-provided count claimed that the number of Puerto Ricans who had settled in Florida by December 2017 could be as high as 280,000—a figure that has since been questioned by experts. A newer estimate from University of Florida economists, using school enrollments and requests for state aid as a guide, put the total closer to just 50,000. But this number could grow. Recently, the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at the City University of New York released a study projecting that Puerto Rico could lose as many as 470,335 residents between 2017 and 2019. If recent trends serve as any guide, many if not most of those migrants will end up in Florida.
Recent registration numbers in heavily Puerto Rican areas have also been ambiguous. Between September and January, more than 60 percent of new Hispanic voters in central Florida had registered as independents, with less than 30 percent registering as Democrats but only 8 percent as Republicans. Total registrations did see a slight bump in the last few months of 2017 compared with earlier months, but far short of the deluge that was once predicted.
Puerto Rican voter turnout rates, which historically have been far higher than those of electoral contests in the 50 states, tend to plummet upon reaching the mainland. This phenomenon is often attributed to the stark differences between island and mainland politics. Puerto Ricans typically only vote once every four years; there is no Republican and Democrat dichotomy, rather a split among pro-independence, pro-statehood, and pro-commonwealth parties. A new political environment can be difficult to process, particularly for evacuees struggling to find schools for their children, to keep a roof over their heads, and put food on the table.
IN THIS RELATIVE political vacuum, corporate money is contending with on-the-ground progressive organizing. The LIBRE Initiative is the Hispanic outreach component of the Koch brothers’ vast political network. Technically a nonpartisan group, LIBRE—whose name means “free” in Spanish—stops short of registering people to vote, but proudly disseminates messages of “economic freedom,” school choice, and deregulation among Hispanics in battleground states like Florida, North Carolina, and Ohio. Last year at a donor summit, the Koch network revealed plans to spend as much as $400 million during the 2018 election cycle, spreading the funds among a web of grassroots groups, including LIBRE. LIBRE groups funded by the Koch network operated with a combined budget of $13.5 million in 2016, according to The Boston Globe.
Over the years, LIBRE and its sister organization, the LIBRE Institute, have built goodwill in the Hispanic community in Florida, particularly among the poor, offering help with tax preparation, English and résumé-writing classes, food donations, back-to-school events, scholarships, and health checkups. The group has set down roots quickly within these communities, building ties with local hospitals, churches, Spanish-language radio stations, and even the state Chamber of Commerce. Florida state officials welcoming Puerto Rican evacuees arriving at airports have been forwarding them to LIBRE’s offices for further assistance, according to the group’s deputy state director, David Velazquez.
In January, LIBRE’s Puerto Rican Outreach Project launched a series of “Welcome to Florida” classes at its offices in the Orlando area aimed at helping Puerto Rican new arrivals with job training, finding housing, and navigating school enrollment. Instructors used worksheets for attendees to calculate their savings from the recently enacted tax cut, and other lessons in free-market economics. Even before the hurricane, the group had been actively pursuing the Puerto Rican vote, sending a team to the island in 2016 to connect with islanders considering relocating to Florida.
Puerto Rican voters have diverse views, particularly on religious issues, but they have been overwhelmingly opposed to President Trump. In 2016, LIBRE itself decided to focus its get-out-the-vote efforts, consisting of staff- and volunteer-run phone banks and door-to-door outreach efforts using state voter files, on Senate races as a way to distance itself from the Republican presidential nominee.
Attempts by progressives to match LIBRE’s clout have been hobbled by a lack of comparable funding, according to groups on the ground. Betsy Franceschini, senior state director of the Hispanic Federation, says that LIBRE’s model of providing relief services as a way to connect with Hispanic communities was co-opted from groups like Hispanic Federation that offer English lessons, case-management services, and legal aid for Hispanics. “They’ve adopted a model that we’ve been using for decades and turned it around to their benefit,” Franceschini says.
Following Hurricane Maria, more than a dozen progressive groups in central Florida, including nonprofit Organize Florida and local union SEIU Orlando, partnered to collect food and household supplies for needy Puerto Ricans in the state and also to send back to the island, but without anything approaching the Koch resources. In the months since, groups have held community cookouts in low-income neighborhoods and organized around providing affordable housing for evacuees.
While the emphasis thus far has largely been on providing relief, organizers have also looked to the approaching November elections. Groups like Mi Familia Vota, the League of Women Voters, Misión Boricua, SEIU Orlando, and Organize Florida have all begun or will soon begin voter-registration efforts in Puerto Rican communities.
Former SEIU political coordinator Jimmy Torres-Vélez believes that there should not only be more funding for progressive groups, but funding specifically for organizations that know intimately the communities they’re looking to get involved with. “In Northern states, there are organizations run entirely by Puerto Ricans: Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción in Boston, Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha in Pennsylvania—we need more of these programs in Florida,” says Torres-Vélez. “There are plenty of progressive groups doing good work here, but they don’t have a dedicated Puerto Rico outreach program; they don’t have enough Puerto Ricans on staff.”
“These are my friends and good people, but it’s about the emphasis and the priority put on these communities. It’s not effective as it could be,” Torres-Vélez adds. “When I go to bed, I lose sleep over Puerto Rico. Some of these people don’t.”
