The race to capture the Puerto Rican vote has begun. Last week the Republican Party of Orange County held a Lincoln Day Dinner honoring and welcoming Puerto Rican evacuees to the Orlando area.
It was a warning shot indicating the state GOP aims to fight for and win over Puerto Rican voters. The Democratic Party has not uttered much despite the wave of Democrat-leaning Puerto Ricans arriving daily in Florida – over 60 percent of Puerto Rican voters in Florida cast ballots for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Very likely, however, it is salivating over the prospect of turning purple Florida permanently blue.
Over 200,000 Puerto Ricans have arrived in Florida from Puerto Rico since the start of the hurricane evacuations in October, according to the office of Gov. Rick Scott. As American citizens, each Puerto Rican over the age of 18 is eligible to vote in Florida.
The twin hurricanes of Irma and María are creating opportunities for public policies that were once objectionable or non priorities in Florida. As more hurricane evacuees arrive in Florida, state elected officials are scrambling to respond to the sudden influx of Puerto Ricans.
Here are a few examples:
Game changer – Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló recently asked FEMA for Transitional Shelter Assistance or TSA, which he had been reluctant to do before. And understandably so. TSA would give temporary housing assistance to hurricane victims, a financial incentive that would encourage people to leave the island. The governor can hardly afford a continued outflux of people. Currently, few Puerto Rico businesses are open and few people are working, which means nobody is paying taxes. The island is broke –hence, the $4.9 billion federal emergency loan – and getting older by the day as the proportion of elderly increases. If people suddenly have the means to move, many will come to Florida, as has been the case for over a decade. TSA helps the people but it hurts the island.
Forcing the hands– The continuing stream of Puerto Ricans into Florida – over 70,000 in the last month, according to the governor’s office – is forcing the hands of local elected officials. For instance, housing affordability is an ages-old regional issue. The Legislature raids state affordable housing funds each year. Now officials are tasked with the serious job of finding decent and affordable housing for new arrivals. Remember, it’s hard to land a job without a permanent address. One state representative mentioned tent cities. Others have talked about mobile homes or trailers. Would Central Floridians, Hispanic or not, accept this?
Jobs, jobs, jobs – The influx of working-age Puerto Ricans is a godsend for the region’s employers, many of which are desperately looking to hire. With a September state unemployment rate of 3.8 percent – essentially zero unemployment – Puerto Ricans represent potential new hires at a time when companies, from tourism to retailers, are engaged in Christmas or seasonal hiring. These may not be permanent jobs or good-paying jobs in our low-wage region. Nonetheless, they are jobs for people looking to earn money. Thus, employers will be among those pushing hard for a resolution to affordable housing issues for hurricane evacuees. Perhaps this also helps explain Gov. RickScott‘s – the jobs governor – “welcoming” Puerto Rican newcomers.
The year 2016 is coming to an end with a bang on many fronts. Let’s turn to a few less obvious but newsy items that merit attention for their importance.
From the first news of the Pulse nightclub shooting on June 12, a tug of war erupted between the LGBTQ and Latino communities over who would take the lead in speaking for the 49 victims, most of whom were Hispanic, many of them Puerto Rican.
The LGBTQ community won the struggle, as evidenced by the six-month anniversary of the shooting at the Orange County History Center, where the Hispanic component of the shooting was nearly absent.
As reported in Orlando Latino, the ceremony host “forgot” to acknowledge the Pulse victims. Not one of the survivors or family members was called to the podium. Not one. The host mentioned only in passing that the history center opened a display of the tributes to Pulse collected from around town.
Government and others have now also buried the grass roots efforts that took place in the Latino community to help survivors and families, where groups such as Somos Orlando offered – and continues to offer – mental health counseling to the affected community.
But the Hispanic community has not been totally forgotten. In an Orlando Sentinelpoll conducted before the six-month anniversary, 21 percent said Pulse was an attack of terrorism, an attack against gays and Hispanics (italics mine). That was up from 13 percent in June.
Full disclosure: I was named to the board of Somos Orlando but have resigned this month.
Central Florida has about 11 Latino elected officials as a result of the 2016 elections, including Darren Soto, the first Florida Puerto Rican in Congress. About five are a net gain, meaning a Hispanic did not previously hold the seat.
Here are the winners: Víctor Torres, former state representative to state senator, District 15; Bob Cortés, re-elected to House District 30; John Cortés, re-elected to House District 43; René Plasencia, re-elected to the State House but representing a new area: District 50; AmyMercado elected to House District 48 previously occupied by her father Víctor Torres; CarlosGuillermo Smith elected to District 49; Emily Bonilla elected to the Orange County Commission, District 5; Armando Ramirez, re-elected as Clerk of the Court of Osceola County; José Alvarez elected the first Hispanic mayor of Kissimmee; and Olga González, elected to Kissimmee City Commission Seat 1.
An important lesson about early voting in the presidential election: About 70 percent of all Florida votes were cast before election day but the latest analyses indicate there is no correlation between early voting and higher voter turnout.
Early voting simply changed the way people voted, which is important for organizers to keep in mind for future elections.
President Barack Obama will have deported more than 2.75 million undocumented immigrants by the time he leaves office in several weeks, the highest number of any president – and some presidents combined, earning Obama the moniker of “Deporter in Chief.”
