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South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Puerto Ricans Expand Donations To GOP, Gov. Bush

By Kathy Bushouse and Doreen Hemlock

October 14, 2002
Copyright © 2002 South Florida Sun-Sentinel. All rights reserved. 

Puerto Rico residents can't vote in Florida and traditionally favor the Democratic Party, but they've contributed more than $180,000 this campaign season to Gov. Jeb Bush and the Sunshine State's Republican Party.

One key reason: Analysts say they're hoping the Spanish-speaking governor can influence his brother in the White House on Puerto Rico and Hispanic issues.

"I believe someone like him is an excellent candidate to represent Latinos in the U.S.," said Peter Diaz Santiago, 33, a Puerto Rico-based attorney who gave $10,000 to the state Republican Party.

Gov. Bush and the Republican Party received at least $182,000, from August 2001 through September, from people and businesses in Puerto Rico, according to a South Florida Sun-Sentinel review of campaign finance reports. Contributors included real estate developers, attorneys, bankers and Puerto Rican politicians.

The money to Gov. Bush and the state GOP makes up roughly 94 percent of more than $194,000 in donations from the island to all campaigns in Florida this year.

Aides to Bush say the governor's Hispanic outreach is the principal reason residents and businesses in Puerto Rico have more than doubled their contributions to Florida's governor and the Republican Party this campaign season, up from $79,040 in 1998.

In contrast, only $500 went to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill McBride from August 2001 through September. No money from Puerto Rico went to the Florida Democratic Party, state campaign-finance records show.

Puerto Rico seeks to curry favor in Washington, D.C., because the U.S. Commonwealth of nearly 4 million residents has only one representative in Congress with limited voting powers. Island residents can't cast ballots in the U.S. presidential elections. If the island were a state, it would instead have seven or eight members of Congress and two senators to represent its interests in Washington.

Executive potential

"In a colony, without people in Congress who can vote, you develop strong umbilical cords with the executive, with those close to the executive, and with those members of Congress with authority over territorial affairs," said Victor Garcia San Inocencio, a member of Puerto Rico's legislature from the pro-independence party.

Island residents seem to hope that by helping Gov. Bush, they can win the ear of his brother, President George W. Bush, and the federal administration to get more U.S. money for highways, education and housing. Many in Puerto Rico also support tax breaks for U.S. firms operating on the island and access to other programs controlled in Washington.

Some who favor statehood for Puerto Rico also hope Gov. Bush will help the Caribbean island become the 51st state.

"Jeb Bush has been a strong statehooder since he managed [George Bush Sr.'s presidential] primary campaign in Puerto Rico in 1980," said Kenneth McClintock, a pro-statehood senator in Puerto Rico who also is a leader of the U.S. Democratic Party on the island. "Since then, there's been a strong attachment from many statehooders."

Islanders also are betting Bush can better represent the interests of their brethren living the states, nearly 3.5 million including more than 400,000 in Florida. Some newcomers include executives of Puerto Rico-based companies expanding into Florida to tap the growing U.S. Hispanic market.

"The favorite place for Puerto Ricans to move to, when they move out of the island nowadays, is Florida," said Luis Fortuño, a pro-statehood attorney and member of the Republican National Committee for Puerto Rico. "So there are very strong family, business and political connections. And we're only two hours away. I have clients in Florida, and I've done this many times -- I fly up in the morning and fly back in the afternoon."

Even the pro-commonwealth government of Puerto Rico wants to harness the voting power of Puerto Ricans in the states. It launched a $6 million "Let Nothing Stop Us" campaign this year for Puerto Ricans in Florida and elsewhere to register and vote in their respective districts, so U.S. politicians will focus more on Puerto Rico issues.

People born in Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens by birth, so unlike many other foreign-born Hispanics, they can immediately register when they live in the states, possibly serving as a swing vote in areas with tight races.

Puerto Rico's government aims to sign up as many as 600,000 Puerto Ricans living stateside during the next three years. So far, they've netted more than 70,000, including almost 14,000 in Florida, said Manuel Benitez, South Florida's regional director for the Puerto Rican Federal Affairs Administration.

"Only 500 votes got President Bush in the White House," Benitez said. "You tell me if 14,000 votes are not going to make a difference for one way or another."

Corporate contributors

U.S. politicians, including Gov. Bush, have been courting the Puerto Rican vote too as part of a larger push for support among U.S. Hispanics, now the country's largest minority and also one of the fastest-growing ethnic groups nationwide.

"In looking ahead, it's probably not a bad strategy to aim hard at that particular [group]," said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

Gov. Bush already has an edge in the Hispanic community, because his wife is Mexican and he speaks fluent Spanish. He's especially popular in Puerto Rico because of repeated visits to the island over decades.

Among Bush's campaign highlights this year: A Puerto Rican parade in Orlando, an appearance at the Viva Broward festival on Sunday, a fund-raising trip to the island and an endorsement by 33 of Puerto Rico's mayors.

"Politically and culturally, the governor has an appeal to Hispanic voters," said Bush campaign spokesman Todd Harris

Yet aides to Democratic rival McBride see the Bush name and ties to power as central to the larger donations from Puerto Rico, not necessarily a shift from traditional Democratic affiliations toward the Republican Party.

"These are probably companies or groups that want something out of Washington, Congress or Tallahassee," said McBride spokesman Alan Stonecipher. "Any corporate interest in the country will be filling the Bush Inc. coffers."

Still, McBride is starting to target Hispanics in Florida too, as polls show him trailing 2-to-1 among the state's Hispanic voters. He's recently opened a Hispanic outreach office in Kissimmee, met with Hispanic leaders around Florida, dispatched running mate Tom Rossin to march in Orlando's Puerto Rican parade, plans to run ads in Spanish and promises a commission on Hispanic affairs in the governor's office if elected.

"Bill is committed ... to make sure there's an inclusive administration where Puerto Rican and other Hispanic concerns are heard at the highest levels," Stonecipher said.

Gov. Bush's contributors from Puerto Rico are thinking beyond the governor's office, however, perhaps to the day that today's presidential younger brother occupies the White House himself.

Said Florida Republican Party campaign contributor Diaz, speaking from San Juan: "I believe that if someday he becomes president ... he's going to be for statehood for Puerto Rico."

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