Q: Which place has as many Republican delegates as New Hampshire, plus enough native sons and daughters living in Florida to swing the outcome of that state’s presidential primaries or even the general election?
A: Puerto Rico.
That political reality has put the financially ailing U.S. territory on the map of presidential hopefuls, who are being asked what, if anything, the federal government should do to help engineer a rescue plan for the debt-strapped island.
Politically, much is at stake. Puerto Rico has its own voice at nominating conventions, with more delegates at the Democratic National Convention than 21 states. And 1 million Puerto Ricans live in Florida, enough to be the swing vote in one of the nation’s most important swing states.
At the current pace of migration, triple the rate just a few years ago, the number of people of Puerto Rican origin in Florida could soon exceed the number of Cuban Americans in the state. Along Interstate 4 between Orlando and Tampa in central Florida, Puerto Ricans are everywhere, making up more than a quarter of the population of Florida’s Osceola County.
As a result, presidential candidates are being pressed to voice support for Puerto Rico in its hour of economic need and back the use of bankruptcy law to help the territory, which is teetering on the edge of default, to reduce and manage its $73 billion in debt. Although the bankruptcy code can be used by states for the orderly court-supervised reorganization of cities, municipalities,municipal utilities or school districts, Congress in 1984 altered the law to bar the commonwealth ofPuerto Rico or any of its utilities, towns or school districts from being able to turn to the bankruptcy code in a crisis.
“Those who want the support of Puerto Ricans must help Puerto Rico now. Not later,” Puerto Rico Gov. Alejandro García Padilla said in an interview Sunday on Telemundo. He added: “They need to act now, not in a few months during the elections.”
García Padilla said “there are some people who have been a little passive, and they are the candidates for president of the United States. Both the Democrats and the Republicans, especially in Florida, because as you know, it’s a battleground state and it’s important.”
And the Puerto Rican vote is up for grabs, both in Florida and the territory. Six Americans of Puerto Rican descent have been elected to the Florida legislature — three Republicans and three Democrats. In Puerto Rico, the current governor, García Padilla, who narrowly won election, calls himself a friend of President Obama’s. The previous governor, Luis G. Fortuño, resembled a Reagan Republican.
“During the last campaign, it was called the swing vote of the swing state,” said Jeffrey Farrow, chairman of the Oliver Group, a public policy communications firm, and a former White House adviser on Puerto Rico under Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.
A poll by Latino Decisions, a firm that analyzes Latino voters, showed that Puerto Rican voters in Florida went 72 percent to 28 percent for Obama over Mitt Romney in 2012, while Cuban American voters in the state chose Romney over Obama by 64 percent to 35 percent.
Yet Farrow said that although “there is a perception that Puerto Ricans are Democratic voters, that is not necessarily the case in Florida. The more recent poll data shows they identify more with Democrats than Republicans, but they are socially conservative. They voted for Jeb Bush for governor.”
“During my race, I said I would slash government expenses,” said Fortuño, now a partner at Steptoe & Johnson, a Washington-based law firm. “Often on radio talk shows, people would say they have a daughter who needs a job, and I’d say she would not have a job in government, and my advisers would go nuts. And I won. So it’s very doable.”
Jeb Bush has been courting the Puerto Rican vote for a long time. In 1980, he spent more than two months organizing the campaign of his father, George H.W. Bush, who handily won the primary that year. Jeb Bush delivered speeches in Spanish at more than 75 gatherings. When he campaigned to be governor of Florida, he went to Puerto Rican church socials.
“I think statehood is the best path, personally. I’ve believed that for a long, long while,” he said during a visit to the territory in April, recalling his father’s long-ago campaign. “Nothing makes me believe that that position should change. To get the full benefits and responsibilities of citizenship, being a state is the only path to make that happen.” He added, “I think the next president, whoever that person is, should use their influence to make sure Congress acts on this and that this should be a question of self-determination.. . . That’s just a question of principle and, you know, morality, I think. It’s not a question of politics.”
