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How Florida’s Puerto Rican voters could help elect Andrew Gillum
Florida Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum addresses supporters Monday after Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló endorsed him at a campaign rally in Kissimmee, Florida. John Raoux/AP

Andrew Gillum took the stage at a campaign rally in Kissimmee, Florida, on Monday and announced he wants to be “the candidate of the Boricuas” in his bid for the state’s governorship.

“I want that label, and not in a tokenizing way,” Gillum, flanked by Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, told the crowd assembled in the heart of one of Florida’s most prominent Puerto Rican strongholds. “I want it in a way that says we understand each other, in a way that says we’re one and the same. You’re not gifting any of us anything. We work for what we’ve got.”

The speech coincided with a long-sought endorsement from Rosselló in Gillum’s battle against Republican Rep. Ron DeSantis to become Florida’s first African-American governor. Hours earlier, Rosselló also offered a crucial endorsement to Democrat Bill Nelson in his tight U.S. Senate re-election campaign.

For both Democrats, the support marked a coveted vote of confidence from a prominent Puerto Rican official amid a mass exodus from the island that continues to reshape Florida’s voting demographics in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

Supporters clap and cheer for Florida Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum on Monday after Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló endorsed him at a campaign rally in Kissimmee, Florida.
Supporters clap and cheer for Florida Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum on Monday after Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló endorsed him at a campaign rally in Kissimmee, Florida. John Raoux/AP

After the Category 4 storm devastated infrastructure, downed power grids and caused an estimated 2,975 deaths in the fall of 2017, more than 135,000 Puerto Ricans fled to the mainland U.S., with a particularly large concentration now permanently settled in Central Florida, according to a report from the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York.

Because Puerto Rico is a U.S. commonwealth and its residents are already citizens, they are instantly eligible to vote in federal elections upon completing a permanent change of address — creating a feeding frenzy on both sides of the aisle as the candidates in Florida’s close gubernatorial and Senate races scramble to overcome their respective razor-thin margins and sail to victory in November. (The most recent aggregate of polls compiled by RealClearPolitics has Gillum ahead in his race by 4.5 points and Nelson up by 1.1 points.)

Although Florida voters have historically put up some of the country’s lowest midterm turnouts, candidates like Gillum and Nelson are hoping galvanizing Hispanic voters will be a boon to their respective campaigns. To that end, there’s more good news for Gillum and Nelson: Voters of Puerto Rican descent overwhelmingly tend to lean Democratic, to the tune of 70%, according to Politico.

Rosselló’s endorsement Monday was predictable given Trump’s unpopularity on the island following his famously flip response to Hurricane Maria during relief efforts. In the aftermath of the storm, the president incited controversy by cheerfully tossing paper towels to hurricane survivors and deeming the storm “not that bad”; publicly sparring with San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz; and, as recently as September, disputing the disaster’s staggering death toll — nearly as high as the number of victims whose lives were lost in the 9/11 terrorist attacks — by claiming the number was a political ploy Democrats conjured up to make him look bad.

On Monday, Gillum — the son of a school bus driver whose unapologetically progressive platform includes support for “Medicare-for-all,” boosting public education spending and abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement — capitalized on Trump’s sagging approval rating among Puerto Ricans by stressing unity in the wake of Maria’s destruction.

“After Hurricane Maria, we saw so many of our communities swell with folks leaving the island, coming here to make sure they could get access to electricity and water and housing and work,” Gillum said. “What I want those in the commonwealth of Puerto Rico to know is that I know that Florida is the largest community of Puerto Ricans off the island. We’ve got to be each others’ first responders.”