The national media has galvanized the race for Puerto Rico governor like no other recent gubernatorial election. NBCnews, The Hill, Bloomberg and Reuters last week ran with the news that San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz will challenge Gov. Ricardo Rosselló in the first election after Hurricane María accosted Puerto Rico in 2017.
Why is this such big news? After all, it’s doubtful the national media can name two San Juan mayors of the past 25 years, not including Yulín, as she is known on the island. And historically the national media hasn’t paid much attention to Puerto Rico, except for the catastrophic 2017 hurricane and the island’s ongoing debt problem.
But here’s why the race has drawn national attention: Because Yulín took on Donald Trump and his administration’s poor response to Puerto Rico’s once-in-100-year hurricane at a time when the Rosselló administration was cow-towing to Trump in an effort to curry federal favor for reconstruction funding, including standing by when Trump infamously threw paper towels at an assembled crowd of New Progressive Party (NPP) supporters, the party headed by Gov. Rosselló.
Yulín, a member of the opposition Popular Democratic Party (PDP), enjoys an elevated profile as mayor of Puerto Rico’s capital city. She raised her national standing by strongly disagreeing with Trump and the governor about the number of hurricane casualties, stating that many more people died on the island than the 60 the administration clung to for nearly a year. She was right. Eventually, Rosselló had to revise the figure significantly upward to about 3,000, a number with which Trump still takes issue.
Yulín follows a resistance narrative that, then and now, is popular with Democrats and the anti-Trump movement, so much so that Trump called her “a nasty woman.” She later wore a black tee shirt with “nasty” in white letters as a badge of honor during a national Univisión interview. She has continued to badger Trump at every opportunity, appearing on national talk shows and traveling frequently to the states to appear in national political forums. It’s enough for Bernie Sanders to name Yulín co-chair of his 2020 presidential campaign.
Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory and residents of the island cannot vote for president under arcane and likely unconstitutional territorial rules. However, Puerto Rico does vote in Republican and Democratic presidential primaries and has more delegates than 20 states, most of them Democrats. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won 37 Democratic delegates, while Sanders took away 23. On the Republican side, Marco Rubio earned 23 delegates. It’s unclear if Sanders will do better in 2020.
Yulín also has injected herself into the politics of the diaspora, for instance endorsing Philip Levine in Florida’s 2018 Democratic gubernatorial primary, later switching to primary winner Andrew Gillum. Florida is the state with the highest number of Puerto Ricans – about 1.1 million – thanks to unprecedented migration as economic prospects for Puerto Ricans have declined both on the island and other, primarily Northeast states. In the year following Hurricane María, more than 50,000 Puerto Ricans fled the island for Florida, statistics show. This, too, will come back to haunt Gov. Rosselló as he runs for a second term, since the migrants voted against him with their feet.
To be fair, however, the Rosselló administration has managed to obtain congressional commitments for over $40 billion in hurricane reconstruction funding, although most hasn’t been appropriated and Trump continually threatens to reduce aid to pay for his border wall. In addition, Yulín doesn’t appear to be popular either in her party despite two terms as mayor of San Juan, considered an NPP bastion. Her left-leaning socialist-type politics also aren’t popular in Puerto Rico, where the socialist party ceased to exist and pro-independence forces can barely attract 4 percent of voters. (It was fascinating, however, that Yulín wore black and white at her campaign rally announcement, the colors of Puerto Rico’s pro-nationalists.)
All of which means that the 2020 race for Puerto Rico governor is likely to be, well, nasty, as island politics often is. But maybe more so this time as the campaign will have a special twist. Puerto Rico will be a proxy primary campaign, where the anti-Trump Democratic forces measure their clout since both Yulín and Rosselló belong to the Democratic National Party. Although there are more Puerto Ricans in the states (5.4 million) than in Puerto Rico (3.1 million), the diaspora and other Hispanics play very close attention to what happens in Puerto Rico.
Plus, let’s face: Hurricane María and its shocking aftermath may have changed political calculations in Puerto Rico. And we’re about to find out by how much.
˜˜María Padilla, Editor