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Puerto Ricans Hear Message From Home: Get Out And Vote... Calderon Rallies Paterson Residents

Puerto Ricans Hear Message From Home: Get Out And Vote

By Clea Benson

September 1, 2002
Copyright © 2002 The Philadelphia Inquirer. All rights reserved.

The red-white-and-blue billboard at the corner of Fifth and Diamond Streets in North Philadelphia reads Boricua, inscrebete y vota - "Puerto Rican , register and vote."

It doesn't seem too different from a typical good-government campaign. But this one is being driven by a politician who represents an island 1,500 miles away.

Sila Calderon, governor of Puerto Rico, has launched a three-year, $6 million campaign to encourage Puerto Ricans on the U.S. mainland to register and vote here.

Pennsylvania and New Jersey are among 10 states targeted for the effort, which is aimed at registering voters and encouraging Puerto Ricans to become interested in mainland politics.

Coordinators in South Jersey and in Philadelphia and its western suburbs are putting up billboards, descending upon Puerto Rican festivals and parades, and encouraging store owners to post signs and chat about politics with their patrons.

"On the island, people eat, sleep and drink politics," said Maria Quinones-Sanchez, director of the Puerto Rican government's regional office in Pennsylvania. "We're always talking about it. We have to develop that same mindset here."

On the island of Puerto Rico , voter turnout is considered low if it dips below 80 percent.

But only about 40 percent of Puerto Ricans here are registered to vote. And turnout tends to be abysmal - sometimes falling as low as 16 percent in some of Philadelphia's largely Puerto Rican neighborhoods.

Because most everything in Puerto Rico is fodder for political debate, Calderon's mainland voter campaign has been no exception.

After Calderon launched the initiative in July, she was skewered by her enemies in Puerto Rico , who contended that she was just trying to help her political allies on the mainland and burnish her own image. Some questioned whether the money could be better spent in Puerto Rico .

"There's always going to be a critical issue that people feel will require more attention than this," said Quinones-Sanchez. "But this was one of [Calderon's] early commitments when she was campaigning. There was this sense that the Puerto Rican communities of the mainland are always there for the Puerto Ricans in their crises."

The campaign, Quinones-Sanchez said, is designed to show mainland Puerto Ricans "that Puerto Rico is there for them... . There's a bridge that goes back and forth."

But Calderon's initiative is aimed at much more than the local empowerment of Puerto Ricans .

Residents of the island, which this summer marked its 50th year as a U.S. commonwealth, do not have voting representation in the U.S. Congress and cannot vote in presidential elections, even though they are U.S. citizens.

The Calderon government is hoping that mainland Puerto Ricans will become an important bloc in congressional districts, influencing the way Congress votes on issues such as military testing on the island of Vieques , funding for research on health problems - such as diabetes - that affect many Puerto Ricans , and funding for social programs.

The Puerto Rican government has identified 55 congressional districts that have "significant concentrations" of Puerto Ricans living in them.

And because Congress makes decisions that impact Puerto Rico , noted Gloria Soto, director of the Puerto Rican government's New Jersey regional office, voter registration "has the one-two punch - empowering people in New Jersey but also helping with legislative issues."

Analyzing U.S. Census data, Soto and her staff noticed a shift in the Puerto Rican population toward South Jersey. They are concentrating some of their efforts there, and plan to open a voter registration office on Cooper Street in Camden this week.

Last week in Philadelphia, workers in T-shirts with a logo resembling the Puerto Rican flag stood outside Cousin's Supermarket at Fifth and Luzerne Streets with voter registration cards.

Maria Falu-Acosta, one of the workers, said that Puerto Ricans on the island know their politicians better than they do here, sometimes hanging out with them in cafes or inviting them over for dinner.

"Here, you don't see that as much," she said. "There, the relationships with elected officials are a lot closer."

Puerto Ricans Urged To Vote; Island's Governor Rallies Paterson Residents


September 4, 2002
Copyright © 2002 The Record, Bergen County, NJ, North Jersey Media Group Inc. All rights reserved.

PATERSON - At times, the line of would-be voters snaked around a corner outside City Hall on Tuesday afternoon as banners with the words "Que Nada Nos Detenga" or "Let Nothing Stop Us" hung overhead.

But this voting drive came not at the urging of local or state politicians, but from one who had to travel 1,600 miles to Paterson.

Puerto Rico Gov. Sila Calderon brought her three-year, $6 million voter registration campaign to New Jersey on Tuesday, asking Puerto Rico natives to exercise their most basic right the way they did back home. Although 80 percent of Puerto Ricans vote while they are on the island, less than half that percentage vote when they come to the mainland, according to Calderon's office.

"It takes two seconds to register but it gives you a lifetime of power," Calderon told the crowd of about 100 who rallied in front of City Hall under a scorching sun.

Puerto Ricans are the largest Latino group in New Jersey with more than 360,000 residents. Only a third, however, are registered to vote, according to Calderon's office. Just over 50 percent of Paterson's 149,000 residents are Latino.

"When it's your home or your neighborhood, you have much more of an investment," said Marcos Vilar, a special assistant at the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration in Washington, D.C., who attended the rally. "It takes a lot longer to get adjusted here."

Despite standing side by side with some of the most prominent state and local Democrats, including Governor McGreevey, Paterson Mayor Joey Torres, Passaic County Democratic leader John Currie, and Rep. Robert Menendez, D-Union City, Calderon said her voting-drive efforts are non-partisan. "These efforts do not involve any endorsement of any candidate of any party," she said while campaign workers for Sen. Robert G. Torricelli handed out stickers to those registering.

Calderon's Popular Democratic Party is not officially affiliated with Democrats or Republicans on the mainland.

In August, more than 30 Puerto Rican mayors began a campaign in Florida to lure native Puerto Ricans to vote Republican, especially for Gov. Jeb Bush, who is seeking reelection this fall. They hope support from top Republicans on the mainland will help their efforts for statehood .

Aides to Calderon, who supports Puerto Rico 's status as a commonwealth, said her drive is not to designed to generate opposition to statehood .

Calderon, who earlier in the day held a similar rally with McGreevey in Camden, began her campaign in July and has targeted 10 states, including New York, Pennsylvania, and Delaware, to register voters before the 2004 presidential election. Aides said they have already registered 31,000 new voters including about 4,000 in New Jersey.

"Many of these communities represent swing votes that could potentially decide elections across the nation," she said. "It is essential that we begin to recognize the value of this resource and utilize it to make a difference."

More than 50 people registered at the Paterson rally. "It's so important because you can speak out on things with your vote," said Jose Maldonado, 50, of Paterson, who registered shortly after moving to the mainland 25 years ago.

The Paterson drive will continue with door-to-door visits until Oct. 7, the registration deadline for November elections. It will resume shortly thereafter for non-partisan elections in the spring, organizers said.

They will attempt to register anyone eligible, not just Puerto Ricans. Although New Jersey has more than 4.6 million registered voters, about 6 million are eligible.

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