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Calderon's Voting Push Is Right On The Money, Drive Targeting Florida

Calderon's Voting Push Is Right On The Money

Myriam Marquez

JULY 25, 2002
©Copyright 2002 Orlando Sentinel. All world rights reserved.

Today Puerto Ricans celebrate 50 years of their island's status as a U.S. commonwealth. Actually, "celebrate" is a misnomer, many pro-statehood Puerto Ricans would say. They will "mark" the day, but what's to celebrate?

Only one delegate in Congress who can't vote on the floor. No legal way for Puerto Ricans to vote for president if they live on the island. And no way to get the amount of federal funds that would be due to the island if it were a state.

Of course, statehood would extract a price from Puerto Rico, too. Islanders would have to pay a federal income tax, for instance. It's an issue Puerto Ricans need to decide, one way or another.

Yet statehood leaders on the island seem more eager to criticize pro-commonwealth Gov. Sila Calderon on virtually anything she proposes than to come to the table to find a solution to what ails the island. Such delay tactics aren't new to either party.

During the 1990s, pro-statehood Gov. Pedro Rosello pushed for Congress to allow a binding vote for Puerto Ricans, but the proposals were mired in infighting among the island's political groups. Commonwealth supporters blamed statehooders for trying to make the commonwealth alternative less attractive to voters. Twice during the Rosello years, Puerto Ricans supported commonwealth, but by slim margins and always less than 50 percent. Voter support for a third choice -- independence -- has stayed in the single digits.

Now Calderon wants Puerto Ricans to present a "united front" before Congress and settle the issue. "This is my proposal, for the three parties to sit down and try to get a consensus. What do we want? If it takes a year, two years we have to go with a united voice," she said during a phone interview last week.

To continue the infighting, Calderon said, "gives the perfect excuse for Congress people not to act."

Calderon may have the best of intentions in creating a Unity and Consensus Commission, but pro-statehood leaders suspect otherwise. They don't want to participate.

Many Puerto Ricans are tired of the charges and counter-charges on both sides, which explains why a substantial number disconnect from the political process when they arrive on the mainland. In Central Florida, that has been the case for several elections. Puerto Ricans have yet to flex their political clout here, even though voter turnout on the island consistently is greater than 80 percent.

Calderon is right to push for a nonpartisan voter registration and get-out-the-vote drive in Florida, New York and eight other states with large concentrations of Puerto Ricans. But statehooders don't trust her on this issue, either. They complain she's spending $6 million of the island's money to interfere with mainland politics, which they suspect must have something to do with getting more stateside advocates for comomonwealth.

"This campaign has nothing to do with putting any particular candidate into office," she responds. "I don't see [the $6 million spent on a get-out-the-vote drive] as a cost, but as an investment in democracy."

She's right. Puerto Ricans move back and forth from the island to the mainland, so what happens in Orlando can affect the islanders and vice-versa. When better-off retirees leave the island and less-trained people seeking jobs go to Puerto Rico, for instance, that affects the island's economy. When working-class families with children take them out of Central Florida schools to move to the island and then come here again, that affects those kids' ability to be consistent performers in public schools and can cost taxpayers here more, too.

"Puerto Ricans are one family. We go back and forth. I do have a responsibility to bring this [voter-outreach] message across in a nonpartisan way," Calderon says, adding she's not affiliated with either the Democratic or the Republican party for good reason. She has enough on her hands with island politics.

Calderon's voting push is right on the money. Economic and political empowerment go hand in hand. Puerto Ricans who now live in Central Florida should ignore the squabbling between island leaders and concentrate on their future in the here and now. They need to vote.

Puerto Rico Voter Drive Targeting Florida

By Tanya Weinberg

JULY 16, 2002
©Copyright 2002 South Florida Sun-Sentinel. All world rights reserved.

The governor of Puerto Rico wants to activate almost 700,000 unregistered voters who cannot vote for her.

Gov. Sila M. Calderón is not the first to recognize the potential of untapped Puerto Rican voters living on the mainland United States, but Monday she announced that her office will aggressively seek to register thousands of voters to vote in 2002 and 2004 races.

"We certainly can make a difference, and that is why I am launching this campaign today," Calderón said at a New York City news conference broadcast at Broward Community College's south campus in Pembroke Pines.

The governor's office says that while 80 percent of Puerto Ricans turn out for elections on the island, on the mainland United States only 40 percent of the 1.7 million eligible voters turn out. Another 660,000 are not even registered.

This year, the island celebrates 50 years as a commonwealth of the United States. That special status affords Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship and the right to vote in U.S. elections, if they live on the mainland.

In all, 3.4 million Puerto Ricans live in the United States. The island is home to 3.9 million more who cannot vote for president or members of the Congress who formulate federal legislation affecting Puerto Rico.

Puerto Ricans do not have the money power, one of the two types of political power in the United States, said the governor's regional director in South Florida, Manuel Benitez-Gorbea. But the other kind, voting power, is within reach.

"We have the numbers," he said. "It can make a difference of who sits in Washington, that's for sure."

While the Democratic and Republican parties continue to reach out to Hispanic voters, particularly non-Cubans who have been identified as possible swing voters, many South Florida Puerto Ricans think their ranks have been largely ignored.

The Orlando area is home to concentrated pockets of 117,000 Puerto Ricans, but South Florida's more dispersed 160,000 Puerto Ricans largely have been overshadowed by the region's 725,000 Cubans, who tend to vote Republican. Politicians have been slow to target the Puerto Rican vote here, local leaders say.

"There's a perception they haven't been paying attention to the Puerto Rican vote in South Florida," said Raul Duany, chairman of the Puerto Rican Professional Association of South Florida.

He identifies several explanations, including that many Puerto Ricans vote for candidates, not parties, and are not registered to vote in primaries. And although Puerto Ricans are the second-largest Hispanic group in Florida after Cubans, the natural U.S. citizens are harder to mobilize than other Hispanic groups, he said.

Cubans for one, he said, are easily united in their opposition to Fidel Castro.

"You can talk to Cubans easily, you can play that violin forever. You can talk to other Latin Americans about immigration and they love it. What can you talk to Puerto Ricans about?" he said. "They care about the same things you care about, education, social security, jobs."

Duany says he would like to organize a league of voters to work to encourage Puerto Ricans' integration into and participation in a political system different from the one on the island.

Such efforts are necessary before politicians will start to work hard for the Puerto Rican vote that could dictate the way Florida, a swing-vote state, swings, said Minerva Casañas-Simon, president of the Puerto Rican Democratic Club and assistant to Broward County Commissioner Ben Graber.

"Our community has been very quiet and invisible for too long," said Casañas-Simon. "We could be that swing vote if we came out to vote."

Still, Casañas-Simon says, Democratic candidates for governor Janet Reno and Bill McBride are paying attention to the Hispanic vote. Last week Gov. Jeb Bush was in South Florida proclaiming his commitment to the Hispanic community. And nationally, President George W. Bush wants to continue making gains among non-Cuban Hispanic voters, who have traditionally leaned Democrat.

As U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans are the most accessible voters of these, said Sharon Castillo, deputy director of communications of the Republican National Committee.

"It's important to reach out to this group, because once they get to the mainland, they can vote right away," she said.

Castillo also is host to the GOP's recently launched monthly Spanish language news magazine television program shown in six U.S. cities including Miami and Orlando. She is also a Puerto Rican.

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