Bush, while campaigning in Puerto Rico in April and again in South Carolina last week, came out in support of granting Puerto Rico the option of using Chapter 9 of the bankruptcy code to restructure its debts. “Puerto Rico should be given the same rights as the states,” he said in Spanish before a small crowd at the Universidad Metropolitana in San Juan.
Bush’s Republican rivals have been, by and large, more cautious for fear that extending Chapter 9 protection to Puerto Rico could look like a bailout of the island — even though bankruptcy extracts concessions from bondholders and requires no federal money.
“Senator [Marco] Rubio has been closely watching events in Puerto Rico and is concerned about the economic situation there,” spokeswoman Brooke Sammon told The Washington Post by e-mail over the weekend. “He’s in the process of reviewing the legislation to make sure it is the right approach to begin addressing Puerto Rico’s debt crisis without having any negative impact on American taxpayers.”
Donald Trump — whose heavily indebted corporate affiliates have used bankruptcy to reorganize — has a unique perspective on Puerto Rico. He is a partner with local construction tycoons Arturo and Jorge L. Diaz in the Trump International Golf Club, a resort east of San Juan that boasts two 18-hole courses. The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
In a June 30 tweet, Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton did not address the bankruptcy issue but said that “Puerto Rico’s debt crisis is not theirs alone. For PR’s economy to grow & their people to thrive, they need real tools & real support.”
But on Tuesday, Clinton said that Puerto Rican municipalities and state-owned enterprises should be allowed to use bankruptcy protections to overhaul their finances. “We’re not talking about a bailout, we’re talking about a fair shot at success,” she said in a statement.
Former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley (D), by contrast, jumped on the issue last week. “I am very concerned about the impending financial collapse of Puerto Rico,” said O’Malley, who backed the use of the bankruptcy code and an equalization of Medicaid and Medicare benefits for the island’s residents. “We must help our fellow U.S. citizens, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because our region’s economic stability depends on it,” he said.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) joined in on Tuesday, backing bankruptcy protections to enable Puerto Rico to “restructure its debt in a rational way that does not harm its people, ordinary investors or pension funds in the United States.” He blamed the island’s debt crisis on “the policies of austerity and the greed of large financial institutions.”
The flow of Puerto Ricans to Florida has altered the calculus of politics there. Whereas politicians once catered to the conservative, anti-Castro Cuban opinion that dominated the Latino vote, now the Cuban American consensus on Cuba has fractured and the Puerto Rican population has swelled.
That Puerto Rican electorate has its own concerns.
According to polling data gathered in November by Latino Decisions, Puerto Ricans support expanding Medicaid and raising the minimum wage more strongly than Cuban Americans do, although Cuban Americans also strongly endorse those policy proposals. Education also ranks higher as a concern among Puerto Ricans.
Yet despite Jeb Bush’s efforts, the Latino Decisions poll in November showed that among Puerto Ricans in Florida, he was then getting a 42 percent “very unfavorable” rating and only 10 percent “very favorable.”
Now the territory’s economic plight might become a factor.And people in Florida keep track through readily available media from the island as well as locally.
“The Puerto Ricans living here are very, very strongly connected to the island,” said Betsy Franceschini, who is Florida regional director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, an arm of the Puerto Rican government.“They do care even though they’re here.”
Franceschini operates her agency in a modest house in Kissimmee with two flagpoles, one for the Puerto Rican flag and one for the American flag. The agency provides advice to Puerto Ricans moving from the island to the Orlando-Tampa area.The previous governor, Fortuño, had closed the office. García Padilla, fulfilling a campaign promise he made during a visit to Orlando, reopened it.
Franceschini said the key public-policy issues of concern to people who come to the office for help are the island’s fiscal crisis, its desire to use the bankruptcy code to restructure municipal debts and unequal Medicare payments by the federal government. “Folks here are very upset about that and are organizing and mobilizing,” she said, “and they want to know where the candidates stand.”