MIAMI -- Billionaire George Soros has a new crusade in his strategy to bankroll Democrats: mobilize Puerto Ricans in central Florida, many of whom are newcomers to a swing state that is crucial in the November 8 elections.
The Hungarian-born financier donated $200,000 this month to get-out-the-vote campaigns targeting what has already become the second-largest Latino group in the state after Cuban Americans.
Part of the donation will be channeled through United for Progress, a political action group whose goals are to educate Puerto Ricans on issues important to their community, according to the group's president Marcos Vilar. The funds will be earmarked for an email program promoting candidates in legislature races in districts with large Puerto Rican populations, Politico reported.
The deep economic crisis in Puerto Rico has prompted more than 200,000 people to pack up and move to this state since 2012, according to the island’s government. There are now more than 1 million Puerto Ricans in the 'Sunshine State,' the Pew Research Center reported late last year.
The majority of Puerto Ricans who have registered have joined the Democratic Party. Their vote could be decisive in a state where the battle between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton is expected to be close. Puerto Ricans may not only tip the balance toward Clinton in this election but could even move Florida from the undecided column to a blue state.
Recent elections were decided by small margins. So it is no surprise Soros has added the Puerto Rican vote to his progressive causes. The entrepreneur and philanthropist has also supported pro-immigrant groups and candidates for state and local offices who promote judicial reform.
Getting Out The Vote
Educating new voters to register and understand the importance of their ballot is vital, according to political organizations working in central Florida. The Orlando area has absorbed much of the Puerto Rican exodus in recent years.
As U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans can vote. But newcomers from the island may not know how the system works because they cannot participate in U.S. presidential elections from Puerto Rico. That is a marked difference from most other immigrants who have to wait longer to learn the process because they typically vote for the first time years after entering the country.
Not only do many Puerto Ricans who arrive in Florida have a limited understanding of the complex electoral system, but many are also disenchanted with politics and sometimes resent the U.S. government for failing to take into account the votes of the 3.5 million people living on the island. Besides, for many newly-arrived families, registering to vote is hardly a priority.
"Many are so preoccupied with settling in the area -- getting to know schools, finding a permanent job or a school -- that politics just isn’t important at the moment,” Ariana Valle, a University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) researcher said.
Valle interviewed more than 100 Puerto Rican newcomers to the Orlando and Kissimmee area between July 2015 and February of this year, and praises groups that help the immigrants to register and vote.
It is not uncommon in the region to see campaigns spiced with the island’s flavor. Caravans blare music seeking supporters and town hall events help voters understand proposals from candidates running for county and city offices. Those politicians are possibly the most plugged in to the newcomers’ needs.
"Puerto Ricans are concerned about work, the rise in the minimum wage, education, access to housing as well as the recovery of the economy back home," Democratic state Sen. Darren Soto said in a telephone interview.
Soto, whose father is Puerto Rican, is campaigning in Orlando for a U.S. Congress seat. If elected, he would be the first Puerto Rican representative for Florida in Washington. He says he learned about Soros’ plan to boost the vote in his community through the press, but affirmed that similar efforts have long been underway. "We have been campaigning since July. We have knocked on thousands of doors," he said.
The deadline for registering to vote in Florida was October 18. Groups who worked to register voters in central Florida include Organize Now, Hispanic Federation, Mi Familia Vota, Boricua Vota and Mision Boricua. A few weeks ago, some of them joined the campaign #QueVoteMiGente (#LetMyPeopleVote). Inspired by the song "Mi Gente" ("My People"), by famous Puerto Rican salsa singer Hector Lavoe, the initiative formally aims to "raise the political power" of the community "to address the priorities of the community on the island and in U.S. states."
But although the task of promoting the Puerto Rican vote is urgent, Soros’ help could be too late, Valle said.
"There has been a dearth of funds and I feel that the funds have come later than is ideal. All this would have been wonderful if it had been done a year or a year-and-a-half ago. But there are a lot of local organizations lacking funds," she said. “It's not just a matter of voting but you have to find your ideology and know where you fit into the political system. For that, you need planning. It’s not just a case of the money arriving."