Of those deported, 84 percent had criminal records. That leaves over 820,000 of the country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants with criminal convictions. If Trump delivers on his promise, there won’t be as many undocumented immigrants with criminal records to deport.
One of every five people or 20 percent enrolled in Obamacare lives in Florida, the highest percentage of any state. That’s over 1.3 million people, which is going to make it difficult for Washington to undo the Affordable Care Act without causing massive healthcare headaches for millions of people without other health care recourses.
There would be up to 800,000 more Obamacare customers in Florida if the state had expanded Medicaid, a key component of the health care act.
As of December 19, the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services reports about, 6.4 million people had signed up for Obamacare for 2017, or about 2 million more than the year before, indicating that Obamacare has become more – not less – relevant.
Puerto Rico Financial Crisis
At year end, the new fiscal control board that’s poised to take over Puerto Rico in 2017 projected the island’s financial predicament is worse than had been reported, which was already pretty bad.
As reported in Orlando Latino, Puerto Rico’s projected 10-year deficit is $67 billion, or $10 billion higher than originally stated and nearly as much as the island and its public agencies owe bondholders.
Gov.-elect Ricky Rosselló must present a balanced budget, which would be a first in decades, requiring significant government cutbacks as well as deep reforms to keep the island economy from toppling completely.
Bottom line for Florida: The pain is likely to send more economic migrants to the Sunshine State, continuing a dramatic shift in the state’s Latino population. Puerto Ricans number over 1 million in Florida, compared with about 1.3 million Cubans, the state’s largest Latino group.
The final Zika numbers for Puerto Rico fell short of earlier predictions but are still alarming. The Puerto Rico Health Department reports nearly 36,000 islanders contracted mosquito-borne Zika, accounting for the lion’s share of locally transmitted cases under the U.S. flag.
Only 216 local cases were reported in the 50 states, with Florida making up 210 of those.
Zika can cause birth defects such as microcephaly in pregnant women. About 2,500 island women were infected in 2016, which is significantly below the 43,000 cases per year that were projected for Puerto Rico, as reported earlier in Orlando Latino.
Of those 2,500 cases only seven (7 ) resulted in infants with birth defects. The island has projected 1,000 fewer births this year due to Zika.
Central Florida will send a number of fresh faces to Congress come January. All are Democrats.
They include State Rep. Darren Soto, who will represent Congressional District 9 and is the first Puerto Rican from Florida to head to Congress, a symbol of the growing Puerto Rican electorate. In addition, former Orlando police chief Val Demings will head Congressional District 10 and newcomer Stephanie Murphy pulled a major upset in Congressional District 7.
It is the most diverse congressional delegation that Central Florida has ever seen – thanks to the Fair Districts constitutional amendment championed by the League of Women Voters and others and that took years of litigation to implement.
Once in place, it changed the gerrymandered district lines away from Republicans to more fairly represent Democrats in those areas.
The Biggest Upset
The biggest coup belonged to Stephanie Murphy, who won District 7 held by 12-term Republican Cong. John Mica, who complained of millions of dollars of “outside money” being poured into the district to defeat him. Certainly that is true; over $4 million was spent on behalf of Murphy.
But the redrawn district also picked up parts of Orange and Volusia counties, ending Mica’s 22 years of landslide GOP victories. In fact, Mica won Seminole County with 52 percent of the vote, but lost Orange County by about 20,000 votes.
As surprising and just as revealing, Donald Trump won “reliably red” Seminole by just 3,654 votes or 1.6 percentage points.
As political analyst Rick Fogelsong repeated earlier and on Election Night, “Seminole County is turning purple.”
In state races:
• State Rep. Víctor Torres (D) won State Senate District 15, previously held by Soto and which covers Osceola and parts of Orange and Polk counties.
• Amy Mercado (D) was the victor in State House District 48 in Orange County. Mercado and Torres are the first father-daughter and Hispanic team to go to Tallahassee.
• John Cortés (D) was re-elected to State House District 43, representing Osceola County.
• Carlos Guillermo Smith (D) will head up State House District 49, which covers Orange County.
• Bob Cortés (R) retained State House District 30, which includes parts of Orange and Seminole.
• René Plasencia (R) captured State House District 50, covering Brevard and Orange counties.
Emily Bonilla also pulled a surprise 57 percent upset against incumbent Ted Edwards for a seaton the Orange County Commission, District 5. Edwards was weakened by his support of a massive housing development east of the Econlockhatchee River, for years considered the line in the sand for protecting east Orange County’s fragile ecosystem.
Bonilla becomes the first Latina – and Puerto Rican – since Mildred Fernández to be on the Orange County Commission. Fernández was convicted on charges of illegal campaign contributions in 2012 and was sent to state prison. She cannot run for public office again.
For the first time, Kissimmee’s fast-growing Hispanic population elected a Latino to be its mayor. José Alvarez earned a resounding victory over Art Otero, 63 percent vs. 37 percent, ending a very contentious campaign that centered on whether Puerto Ricans would elect Cuban-American Alvarez over Puerto Rican Otero. They opted for Alvarez.
And despite being trailed by controversy early in his tenure as Osceola County Clerk of the Court, Armando Ramirez won re-election with 62 percent of the vote.
Watch Orlando Latino for more 2016 elections coverage.