Trump saw gains among Florida Puerto Ricans. They say Democrats 'don't hear us'

©Miami Herald

Tom Perez, Chair of the Democratic National Committee, speaks at the National Action Network (NAN) Commitment March at the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, DC, Aug. 28, 2020. - Michael Brochstein/Sipa USA/TNS

MIAMI — Less than a month before Election Day, Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez stood in front of a mural in Miami commemorating the victims of Hurricane Maria and recalled the pleas of a man he met in the Puerto Rican city of Ponce after the 2017 storm devastated the island of more than 3 million.

“Mr. President,” repeated Perez, “Boricuas son Americanos.”

Maria, which struck as a Category 4 monster of a hurricane, led to widely held expectations that it would reshape Florida’s political destiny by fueling a mass exodus, mostly to Central Florida, of hundreds of thousands of left-leaning Puerto Ricans disgusted with President Donald Trump’s response to the storm — an effort symbolized by Trump tossing paper towels to stranded victims of the storm.

Perez’s recollection — a storm victim reminding him that “Puerto Ricans are Americans” — was part of Democrats’ outreach in Wynwood, a part of Miami once considered a Boricua enclave. But the effort proved to be too late for many Puerto Ricans. Instead of gaining support among Puerto Ricans, Democrats lost ground. Four years after winning Florida by 113,000 votes, Trump won it again on Nov. 3 by triple that amount.

Much of the Florida focus in the wake of the election has been on Trump’s stunning improvement with Latino voters in Miami-Dade County. But according to a Miami Herald analysis of Latino-majority voting precincts in Orange and Osceola counties, two Central Florida counties with the largest Puerto Rican communities in the state, Trump also made unexpected gains in a community where he is broadly disliked.

And in one of the few Latino electorates in Florida where messages against socialism are not particularly effective, Trump’s gains raise questions about Democrats’ ability to connect with voters believed crucial to their chances of winning statewide elections in the future.

“The paper towel throwing and the hurricane were not the lens through which Puerto Ricans were looking at the election,” said Latino-focused research company Equis Research co-founder Carlos Odio, noting the potential consequences for Democrats if they can’t connect with a community expected to help the party compete in the nation’s biggest battleground state. “Going forward, it opens up a lot of questions of what the Democratic coalition is going to look like.”

While President-elect Joe Biden largely won high support among Florida Puerto Ricans, reaching up to an estimated 68%, according to an exit poll by Edison Research, Trump improved his numbers in a community that Democrats have largely seen as crucial to win the state of Florida. Trump received as much as 39% of votes in some heavily Latino Orange County precincts, according to the Herald’s analysis. Overall, according to Odio’s own estimates, Trump received about 32% support from Puerto Ricans in Central Florida, about an 11-point gain since 2016.

Trump’s numbers even surpassed the number of Puerto Ricans who in Florida’s 2018 U.S. Senate race supported Republican Rick Scott. Odio said Scott received about 29% of the Puerto Rican vote after visiting the island seven times after Maria, ahead of his election. In that election, those numbers were enough to help Scott edge a win over former U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson in a razor-thin election that went to a recount.

The lack of Democratic gains in this growing electorate of independent voters underscored the theory of some Florida Puerto Ricans that Democrats had reached a ceiling with their anti-Trump message and failed to appeal to Puerto Ricans who were more worried about how to pay their bills and losing small businesses as a result of the pandemic.

“We saw these double standards, of how (Democrats) treated faith-based communities and how they treated small businesses,” said Leo Valentin, a Puerto Rican doctor and former Republican candidate who ran for office and lost to U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy in Central Florida. “It’s partly the forgetting about small businesses who don’t have the resources to defend themselves from these measures.”

Cesar Ramirez, chairman of the Democratic Hispanic Caucus of Florida, said he was slightly disappointed with the number of Puerto Ricans who voted for Biden, a figure he thought would surpass 80%.

“I think we started the conversation with people who already believe in the cause,” said Ramírez. “I’m very proud of the campaign and the involvement and the work that we did to reach very different demographics … (but Republicans) also worked hard as well on their side.”

