Democrats In States Attack Bush On Puerto Rico For Puerto Rican Vote

October 23, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

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Democrats In States Attack Bush On Puerto Rico For Puerto Rican Vote

National Democratic campaigns launched attacks this past week against President Bush’s record on Puerto Rico issues.

The attacks came in the form of radio advertisements intended to help Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry and other Democrats win the vote of people of Puerto Rican origin in three of the top battleground States in this year’s presidential election.

The spots represent the first-ever effort to win a national election based on policies regarding the territory. The development could lead to greater attention to the Commonwealth’s issues in the White House and the Congress.

In fact, Bush’s lack of attention to Puerto Rico matters is one of the issues addressed in the Democratic ads. Another is his proposal to discontinue refunds of Social Security and Medicare taxes to workers with children in Puerto Rico while continuing the refunds in the States. A third is his not proposing a replacement for the federal tax incentives for companies based in the States to manufacture in the territory that date to 1921 and expire next year. A final issue addressed by the ads is Bush not proposing measures to treat the Commonwealth more equally with the States in health programs.

The broadcasts are being aired in the areas in and around: Orlando and Tampa, Florida; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Cleveland and Lorain, Ohio.

The lion’s share of the spots is running in the Central Florida Orlando and Tampa area. Over 600,000 people of Puerto Rican origin live in Florida. Almost two-thirds live in the Orlando/Tampa area.

Polls indicate a relatively high percentage of undecided people among the area’s Puerto Rican voters. Kerry led Bush 45% to 36% among likely Hispanic voters in the area in a poll published Monday by El Nuevo Dia of Orlando, an edition of the Puerto Rico newspaper. About three-fifths of the area’s voters are of Puerto Rican origin.

The poll’s one-fifth of voters undecided was just a few percent less than the percentage in a poll in April. The April poll gave numbers for the preferences of the area’s Puerto Rican voters as well as for its Hispanic voters as a whole.

Kerry had the support of 45% of the area’s Puerto Rican voters in the poll. Bush was backed by 32%. The poll showed little difference between the views of the area’s Puerto Rican and other Hispanic voters.

Although the Democratic ads are just running in the Central Florida area, the undecided factor among Puerto Ricans in Florida seems to be a State-wide phenomenon. A poll published October 16th by the Washington Post had Kerry with 42% support among Puerto Rican voters there but still leading Bush -- indicating that at least a fifth of the Puerto Rican vote was undecided in the race.

An official of the New Democrat Network (NDN), which is responsible for one of the ads, said that the decision not to broadcast in the Miami, South Florida area -- where most of the other Puerto Ricans in the State live -- was made for budgetary reasons. Miami radio time is much more expensive.

Miami stations were also judged less cost-effective as number of Puerto Ricans in South Florida -- about 200,000 -- is a much lesser of the percentage of the area’s Hispanic residents. Most Hispanic residents of South Florida are of Cuban origin.

All of the spots being broadcast are in Spanish. The NDN spokesman acknowledged that most of Florida’s Puerto Ricans primarily tune into English-language broadcasts but said that two factors led to NDN’s decision to broadcast its spot in Spanish. One was cost-effectiveness. English-language stations are much more costly and reach a much broader audience than just Puerto Ricans.

The other factor was said to be an expectation that undecided Puerto Ricans are more likely to listen to Spanish-language radio than the Central Florida Puerto Rican population as a whole. It was explained that much of the undecided Puerto Rican vote appeared to be relatively new arrivals from Puerto Rico, where the Spanish-language predominates.

Florida’s Puerto Rican population consists of people who have migrated from the colder Northeastern States as well as those who have moved from the territory. Two-thirds are estimated to have moved directly from Puerto Rico. Among those who have come directly from Puerto Rico, some have lived in Florida for years while most have migrated in recent years.

The population doubled from 1990 to 482,000 in 2000. It has increased by more than a quarter during the past four years. Much of the new growth has occurred in the Central Florida area.

