When Latino leaders met in Orlando this week to host a series of activities to demand Florida’s Congressional delegation support territorial bankruptcy protection for Puerto Rico, Sunshine State politicians had to take notice. As Puerto Rico’s financial troubles grow – the Wall Street Journal noted recently that the Commonwealth’s economy has shrunk every year since 2007 – an enormous wave of Puerto Ricans to the U.S. mainland is reshaping Florida’s demographics and its electorate.
Consider a few key statistics:
- Between a Pew Hispanic Center study before the 2004 election and one before last year’s election, the number of Puerto Ricans eligible to vote in Florida had increased by 31 percent, to almost 630,000.
- By 2014, Puerto Ricans had solidified their spot as the second-largest Latino voting block (27 percent of all eligible Latino voters), according to Pew’s research. Voters of Cuban origin remained first (31.7 percent) among Latinos, while voters of Mexican origin were a distant third (9.5 percent).
- While Cuban voters still are dominant in the Greater Miami area, Puerto Ricans are becoming a significant force in the state’s two most populous counties outside of South Florida. Last month Moody’s Investors Service reported that between 2010 and 2014, the Puerto Rican population grew by 31.1 percent in Hillsborough County (Tampa) and by 17.7 percent in Orange County (Orlando).
Much of this data was collected before another wave of migration occurred in the last 12 to 18 months. Puerto Ricans are unique among Latinos coming to the American mainland in that they already are U.S. citizens and can register to vote almost immediately. That explains why politicians are paying close attention to this growing electoral force.
Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush have made high-profile visits to Puerto Rico, and both have gone on record as supporting bankruptcy protection in the omnibus spending bill Congress is expected to pass between now (Dec. 16) and Christmas. Another Floridian seeking the presidency, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R), earlier this year also made a trip to the island where he reiterated his opposition to a restructuring of the Commonwealth’s $72 billion debt (a figure roughly equal to Puerto Rico’s annual economic output).
In a Sept. 4 op-ed in Puerto Rico’s largest newspaper, El Nuevo Dia, Rubio wrote:
“While some have suggested Washington can deliver a silver bullet solution to help Puerto Rico, the reality is that Puerto Rico’s leaders must lead and do the difficult but essential work of cutting spending, reining in out-of-control big government and eliminating job-killing policies, including scores of new tax increases. Allowing Puerto Rican municipalities to reorganize their debts under Chapter 9 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code would not solve Puerto Rico’s problems and should only be a measure of last resort considered if Puerto Rico takes significant steps to fix its budget and economic mess.”
At this week’s rally (Mon., Dec. 14), which included phone banking on behalf of Puerto Rico and a news conference, State Sen. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, was among those seeking to convince Rubio to change his position on the issue.
The issue, given its complexity, is actually more subtle than candidates simply being for or against bankruptcy protection – nor is the concept of such protection unique to Puerto Rico.
What Clinton and the other Democratic candidates, as well as Bush, generally are advocating is affording the island protections available to U.S. cities on the mainland. Bush, however, also joins other Republicans (including Rubio and Ben Carson) in advocating statehood for Puerto Rico, which they say is the most complete way to put the Commonwealth on an equal financial footing with the mainland.
In essence, the divide generally seems to be between affording the protections upfront in order to allow breathing room for other financial reforms to be implemented or whether the protections should be a reward for making the reforms.
Like Puerto Rico’s finances, the political calculation is not an easy one. In the ultimate “Swing State,” where the presidential race has been decided by less than 3 percentage points in three of the last four elections, the candidates realize it is vital to get it right.
And as an added incentive, Puerto Ricans are relocating to the swing region of the state, the coveted I-4 Corridor.
(Shown here being interviewed by Orlando-area media during the event is José La Luz, representing the National Coalition for Puerto Rico. La Luz was the architect of a 1998 grassroots campaign there that resulted in unionization of public employees.)