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Democratic presidential hopefuls call for Puerto Rico’s governor to resign

Tensions mounted in Puerto Rico mid-July, as protesters called for embattled Gov. Ricardo Rosselló (D) to resign. (Video: The Washington Post)

Democratic presidential hopefuls are expressing solidarity with Puerto Rican protesters in denouncing the island territory’s governor — with some candidates joining the call for resignation — as thousands of Puerto Ricans have taken to the streets after chats containing offensive comments were leaked.

Former U.S. housing secretary Julián Castro on Friday became the first candidate to explicitly say Gov. Ricardo Rosselló should resign, a position later joined by Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who said earlier this week that Rosselló “must answer to the Puerto Rican people.”

Other candidates have also weighed in, saying they stand with the governor’s critics. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) was in Puerto Rico on Friday “to support protesters,” a spokesperson for the candidate told The Washington Post. She’s expected to stay until Sunday. In tweets, Gabbard and self-help author Marianne Williamson used the #RickyRenuncia (“Resign Ricky”) hashtag, which is associated with the protest movement.

Protesters are outraged over leaked online messages between Rosselló and other officials in which the governor disparages gay people and women, jokes about someone shooting the female mayor of San Juan, speaks lightly of the deaths of hurricane victims and insults journalists, opponents and even supporters. Rosselló’s constituents say they are also fed up with financial mismanagement and charges of corruption against public servants.

This month, the FBI arrested Puerto Rico’s former secretary of education and five other people for allegedly misusing $15.5 million in federal money by directing it to well-connected but unqualified contractors. The territory has declared bankruptcy and is still struggling to recover from Hurricane Maria, which devastated the island in 2017.

The more than 3 million residents of Puerto Rico cannot vote in the presidential election, but they can vote in the Democratic and Republican primaries. And candidates have signaled they are paying attention to the territory as they seek support from the Latino community.

Because they are born American citizens, Puerto Ricans who live in the continental United States or Hawaii are eligible to vote in the general election. They are an especially important demographic in the swing state of Florida, where Democrats hope their growing numbers could help turn the state blue — especially after President Trump’s response to Hurricane Maria.

Castro has paid particular attention to Puerto Rico, choosing it earlier this year for his first campaign stop beyond Texas. His tweet Friday called Rosselló's comments “disgraceful.”

“I stand with the Puerto Ricans in the streets protesting for his resignation,” Castro said. “Excessive force against them is not acceptable.”

Castro wasn’t the first to join the discussion over the governor, though. On Wednesday, Warren called Rosselló’s comments “deeply offensive,” saying “his actions are hurtful & undermine the public trust.”

Fellow 2020 hopeful and former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.) expressed similar support for the governor’s critics the next day — in Spanish. O’Rourke, who is from El Paso, spoke Spanish at the first Democratic presidential debate, last month in Miami.

And Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), former vice president Joe Biden, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg later tweeted on the issue, too, sharing their support for the protesters and for accountability for the governor but not calling outright for his resignation.

Hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans have taken to the streets outside the governor’s residence this past week to demand that Rosselló step down, the Associated Press reported. The 40-year-old embattled politician, the son of a past governor, left a family vacation in France early on July 11 to return to Puerto Rico as public criticism mounted.

Rosselló apologized for his “inappropriate” messages in a public address Tuesday.

“We will make changes — no doubt,” he said. “I’ve made the determination that I have to keep my promise and continue to work to do the job that the public has trusted me to do.”

But the backlash against the governor has continued. Friday saw more protests as horseback riders, motorcyclists and marchers gathered outside La Fortaleza (“The Fort”) in Old San Juan, where the governor resides, according to the Associated Press.

Criticism of the governor comes as policymakers in Washington debate federal aid to help Puerto Rico continue its recovery from Hurricane Maria. Republicans, including Trump, have called to decrease the assistance, pointing to recent charges against members of Rosselló's administration as evidence funding is being misused. But Democrats and Puerto Rican officials say the help is much-needed.

During his visit to Puerto Rico earlier this year, Castro emphasized the need to support the island in the wake of a natural disaster that killed thousands.

“We need to make sure not only that you recover, but that you thrive,” Castro said at a Latino Victory Fund event during the trip. “To make sure that you are respected. To make sure that you count.”

Warren and Klobuchar have also traveled to Puerto Rico, according to ABC. Visiting in January, Warren slammed the Trump administration’s hurricane response and called for Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator William “Brock” Long to resign.

“Puerto Rico has not been treated with respect,” she said. “It is insulting.

But Puerto Rico came up only once during the first Democratic debate, some commentators noted — when Castro discussed the costs of climate change and touted his visit to the territory.

“People should know if I’m elected president, everybody will count,” he said.

Amy B Wang contributed to this report.