Most of the undecided voters among Florida’s Puerto Ricans are understood to be relatively new migrants from Puerto Rico. This may relate to the fact that most of the Commonwealth’s politics are conducted among its local political parties. The territorial committees of the national parties do not run candidates for office and are dominated by leaders of the two largest local parties.

As U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans -- unlike other Latin Americans -- can register to vote in a State as soon as they meet the voter residency requirements that apply to other citizens. An estimated 200,000 Puerto Ricans will vote in Florida in this election.

Florida’s undecided Puerto Rican voters are especially prized in this presidential election because the race in the State and the country as a whole is so close and because Florida has so many electoral votes. The latest public poll in Florida was released Thursday and had Bush leading Kerry 48% to 47%, with one percent for Ralph Nader. Only four percent of those polled were undecided -- a rate one-fifth of the Puerto Rican undecided rate.

Florida has 27 of the 270 electoral votes needed to elect the next president, more than all but three other States. The race in the three -- California, Texas, and New York -- is not considered competitive, making Florida the largest electoral vote ‘up-for-grabs.’

Bush has a strong lead in his home State of Texas and Kerry has a strong lead in California and New York. About 10 States are still considered swing States in the election.

The Puerto Rican vote is also a factor in the States with the fourth and fifth largest share of electoral votes, Pennsylvania and Ohio. These States are also considered toss-ups in the election and are also States in which Democrats also running ads against Bush’s Puerto Rico record.

Pennsylvania has 21 electoral votes and Ohio 20. There are about a quarter of a million Puerto Ricans in Pennsylvania and 70,000 in Ohio. Over 100,000 of Pennsylvania Puerto Ricans live in Philadelphia. About 50,000 of the 70,000 in Ohio live in the area from Cleveland to Lorain.

Both populations are mostly relatively new to the States. In the latest Pennsylvania poll, Kerry leads Bush 47% to 46%, with seven percent undecided. In the latest Ohio poll, Kerry is ahead 48% to 46%, with two percent undecided.

The NDN is not part of the Democratic Party although its top staffers came from the staff of the Democratic National Committee. Instead, it is a Democratic advocacy group focusing on issues and the differences between the national parties. By law, though, it does not promote or oppose specific candidates or coordinate with the Democratic Party or its candidates.

The NDN began broadcasting of its Puerto Rican-oriented spot Tuesday in Orlando, Tampa, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Lorain. The group is spending $50,000 over the last two weeks of the campaign to ‘saturate’ the Orlando radio market in particular.

The NDN ad focuses on Bush’s proposal to discontinue payroll tax refunds to workers with children in Puerto Rico. The proposal, which was hidden in Bush’s budget for the fiscal year that began October 1st, would deny some $2.1 billion to Puerto Ricans over a decade. The Internal Revenue Service has reported that 152,000 families in Puerto Rico qualified for the refunds in 2001.

In Puerto Rico, only families with three or more children qualify for the refunds but the refunds apply to middle as well as low-income workers. In the States, the refunds go to low-income workers with any number of children.

Kerry has opposed Bush’s proposal to discontinue the refunds in Puerto Rico only. He has also proposed expanding the refunds in the territory to low-income workers with one child or two children.

The Kerry campaign has not promoted the Democratic candidate’s proposal, however. Until it began to air its Puerto Rican-oriented radio spot this past week, it had not promoted any aspect of its comprehensive policy on Puerto Rico.

It is unclear whether this was for strategic reasons or by design. A few leaders of Puerto Rico’s "commonwealth" party initially complained about Kerry reiterating his commitment to enabling Puerto Ricans to choose the territory’s ultimate political status among all the status options. They enlisted support from two of the strongest supporters of the Commonwealth’s undemocratic status quo in the Congress, Representatives Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ), and from Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA).

The Puerto Rican praise for the plan, however, came from the increasingly-important ‘free association’ wing of the "commonwealth" party as well as from leaders of the of U.S. Statehood and independence movements. It also came from top leaders of Puerto Ricans in the States, such as Rep. Jose Serrano (D-NY), the largest Puerto Rican organization in the country -- the National Puerto Rican Coalition, and Bronx, NY Democratic Party Chairman Jose Rivera.

