January 11, 2019

Latino House Democrats to make show of new strength in Puerto Rico

By Suzanne Gamboa, NBC

AUSTIN, Texas — The overwhelming majority of Latinos in Congress are Democrats and now that their party is in charge in the U.S. House, they want Puerto Rico’s recovery to be a priority.

To that end, more than 30 Democratic members of Congress — mostly members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, but other House members too — are gathering in Puerto Rico this weekend.

They are attending the annual winter retreat of Bold PAC, the CHC’s political and fundraising arm, in Puerto Rico’s capital, San Juan.

While there, members of Congress will don their legislative hats and hold a round table with Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, the Puerto Rico Assembly’s Majority Leader Carmelo Ríos Santiago and other Puerto Rico legislative leaders.

Members are also taking medical supplies that they plan to distribute.

Rep. Tony Cárdenas, Bold PAC chairman, said holding the retreat in Puerto Rico was a priority because it is the “duty” of its members to hear from its 3.5 million American citizens about rebuilding after Hurricane Maria socked the U.S. territory in 2017.

“With a new Congress and House Democratic majority, it’s important that we represent and rebuild Puerto Rico by working together with local officials,” Cárdenas said.

Cárdenas made it clear the members wanted to show that they plan a different response to Puerto Rico than the Trump administration, which has been criticized as slow and inadequate and as failing to recognize the enormity of the hurricane’s fallout. One of the main questions is how many people died following the storm because of the length of time people were without electricity, clean water, adequate food, medical provisions and other issues.

“History will judge President Trump and his administration for their disgraceful response to one of the deadliest hurricanes to ever hit the United States,” Cárdenas said.

On Monday, Democrats in the Senate and House reintroduced bills calling for an independent investigation into the administration’s post-hurricane response.

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The conference also draws political contributors who will have opportunities for mingling with lawmakers on the island. The conference is meeting in the same weekend that award-winning actor and playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda returns to the cast of Hamilton for performances in Puerto Rico.

The visit comes as the U.S. government is in knots over how to end a showdown over President Donald Trump’s demand for billions to build a wall on the border and end a shutdown that hit its 18th day on Wednesday.

The Bold PAC conference was scheduled for Puerto Rico months before the shutdown. Though the largest contingency of House Democrats to visit the island will be many miles from the Capitol, Cardenas said they’ll be keeping an eye on the shutdown politics and be ready to respond as needed. They’ll also be able to get a bird’s-eye view of how the shutdown is affecting the island that is trying to pull itself out of a financial crisis while recovering with the devastation of Category 4 Hurricane Maria.

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“Make no mistake: The Trump shutdown is having direct impact in Puerto Rico and the recovery efforts,” Cardenas said. “More than $8 billion allocated to Puerto Rico for disaster mitigation are currently being held hostage, tourism is affected due in part of the closure of two popular historic sites and thousands of FEMA employees and federal contractors who are working to rebuild Puerto Rico are working without pay.”

In addition to the congressional PAC gathering, Latino Victory Fund will be holding its second political summit in Puerto Rico. The progressive political action committee works to get more Latinos in political office by recruiting candidates and then providing funding and support.

Latino Victory Fund began the summits after Trump won the presidential election because “we felt after 2016 we needed to convene Latino leaders and allies to develop a strategy to counter Trump and build Latino political power,” said Cristóbal Alex, Latino Victory Fund president.

He said the decision was made to move the summit from Washington to San Juan to draw a spotlight to the island “that is still in need” and to highlight the displaced residents “still in need because of the failed federal response.”

His gathering will work on a plan for improving conditions in Puerto Rico and also on “how we take back the White House.”

Democrats seized control of the U.S. House after winning more than enough seats in the 2018 midterm elections to be in the majority. Republicans still control the Senate.

But in Florida, where the largest Puerto Rican population can be found, Democrat Bill Nelson lost his U.S. Senate seat to former Florida Gov. Rick Scott.

Scott had made more than a dozen trips to Puerto Rico, created programs to welcome islanders who fled their hurricane-ravaged island for Florida, spent a record $8 million on ads targeting Latinos and was a regular presence on Puerto Rican television.

“As a result, Democrats didn’t do as well as we would have liked in Florida, so there will be an important conversation, the beginning of several conversations of how we do better in Florida, which we absolutely need to do,” Alex said.