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Organizing Puerto Rican Voters In Florida


Puerto Rico's Governor Rossello held a town meeting this week - not in Puerto Rico but Central Florida. As many as 300,000 Puerto Ricans relocated to Florida after Hurricane Maria, joining more than a million Puerto Ricans already living there. NPR's Greg Allen reports that the governor has begun a campaign to organize Puerto Rican voters in Florida and other states before the midterm elections.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: When firefighter Oscar Negron sang "La Borinquena," Puerto Rico's territorial anthem, at the Kissimmee Civic Center, many of the hundreds of people there for the town meeting joined in.

OSCAR NEGRON: (Singing in Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in Spanish).

ALLEN: It was after he sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" and a unifying moment for those concerned about their island's future. Darren Soto, a Puerto Rican and the member of Congress for this area, said there's something else that unifies this community - disappointment from the federal response to Hurricane Maria.

DARREN SOTO: We're a proud people, and this is a very deeply concerning issue for us that - it's been a hundred days since much of the island has had power. They're just being treated differently, and it hurts our community. It hurts us personally. We take this personally.

ALLEN: Puerto Rico's governor was in Washington most of the week lobbying to get his island the help it needs in a disaster bill now before Congress. Rossello was disappointed last fall when Congress passed a tax bill that he says penalizes manufacturing companies on the island. In Kissimmee, he called on Puerto Ricans living on the U.S. mainland to do what people in the territory can't do - register and vote for members of Congress, Senate and in the general election for president in 2020.

RICARDO ROSSELLO: So that we can make distinction between those that have been friends of Puerto Rico and those that have turned their back and that we can be influential in the up and coming midterm election...


ROSSELLO: ...And the up and coming presidential election and that we can change the path forward.


ALLEN: Rossello says because it's a territory and doesn't have representation in Congress, Puerto Rico is at a disadvantage securing its fair share of disaster aid, even though residents are U.S. citizens. The island is competing with the Virgin Islands and some powerful states that also saw disasters this year - Florida, Texas and California. The governor is calling on Puerto Ricans to join him in tracking who in Congress votes to support the island and who doesn't.

ROSSELLO: When it's all said and done, we're going to tally. Our community's going to see. And of course, we're going to take strong stands when we see clear differences on policy for the people of Puerto Rico and against the people of Puerto Rico.

ALLEN: Rossello said it's not about party but about voting records. Joining him onstage, however, were two leading Democrats, Congressman Soto and Florida Senator Bill Nelson. Nelson, who's up for re-election in the fall, agreed that in the response to Hurricane Maria, Puerto Ricans were being treated like second-class citizens.

BILL NELSON: No American should have to go through what the people of Puerto Rico are still going through.


ALLEN: Nelson's expected opponent in the fall, Florida's Republican Governor Rick Scott, was also at the town meeting. Betsy Franceschini is with the Hispanic Federation, a group that's already registering Puerto Rican voters in Central Florida. She says voter outreach efforts will soon be kicking into high gear.

BETSY FRANCESCHINI: We're going to hold elected officials accountable. I think we have, right now, the position. It's our time and our influence to make a difference in the elections.

ALLEN: Puerto Rican Governor Rossello said he'll be back before the midterms to campaign in Florida, also Pennsylvania, Ohio, Connecticut and other states.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Kissimmee, Fla.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONIC ELYSIUM'S "WATERWORLD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.