The Kerry blueprint was also warmly embraced by the Democratic leaders of the lead congressional committees on territorial affairs, Jeff Bingaman (NM) of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and Nick Rahall (WV) of the House of Representatives Committee on Resources. Kerry’s commitment to enabling Puerto Rico to obtain a form of government that provides for voting representation at the national government level was also overwhelmingly adopted by the Democratic National Convention’s Platform Committee despite a motion to strike some of the endorsement language offered by a Committee member who is also a leader of the "commonwealth" party.

Kerry’s radio spot reportedly raises three issues:

  • Bush’s lack of attention to Puerto Rico matters.
  • Bush not proposing any incentives for the economic development of the territory.
  • Bush not proposing any measures to treat Puerto Ricans more equally in federal health or other social programs.

The criticism of the lack of attention is based on specific Bush actions as well as the president’s general lack of attention to Puerto Rico matters. Under Bush, the White House office on Puerto Rico and the formal network of senior representatives of government agencies that it led to coordinate all areas of policy concerning the territory was discontinued.

Kerry’s statement on Puerto Rico took Bush to task for discontinuing the President Interagency Group on Puerto Rico. The Democratic candidate also pledged to restore full-time White House attention to Puerto Rico issues, to meet with Puerto Ricans, and to visit the territory. Bush has not had a serious meeting with Puerto Ricans.

The Kerry ad’s criticism of Bush not proposing measures to encourage manufacturing in the Commonwealth raises another major issue for several reasons.

  • Puerto Rico’s poverty rate of almost 50% is almost four times the national rate.
  • The Commonwealth’s jobless rate is twice the national average.
  • Manufacturing is twice the factor in the territory’s economy that it is in the States.
  • The current federal tax incentives for companies based in the States to manufacture in the Commonwealth expire next year.
  • The corporate income tax cut bill that Bush signed into law Friday makes the tax rate for income from manufacturing in Puerto Rico by firms organized as domestic companies higher than on income from the States for the first time in 83 years. It also includes a one-time, one-year rate cut that will encourage firms based in the States organized as foreign companies to move investments and earnings from the Commonwealth to the States.

Kerry’s Puerto Rico campaign document notes that he proposed that the tax rate for income from manufacturing in Puerto Rico by firms organized as domestic companies be no higher than the rate for income from manufacturing in the States. It also points out that he proposed extending one of the two expiring incentives for companies based in the States to manufacture in the territory, a tax credit for wages, capital investments, and local taxes in Puerto Rico provided by federal Internal Revenue Code Section 30A.

Kerry’s statement on Puerto Rico pledges to build on this record if he is elected November 2nd. It also states that his focus as president will be on measures to help Puerto Rico economically that benefit the Commonwealth’s needy.

The Kerry manifesto notes that the Massachusetts senator won amendments in the Congress that treated the territory more equally with the States in the Medicare and Medicaid programs. The Medicare amendment closed half the gap between the rates that Medicare pays for hospitalization services in the Commonwealth and the rates that it pays for the services everywhere else in the nation.

The Medicaid amendment increased the Commonwealth’s limited Medicaid grant to pay for prescription medicines for individuals who are in both the Medicare and Medicaid programs. Medicaid funding is not limited in the States, so the Medicaid program in the States was able to pay for prescription medicines for Medicaid beneficiaries who also qualify for Medicare under the new Medicare law without a special amendment.

Kerry has also promised to seek greater equality for Puerto Rico in health care programs if he is elected.

How the Bush campaign and Republicans respond to the Democratic assault this week remains to be seen. The Bush campaign has said nothing about Puerto Rico issues -- not surprising in light of the president’s scant record on the territory’s concerns. It has consisted solely of bringing popular statehood party leaders from Puerto Rico to Central Florida to campaign for the president. Polls indicate that statehood is the most popular option for the Commonwealth’s future status among Central Florida Puerto Ricans.

The "Washington Update" appears weekly.

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