Among Trump’s new supporters in the Florida Puerto Rican community are a growing group of conservatives who are deeply religious. According to a 2017 study by Pew Research Center, Puerto Ricans are overwhelmingly Christian, and those on the island tend to be more conservative on social issues, like access to abortion, than those who live on the mainland.

Rafael Mojica, a Puerto Rican pastor at Kissimmee’s Nacion de Fe, preaches every Sunday to a crowd of about 650 churchgoers, 92% of whom he says are Puerto Rican. Mojica has been deeply involved in Trump’s reelection campaign, hosting Vice President Mike Pence in January to speak to the Latino church, focusing on his faith.

“The people who come from Puerto Rico … they have this mentality of what they hear at home. That we’re Democrats, that Republicans are bad,” Mojica said. “The problem is a lot of people think about the candidate, but what’s the platform? … Thankfully, we’ve successfully given the right information to a lot of people.”

In recent days, the reckoning among Democrats over what could’ve been done to reach Puerto Ricans living in Central Florida has amplified the frustrations among some Puerto Rican staffers within the Florida coordinated campaign for Biden, who say they spent months raising concerns about the lack of in-person outreach in Florida, the state with the largest population of island-born Boricuas in the country.

“We want to keep our traditions and our culture intact, but that doesn’t mean that we aren’t Americans also,” said Millie Raphael, who is Puerto Rican and was brought into the Biden campaign as a Latino outreach associate in South Florida. “That’s the problem I have with the Democratic Party. They pigeonhole us to what they think our problems should be.”

Raphael, who worked on the Andrew Gillum campaign for Florida governor, said she was part of the reason Perez held an in-person event in front of the mural in Wynwood. The commemorative wall was unofficially unveiled during a “Boricuas con Biden” caravan, with about a hundred supporters gathering near the mural on Sept. 20, the anniversary of Maria. But according to Raphael, the night before the caravan was set to take place, the campaign refused to be officially linked to the event because it was in person during a pandemic.

“The path to the White House leads to Florida, and the path to Florida leads to Hispanics, and the path to Hispanics leads to Puerto Ricans,” Raphael said.

“We would not be wondering today if there will be a soft coup if we had delivered Florida,” she added, a reference to Trump’s refusal to concede the race to Biden.

Despite the disappointing results for Democrats in the state, there is renewed hope in the Puerto Rican communities of Osceola County that this election marked a milestone in the representation of Puerto Ricans in local political positions. Kissimmee elected its first Puerto Rican mayor, Olga Gonzalez, in a nonpartisan race. Marco Lopez, a Democrat, was elected as the first Puerto Rican Sheriff in Osceola County.

The voting precinct located at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, which has a student population that is nearly 30% Latino, exceeded 100% voter turnout, a result of last minute address changes for voters on campus.

“I think that’s another story that’s been lost in all of this,” said UCF’s Fernando Rivera, founder and director of the Puerto Rico Research Hub. “That’s the next wave of a lot of these Latino groups, young people who are exercising their right to vote.”

Although some of the gains and numbers seem to point to an opportunity for Democrats, Nicole Rodriguez, the former president of the Miami-Dade chapter of the Democratic Hispanic Caucus of Florida, said Florida Democrats failing to invest in outreach with Puerto Ricans in the past two elections will ultimately turn some Boricuas away from the party.

She speaks from experience: This year, she said she decided to change her voter registration to no party affiliation.

“They don’t hear us,” said Rodriguez, who is Puerto Rican. “We’re citizens, but it’s as if we’re not citizens.”

Rodríguez took to Facebook to post screenshots of text messages she sent to Democratic Latino campaign leaders before the election asking for details of Biden’s plan for the island and to discuss how the campaign would reach out to Puerto Ricans. Many of the messages went unanswered.

“The only thing you have to do is get them out to vote,” said Rodríguez. “That’s got to be your priority … just be there.”

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(Staff writer David Smiley contributed to this report.)

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©2020 Miami Herald