TAMPA — The chairman of Puerto Rico’s Democratic Party has one thing in common with President Donald Trump: He thinks the mayor of capital city San Juan did a poor job responding to Hurricane Maria a year ago, abandoning her city when it needed her most.
Still, Charlie Rodriguez finds fault with Trump’s response to the hurricane, too, saying the president bungled it then made matters worse by excoriating a report one year later that estimated the number of Maria-related deaths at 3,000.
Rodriguez, who lives in San Juan, brought his criticism to Hillsborough County last week to urge that local Puerto Ricans vote Democrat.
As a territory, Puerto Rico has no say in who occupies the Oval Office or the U.S. Capitol, but people from the island can cast ballots in state and local elections once they establish residency in Florida and register to vote.
“Let’s send a message to Trump that we don’t like what you are doing” to Puerto Rico, said Rodriguez, who as a shadow U.S. representative represents the territory in Congress but cannot vote there.
If they are united, Florida’s Puerto Ricans make up “a significant voter block” in a state where elections are known to be decided by slim margins.
As of 2014, the number of people in Hillsborough County who identify themselves as Puerto Rican was over 114,555.
Since the hurricane hit Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, 2017, an estimated 200,000 residents have left the island. Many came to central Florida and the support available here through an already sizeable Puerto Rican population.
“We would like for them to come back,” Rodriguez said, noting that the population drain is eroding Puerto Rico’s tax base.
But if they stay in Florida, they need register to vote.
“They can “be a force to help us because those elected here will know that they have to help Puerto Rico.”
The Puerto Rican vote is usually “Democratic in nature,” said retired U.S Air Force Col. Evelio Otero Jr. of Tampa, a Republican and native of the island.
But he noted that Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who is challenging Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, has made a number of trips to Puerto Rico since the hurricane.
“He sent a team to Puerto Rico, he sent aid, he helped others send aid,” Otero said. “Does that translate into votes? I don’t know.”
Either way, Rodriguez said, a “blue wave” swollen by Puerto Rican votes would bring only temporary relief from the island’s many challenges.
The territory needs to become a state, he said. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens but “second class citizens.”
“If you are president and you have a hurricane blowing in Texas and in Florida and in Puerto Rico, where is your attention going to be first?” said Rodriguez, who has worked for the statehood movement more than a decade.
“I’d like to think everyone is altruistic and will go where the most help is needed, but it is political.”
Without votes in the Electoral College, he said, Puerto Rico gets little attention.
He said he cannot imagine one of the 50 states going 11 months without a return to full power or millions of water bottles meant for hurricane victims abandoned on an airport tarmac. Yet that’s what happened in Puerto Rico.
Otero, who led efforts that sent 3 million pounds of supplies to Puerto Rico after the hurricane, blamed the slow recovery blame on the island’s Democratic Gov. Ricardo Rossello.
“He was not as efficient as he should have been,” Otero said.
His group bypassed the governor and worked directly with mayors to ship relief. They had no problems.
Rep. Rodriguez noted that Puerto Rico’s economy was in poor shape before the hurricane and said the island’s leaders are not looking for a bailout.
Making Puerto Rico a state, he said, would lure investors to the island and could turn it into the main hub for Latin American trade with the United States. This would enable Puerto Rico to control its own recovery.
“What businesspeople are afraid of is uncertainty,” Rodriguez said. “It is not a state, so what can happen tomorrow? Can it become a republic? Can things deter more because it is a colony?”
In 2017, in a nonbinding referendum, Puerto Rico voted for statehood. The national platform of the Republican Party supports the move.
But Trump has said he won’t consider statehood while San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz is in power. Cruz has criticized Trump’s hurricane response.
“With the mayor of San Juan as bad as she is and as incompetent as she is, Puerto Rico shouldn’t be talking about statehood until they get some people that really know what they’re doing,” Trump said recently.
Rodriguez would not defend Cruz.
“She travels too much to the mainland doing her public relations and she is not taking care of San Juan,” he said. “San Juan is dirty. The city roads are in terrible condition.”
Still, he said, Puerto Rico should not be punished for a “personal vendetta or feud.”
“We have more U.S. citizens than in 21 states. We have over 200,000 veterans, over 25,000 men and women active in the U.S. armed forces.“We are equal when we have to die for this country but not equal when it comes time to vote and elect our government officials.”
Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] Follow @PGuzzoTimes.
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