ORLANDO, Fla._President Donald Trump weighed in on Puerto Rico’s political status during a radio interview Monday, taking a strong stance on a touchy subject among a group of voters increasingly coveted by Florida politicians.
Trump told radio host Geraldo Rivera he was an “absolute no” on statehood for the island, blasting the island’s “incompetent leadership” —specifically San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, whom he called a “grossly incompetent person” and “a horror show.”
“With people like that involved in Puerto Rico, I would be an absolute no,” Trump said. “… Puerto Rico shouldn’t be talking about statehood until they get some people that really know what they’re doing.”
The question of whether Puerto Rico should become the 51st state is one that still divides Puerto Ricans on and off the island. Trump’s predecessors have typically said they’d support statehood —if that’s what Puerto Ricans decided they wanted.
About 97 percent of voters on the island supported statehood in the most recent referendum in June 2017. But the results remain controversial. Voter participation reached just 23 percent on an island with high rates of voter turnout, after leaders of the Popular Democratic Party —who support the island’s current status —took issue with the ballot’s wording and boycotted the vote.
In a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation survey conducted in Puerto Rico between July and August, 48 percent of respondents said they believed Puerto Rico should be a state, while 26 percent said they thought the island should remain a territory. Ten percent said they supported independence.
Florida’s midterm candidates have spent months courting Puerto Rican voters they are hoping will turn out for them this November —some of them choosing to break with Trump on stances they believe to have the support of Puerto Ricans in the state. Some Republican Boricuas here think it’s not enough.
“The Republican Party’s platform (on statehood) is useless if we don’t have a leader that gets behind that,” said Peter Vivaldi, a former Republican Florida Senate candidate and local community leader. “If we’re not going to be treated equally, are you going to cut ties with Puerto Rico, or what are you going to do?”
Vivaldi, who voted for Trump in the 2016 election, said he was concerned Trump’s newest statements would push away Republicans who have already voiced support for statehood.
“You’re holding hostage the territory of Puerto Rico just because you have a Twitter war with a mayor that doesn’t agree with you,” Vivaldi said. “There can’t be conditions.”
Florida Gov. Rick Scott tweeted Monday that he supports statehood for Puerto Ricans, because it was “clear they voted in favor of statehood.” His opponent in the U.S. Senate race, Democrat Sen. Bill Nelson, also reiterated his support for statehood, slamming Trump’s treatment of Puerto Ricans as “second-class” citizens.
Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, the Democratic candidate for governor, said Tuesday he supports “equality” for Puerto Ricans. The campaign of his Republican opponent, Ron DeSantis, did not respond to a request for his position on the status of Puerto Rico, but he has previously endorsed a bill sponsored by the island’s non-voting representative in Congress, Rep. Jenniffer Gonzalez, that would establish a path to statehood for the island.
DeSantis’ Puerto Rican outreach chair state Rep. Bob Cortes, a Republican, downplayed Trump’s comments, saying the real takeaway from Trump’s interview was not that he didn’t believe in statehood, but rather that Cruz —who supports sovereignty for the island and is expected to run for Puerto Rico governor —is not a good leader.
“The conversation does not have to be moving to whether the president says yay or nay on statehood,” Cortes said. “We all criticize (Cruz), too.”
Cortes’ statements were echoed by Alfonso Aguilar, president of Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles in Washington, D.C., who heads the pro-statehood Commission for the Equality of Puerto Rico.
“Puerto Ricans know that Donald Trump is not responsible for what happened after Maria,” Aguilar said. “More than statehood, this is an expression against the mayor.”
Aguilar said he believed Scott was isolated from Trump statements Puerto Ricans might find offensive, like when he dismissed the island’s official death toll estimate for Hurricane Maria and suggested it was part of a political plot against his administration.
But Aguilar said DeSantis might have a harder time.
“Ron DeSantis doesn’t have the same history that Rick Scott has with the Puerto Rican community,” Aguilar said. “I don’t know if he will have the same support Rick Scott will get” among Puerto Ricans.
Jorge Bonilla, a former Republican consultant and staffer for U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio based in Central Florida, said the president isn’t “much of a factor” for Puerto Rican statehood.
“Trump doesn’t play much of a role in this broader conversation,” Bonilla said. “People are going to continue pushing for statehood. Trump is not an omnipotent (person).”
Some voter outreach groups in Central Florida have warned candidates to avoid the statehood issue altogether. University of Central Florida sociology professor Fernando Rivera, who has extensively studied migration patterns of Puerto Ricans, agreed bringing the status to the table might affect recovery efforts on the island.
“We’re in an era where everything has become so politicized,” Rivera said. “So (Puerto Ricans) have to consider how that will affect our position of how funds are distributed … and other things that we can’t control because of our political status.”
(c)2018 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)
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