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Maribel Hastings: “In Central Florida, Building Alliances to Mobilize Voters”

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ORLANDO, Florida – With the midterms approaching, Maribel Hastings, America’s Voice en Español Director, wrote the following article as a part of the series Voz y Voto 2018, which was originally published in La Opinión, focusing on the on the ground alliances between groups in Florida looking to mobilize Latino voters to seek change.

The entire article is available online here in Spanish and translated below:

As we approach the first anniversary of Hurricane María in Puerto Rico, the images of devastation, the questionable response of the federal government to the disaster, and in particular the callousness of President Donald Trump — are alive within the thousands of Puerto Ricans who were forced to leave the island, settling in Central Florida, and in the minds of their relatives, friends, and acquaintances.

Many Puerto Ricans registered to vote as soon as they touched Floridian soil and they are ready to exercise their right to vote, with Hurricane María in mind. This week Trump added insult to injury by stating that his Hurricane María response was an “incredible unsung success.” He added that hurricane did not result in 3,000 deaths in Puerto Rico and that this is a plot by Democrats “in order to make me look as bad as possible.”

However, “María” is not the only factor motivating their vote, they’re also being driven by Trump and his attacks against the immigrant community — attacks that Puerto Ricans, despite being U.S. citizens, feel are directed toward the entire Latino community.

“For Puerto Ricans, immigration, the separation of children from their parents at the border, and denial of passports to American citizens at the border are important. We know that there is no distinction, that they judge us all the same way and that it is a struggle we have to face together, and that is why it is important to make alliances,” said Frederick Vélez, director of the Respeta mi Gente  campaign, created by Alianza for Progress and supported by various civic groups that seek to educate and mobilize voters in Florida. Among those groups are Alianza, Mi Familia Vota, Boricua Vota, Vamos por Puerto Rico, Organize Florida, Hispanic Federation, Faith in Florida, Jobs for Justice, Mission Boricua, and FLIC.

For Soraya Márquez, state coordinator of Mi Familia Vota in Florida, Trump “has not only been a motivational element for people to register and vote, but, even more importantly, he has pushed people to become U.S. citizens.”

“The average resident has been here for more than ten years. And you begin to notice that previously, residents weren’t interested in becoming citizens because people did not see a difference between being a citizen and being a resident. And I explained to them that it was not the same. Being a citizen gives you the right to vote, and in the United States voting is worth it because your vote counts,” she added.

“When I see how many years they’ve lived as residents, I can’t help but come to the conclusion that [Trump] has been a determining factor for them wanting to become citizens now, because they see it is dangerous not to do it,” said Márquez.

Vélez notes that “although Trump is an important factor, the issues that mobilize Puerto Rican voters are the same as those that concern all Americans here in Florida: lack of affordable housing, quality education, affordable health care, and a decent  living wage. “

A recent poll by Latino Decisions for the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) found that, at the national level, the chief motivation of Latinos who say they will vote in the mid-term elections in November is to stop Trump and the Republican agenda. According to the survey of registered Latino voters, 67% indicated that they are very likely to vote in the November elections.

Another survey by the Global Strategy Group for the Hispanic Federation, Latino Victory Fund, Alianza for Progress, and Power 4 Puerto Rico, on the preferences of Latino voters in Florida — including a sample of Latinos in Orlando — found that job creation, affordable housing, immigration, and climate change are central issues for Latino voters in Florida.

The same survey found that the reconstruction of Puerto Rico after Hurricane María is a unifying factor for Latino voters in Florida. 64% percent said that should be one of the issues that the next U.S. senator should address. For 82% of Puerto Ricans and 58% of Cubans, the reconstruction of the island is a priority.

Vélez assures that the enthusiasm for voting in Central Florida is clear.

“The enthusiasm has been rising. I was here in 2012, 2014, and 2016 and I can assure you that this year is totally different. Everyone, including citizens and naturalized citizens, have realized that they have to vote. In many Latino precincts there were increases of up to 200% participation in this year’s primaries compared to 2016. And compared to 2014, the increase is even greater,” confirmed Vélez.

“Even those who cannot vote are joining the electoral process. They are working with us to get the Latino community to vote. I think this has a lot to do with what has happened in these last two years [of the Trump presidency]. Before, we could go out to vote at 30% and achieve small things, but now we have to go out and vote so that they respect us,” said Vélez.

