Hurricane Maria Could Change the Politics of Puerto Rico, Florida, and America Forever

Exodus-Puerto-Rico-Hurricane-Maria Gerald Herbert, AP
Gerald Herbert/AP

Puerto Ricans relocating to Florida have already had a significant effect on the politics of the Sunshine State, and the process may well intensify after Hurricane Maria’s devastation of the island.

Since Florida is a hotly contested swing state that has changed the course of presidential elections, it’s no exaggeration to say that Maria may end up changing the American political landscape permanently.

Politico quotes San Juan Municipal Assembly President Marco Rigau bluntly predicting that the post-Maria exodus of up to one million Puerto Ricans will mean “a lot more people voting Democrat in Florida.”

“Puerto Ricans don’t like President Trump. When he shows on Tuesday, he’ll say, ‘The Puerto Ricans love me’ because people won’t be picketing. But he has no idea,” Rigau added, offering a preview of what the migration could mean for President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign in 2020.

Florida already has about a million Puerto Rican residents, concentrated around Orlando, Tampa, and Miami. That gives Florida about 20 percent of the total Puerto Rican population in the continental United States. Far more Puerto Ricans live on the continent than on the island. If most of the anticipated evacuees decide to settle in Florida for the long term, it’s possible Florida could end up with more Puerto Ricans than Puerto Rico, whose current population is around 3.5 million. Lower-end estimates anticipate perhaps 100,000 new immigrants to Florida, which would still have a significant impact on the state’s precariously-balanced politics.

The Miami Herald noted in January that Florida has become a much more popular destination for Puerto Ricans than traditional favorites like New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago. Driven by a recession on the island since 2006, Puerto Ricans were considered on track to become the largest Hispanic group in Florida by the next presidential election, and that was before Hurricane Maria.

The first Puerto Rican congressman from Florida, Democrat Darren Soto, was elected from the 9th District (eastern Orlando) in 2016. He defeated his Republican opponent Wayne Liebnitzky, by 15 points.

Politicians and strategists from both major political parties are already positioning themselves for a Puerto Rican influx to Florida. Everyone from Governor Rick Scott to the state’s congressional representatives has been deeply and visibly involved in hurricane relief efforts. Aggressive political warfare is being waged over President Trump’s handling of the crisis, most likely with an eye toward shaping the opinions of Puerto Ricans who decide to move stateside.

The Tampa Bay Times notes that Senator Marco Rubio won the Puerto Rico primary during his 2016 bid for the Republican presidential nomination, and has favorably impressed island residents with his response to Hurricane Maria.

“Puerto Ricans are American citizens, they have the right to live anywhere in the country. They’ve certainly enriched Florida. My only view on it has been is that if people come to the mainland from Puerto Rico it should be because they want to, not because they have to,” Rubio said at a press conference last week.

Rubio also offered the politically difficult but logical observation that if a large number of Puerto Ricans leave after Maria, it will shrink the already distressed tax base and economy even further, making long-term recovery efforts difficult. It remains to be seen if such considerations sway potential evacuees, especially those who were already thinking about moving to Florida or New York in search of better job opportunities.

Many analysts thought the Puerto Rican economy was in a death spiral already, and it simply cannot absorb the shock of Maria. Conor Sen made some grim predictions at Bloomberg View.

While many Puerto Ricans will want to stay, or lack the resources to leave, we should be realistic about what shape the rebuilding process will take over the next several months. Electrical systems need wholesale reconstruction. Water systems were damaged. Agriculture is in ruins. Cell towers and power lines need to be rebuilt. And that’s to say nothing of roads, homes and schools. What Puerto Rico needs is a blank check of resources – political will, labor and money –  in order to rebuild. There’s a sad chance that the resources simply will not be found. The mainland should prepare for an influx of Puerto Ricans over the next several months and years. 

Emily Bonilla, a Puerto Rican elected to the Orange County Commission in Florida in 2016, speculated to the Tampa Bay Times that Puerto Ricans’ strong sense of family will motivate those already living in the United States to invite relatives in distress after Maria to come and live with them.

“We know people will come here. They have family here. They have friends here. They’re comfortable coming to Florida,” Governor Rick Scott said on Tuesday while announcing the opening of three aid centers for displaced Puerto Ricans, echoing Bonilla’s point about family ties.

“We’re going to do whatever we can. Do they need a job? Do they need housing? Do they need to find a family and friend? Is there a host family that could help them?” said Scott, who has been criticized by Florida Democrats for not doing as much as he could to help Puerto Rico after the hurricane. (Scott says Puerto Rico has not formally requested the aid materials assembled by Florida or committed to pay the upfront costs, as required by the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, but Democrats charge he’s allowing bureaucratic concerns to thwart the delivery of vitally needed supplies.)

“Scott declined to say whether Maria evacuees – upset at President Donald Trump’s handling of the disaster response – could turn into blue Florida voters casting ballots against the president and governor in future elections,” writes the Miami Herald.

This, of course, suggests that a reporter hit Scott with that supremely loaded question, and he “declined” to answer it. If he, or any other Republican, is foolish enough to answer a question like that in the heat of hurricane coverage, the new storyline will become that Republicans view Puerto Ricans as political enemies, even when they’re in distress.

Conor Sen took a shot at estimating the political fallout from Maria at Bloomberg View:

Since 2010, Pennsylvania’s Puerto Rican population has grown by 78,000. Donald Trump won Pennsylvania in 2016 by only 44,000 voters. Since 2010, Florida’s Puerto Rican population has grown by 220,000. Trump won that state by 113,000 votes. If Democrats flip those two states in 2020 and every other state voted as it did in 2016, Democrats will win the presidency. Now imagine Pennsylvania takes in another 100,000 Puerto Ricans, and Florida takes in another 300,000 over the next few years, all of whom would be eligible voters.

Republican Puerto Rican activist Jorge Bonilla offered a contrary view at Politico, noting that the PR vote has been more difficult for Democrats to turn out in practice than in theory. According to Bonilla, many register as independents because “they have seen the failure of partisan politics back home, and that’s why the Puerto Rican vote in Florida is so abysmally low.”

Still, the Puerto Rican vote is seen as easier for Democrats to get, especially if the political fallout from Maria response permanently damages Trump with evacuees. As attorney David Efron put it to Politico: “Trump should be doing everything in his power to rebuild Puerto Rico and keep people here. Otherwise they’re coming to Florida, and they’re not voting for Trump.”


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