FLORIDA GOVERNOR RICK SCOTT, of Trump’s biggest surrogates, has done his best to distance himself from the White House over the past few months in preparation for what many expect to be a challenge to Democratic Senator Bill Nelson in November. Scott, who is term-limited from running for governor again this year, has visited Puerto Rico three times since the hurricane and taken numerous steps to aid evacuees. A Republican carrying the non-Cuban Latino vote in a top-of-the-ticket contest would not be without precedent in Florida. Former Governor Jeb Bush did so in 1998 and Senator Marco Rubio after him in 2010, according to exit polls. Still, it’s hard to overlook the sheer size of Hillary Clinton’s victory over Trump among non-Cuban Latinos in Florida, capturing nearly 70 percent of the vote.
Organizers say that issues like Medicaid expansion, raising the minimum wage, and education funding have resonated within Puerto Rican communities. “Florida Republicans like Governor Scott have historically voted against the interests of the Puerto Rican community, defunding programs that they rely on,” says Yulissa Arce, former regional director for Organize Florida. “Now he wants to extract their vote for his own political benefit.”
The Republican tax bill, which included a new 12.5 percent tax on profits derived from intellectual property held by companies in Puerto Rico, provides even more fodder for progressives. The bill wipes out special tax treatment that once lured pharmaceutical companies to manufacture in Puerto Rico, and adds further insult to the injury of Hurricane Maria and inadequate relief efforts.
According to Torres-Vélez, Democrats have an advantage over conservatives among Puerto Ricans when it comes to matters of substance and policy—the challenge is maintaining a presence within these communities long enough to disseminate that message.
“Part of the problem for Democrats these days is that the party has become so weak from the DNC down. So much of our traditional organizing efforts have been outsourced,” argues Steve Schale, who directed Obama’s 2008 campaign in Florida. “It’s hard to say the Florida Democratic party should do more when they have so few people on staff. There’s a bandwidth problem here.”
But bandwidth problems are national. The Democratic National Committee raised a total of $67 million in 2017, lagging behind the Republican National Committee’s haul of $132.5 million. According to public filings, the RNC had $38.8 million in cash on hand at the end of January; the DNC, meanwhile, only had $6.5 million on hand and a debt of $6.2 million.
For Albert Morales, political director of the Latino Decisions polling firm and the former Hispanic engagement director of the DNC, the situation invokes a particularly uncomfortable sensation of déjà vu. While working on the 2016 presidential campaign, Morales proposed a $3 million plan to turn out Hispanic voters in states like Arizona, Nevada, Texas, and Florida. He was given $300,000 instead. “The same mistakes are being made by progressives now, even more so within third-party organizations,” says Morales. “The DNC is fundamentally a presidential committee; it can’t be everything to everyone.”
DNC spokesman Francisco Pelayo says things are changing under new DNC leadership. “We’re no longer taking a four-year approach,” says Pelayo. “Before [Chair] Tom Perez, the DNC had an approach focused only on electing the president of the United States. … We’re now organizing 365 days a year.”
Under Perez, the party’s first-ever Latino leader, the DNC has taken a back-to-basics approach of focusing on state parties, resembling the 50-state strategy of former Chair Howard Dean. The DNC has pledged to give $10,000 per month to each state party through 2018, which is substantially more than investments made in recent years. Unlike during the Dean years, however, the DNC has yet to put state party staffers on payroll and instead has launched in July a $10 million competitive grant program. It wasn’t until January that the DNC began doling out grant money promised to 10 of 11 states. Florida was not among the states selected.
To date, the DNC has not sent any of its staff to Florida, according to Pelayo. It also has not yet begun to send funding to groups on the ground, though Pelayo says that Democrats are deep in talks with progressive organizations on how to best roll out their national Latino voter-outreach plan in Florida. Pelayo would not say when the plan would begin to be rolled out or how much would be invested, but highlighted the need to make outreach as efficient as possible.
“It just makes sense to have Puerto Ricans engaging with Puerto Ricans,” says Pelayo, who notes that his organization currently has Puerto Ricans on their political staff. “When we get to implementing outreach on the ground this year, we will make sure that we have people who represent these communities doing the actual outreach.”
IT’S CLEAR THAT IF a breakthrough does come, it will not come in one election cycle.
Mi Familia Vota plans on ramping up voter-registration efforts in April, increasing their current staff of about ten employees to around 40, and then up to around 60 near November. “Depending on funding, we could even get bigger,” says Esteban Garces, the group’s Florida state director.
According to Garces, progressive funders have begun to come around to the idea of investing in long-term political infrastructure. For the sake of the tens of thousands of newly arrived Puerto Ricans, organizers in Florida hope that’s true. Maintaining a year-round presence, along with staffing their own organizations with Latinos who know these communities best, will be key for progressive groups looking to challenge organizations like LIBRE in years to come.
There is a confidence here that progressives have the other side beat on the issues that matter, and that’s no small thing. But as past elections have shown, voter outreach and registration don’t happen on their own. The tragic exodus caused by Hurricane Maria has created a unique opportunity for Democrats to fix their past mistakes—or repeat them.
“The GOP looks at Puerto Ricans and sees future Republicans, and rightly so,” says Anthony Suarez, a former state legislator and immediate past president of the Puerto Rican Bar Association of Florida. Suarez, who was elected the first Puerto Rican member of the Florida House in 1999 as a Democrat, but later switched his party affiliation to Republican and then again to independent because of Trump, thinks the president will be a millstone around the necks of Republicans in Puerto Rican–heavy districts. “After Trump is gone, these voters will be up for grabs,” says Suarez.
“Very soon, the Puerto Rican vote will be in the driver’s seat in Florida,” says Garces of Mi Familia Vota, one of the Florida groups in discussion with the DNC. “But this work is year-round, it won’t be solved in one election cycle or just on even years.”