Florida is a key state in every election and the Latino vote is fundamental, especially in closed elections. Aside from the fight for the governorship between Republican Ron DeSantis and  Democrat Andrew Gillum, there are 27 seats at stake in the U.S. House, and Democratic Senator Bill Nelson is seeking reelection against Republican Rick Scott, the current governor of Florida.

Of the registered voters in Florida, 16% are Latino; half of those voters are Cuban (28%) and Puerto Rican (22%).

In 2018, Trump won Florida by 1.2% of the vote. But Trump’s insulting rhetoric on immigration has resulted in prejudiced public policies which have led republican politicians whose futures depend heavily on the Latino vote to try to distance themselves from Trump, but only enough so that they can survive the elections. That is, they want to appeal to Latinos without alienating the Trump base.

This is how Republican Rick Scott has been approaching his campaign, particularly when addressing Puerto Ricans of Central Florida, including running ads in Spanish.

The Trump-Republican dichotomy manifests itself in the perception that Puerto Rican voters have about Scott. For example, a poll released this summer by the Florida  International University found that although 7 out of 10 Puerto Ricans have a negative image of Trump, 55% have a positive image of Scott.

Scott, unlike Trump, did not throw rolls of paper towels to the victims of Hurricane María in Puerto Rico. Nor did he declare that the “real catastrophe” had occurred in Louisiana with Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Trump declared in the first days after Hurricane María that only 16 people were dead. A few days ago, a report from the George Washington University, requested by the government of Puerto Rico, concluded that Hurricane María and its aftermath killed close to 3,000 people. In another study by Harvard University, the figure exceeds 4,000. Katrina claimed 1,833 lives.

Scott, on the other hand, visited the island repeatedly and received the victims in Florida with open arms, offering assistance and guidance to Puerto Ricans — who, as U.S. citizens, cannot vote if they reside on the island, but can register as soon as they arrive in the continental United States.

Senator Bill Nelson, the Democratic incumbent, has been criticized for his poor outreach to Florida Latinos. But recent polls show the race between the two is tied

Vélez, Director of the Respeta Mi Gente campaign, launched a message to voters: “You must differentiate between those who say they have done things for the community and those who have really done them. Certainly Senator Nelson could have done more to get closer to the Latino community, but if we look at his record and the legislation he has supported, he has worked for our community. Meanwhile, Rick Scott, for the past eight years — no matter how many times he has gone to Puerto Rico — has supported policies that have been negative for our community: less affordable housing, policies that harm our environment, doesn’t believe in renewable energy. For the past eight years, Scott has not been an ally of our community,” said Vélez.

The Nelson-Scott race is one of the most important in the 2018 election and is one in which the Latino vote — particularly the Puerto Rican vote that in Florida tends to register without party affiliation — will be decisive.

“I feel that a group of people who lost everything, who sign up without party affiliation, will care little, if at all, if they vote Democrat or Republican. What is going to be important to them is: who helped me, who held out my hand, who could empathize with the fact that I had to come here to start over and search for a new life. Campaigns are trying to manipulate the Puerto Rican vote based on many elements. But we will see. For me it is very important to decipher that mystery on November 6,” added Márquez from Mi Familia Vota.

And depending on what happens in the Nelson-Scott race, lessons will be learned.

Political parties and campaigns tend to ignore the Latino vote and not invest enough to cultivate it consistently. They tend to reach out only during election years and even then the outreach and the investment are not enough.

“It’s not just about investing money, but about dedicating time. The community wants to see the candidates. [Florida Democratic congressman] Darren Soto won his primary with 66% of the vote and every time we talked to voters and asked them if they would support Soto they said, ‘of course, he has always been there with us,’” said Vélez.

Hence the importance of the civic groups that are dedicating themselves to the task of mobilizing Puerto Rican and Hispanic voters.

“Our campaign is highly cultural, taking into account our differences, because until now political campaigns assume that all Latinos are interested in the same issues. If we are Latinos, they think we are going to speak only about immigration,” Vélez said.

“Our message is that despite our differences in nationality, we have common interests and struggles, and we have to create alliances to get people to vote so that our issues are addressed — but above all so that we are treated with respect,” Vélez concluded.