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Puerto Rico Governor: Turn' outrage' over hurricane response into votes

Image: Damaged houses are seen on top of a hill in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico
Damaged houses are seen on top of a hill in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico on Oct. 2, 2017. Copyright Ricardo Arduengo AFP - Getty Images file
Copyright Ricardo Arduengo AFP - Getty Images file
By Carmen Sesin with NBC News
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In a speech in central Florida, Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló told Puerto Ricans living in the state to vote in the midterms against those who have not been "friends of Puerto Rico."

Gov. Ricardo Rosselló urged Puerto Ricans in Central Florida to use the 2018 midterm elections to vote against those who have not been "friends of Puerto Rico."

During a near 30-minute speech where he made his frustrations known, Rosselló accused Washington of turning its back on U.S. citizens on the island after Hurricane Maria left unimaginable damage throughout the island. The island is still without full power and clean running water more than three months after the disaster.

During his speech, Rosselló said Puerto Ricans should learn from Cuban Americans, referring to how they organized years ago as a voting bloc. "They fought together so they could get results and today, they are getting results. If they can do it, why can't we do it."

He said this is a "great opportunity for all Puerto Ricans, for those who are as outraged at the lack of rights as I am."

He said many politicians visited Puerto Rico after the storm and pledged to support its people. But "when the opportunity showed up that Congress could make good on their word … many of them turned their back on Puerto Rico and not only forgot about us but made things increasingly worse," Roselló told the audience in Kissimmee.

Rosselló was referring to the tax law that was signed a few weeks ago. The new law could put companies in Puerto Rico at a disadvantage because they will be treated as offshore firms, and therefore subject to higher taxes than those based in the mainland.

This means businesses with operations in Puerto Rico will be paying higher taxes than those on the mainland U.S. The purpose is to stop American companies from going overseas to avoid taxes but it also applies to Puerto Rico because it's treated as both foreign and domestic under the U.S. tax code.

In December, Rosselló vowed to make Florida Republicans pay for supporting the tax bill and had a disagreement with Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio. In an interview with the Miami Herald, he expressed disillusionment with Rubio, who had been vocal in his support for the island.

He said, "I am very disappointed with the fact the Senator (Marco) Rubio is going to be voting for this tax bill particularly when we had the opportunity to address the potentially devastating effects of Puerto Rico," Rosselló said at the time.

In response, Rubio told POLITICO he was surprised by Rosselló's comments because he helped defeat a "truly devastating" measure in the bill, which was a tax on subsidiaries that would have prevented corporations from avoiding taxes by putting money overseas, like in Puerto Rico.

"Sometimes people in politics, when they feel under duress or they feel they're being criticized for their job performance, look for someone to blame it on," Rubio said.

Rosselló, who advocates for Puerto Rico to become a state rather than remain a commonwealth, warned back then that the new tax law will cause jobs to dry up on the island and send even more Puerto Ricans feeing to Florida.

"Those of us who live there [Puerto Rico] don't have the political power, but guess what? Those of you who live here do," Rosselló said Friday.

Central Florida is seeing a major influx of Puerto Ricans since Hurricane Maria slammed into the U.S. territory on September 20.

Over 313,000 people have arrived in Florida from Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria, according to the Florida Division of Emergency Management. It's not known how many of these have returned or will return.

The newcomers are joining over 1 million Puerto Ricans who already live in Florida. Many of them have come in recent years fleeing the economic crisis in Puerto Rico, while others are transplants from New York and Chicago who came to the mainland during prior waves of migration.

Puerto Ricans are an attractive group of voters. Once they establish residency in the mainland United States, they can vote in U.S. elections, since Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens. They have high voter participation rates in the island.

Many of the recent arrivals, however, are not as familiar with the political landscape in Florida and the mainland U.S., since political parties differ on the island. For this reason, Republicans and Democrats alike are eyeing this group as potential swing voters.

They have the potential to sway elections in Florida, where races are often decided by a few percentage points.

Republican Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who has been actively courting displaced Puerto Ricans and may run against Democratic Florida Senator Bill Nelson in 2018, also spoke at the event. He has traveled to the island twice and has addressed problems facing Puerto Ricans who relocate to Florida.

Although Rosselló did not name Republicans specifically during his speech, he has stated previously that Florida Republicans will pay at the ballot box in 2018. Immediately following the hurricane, Rosselló appeared aligned with Donald Trump and other Republicans, but his tone has changed since.

According to Florida International University professor, Eduardo Gamarra, Rossello's speech may have been aimed at warning Puerto Ricans against Republicans like Scott, who has gone out of his way to help Puerto Ricans in Florida and on the island, but who may be perceived as having a different agenda if he is elected as U.S. Senator.

"The reality is that it's quite possible that Nelson can lose and Scott can be a U.S. senator with a significant amount of power over issues like Puerto Rico," said Gamarra. "And the Republican agenda is not going to be very generous to Puerto Rico, the rebuilding of Puerto Rico, or in fact, resolving the fiscal crisis Puerto Rico has," he said.

Roselló said he is committed to returning to Florida as well as other states to "organize our communities, so we can make them know what the issues are, so we can make distinctions between those who have been friends of Puerto Rico and those who have turned their backs, and we can be influential in the upcoming midterm elections."


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