Puerto Rico’s Gov. Ricardo Rosselló reached his breaking point three months after Hurricane Maria laid waste to the U.S. territory on Sept. 20, wrecking its power grid, damaging most of its dwellings and triggering a mass exodus of residents to the U.S. mainland.
Still in his first year in office, Rosselló had already seen his share of daunting challenges by the time Maria made landfall as a Category 4 storm. He inherited a massive debt crisis and, fewer than two weeks earlier, had watched Hurricane Irma knock out power to millions. The second storm that month proved even more powerful, and suddenly Rosselló found himself thrust into cringe-worthy photo ops with President Trump, including an Oct. 19 Oval Office meeting during which the president gave his own administration a perfect 10 for its
It wasn’t until Dec. 19, however, that Rosselló fully realized that securing Puerto Rico’s future meant he would have to get involved in mainland politics in a way that no other governor had before him. Though he had spent weeks explaining to members of Congress why stripping tax breaks from manufacturers operating in Puerto Rico would deal the island a “crippling blow,” his pleas ultimately fell on deaf ears as Republicans looked to give Trump his first substantive legislative victory and passed a tax reform bill that did just that.
“At that juncture, it just dawned on me that, even though conceptually, at a high level we knew we had to start some sort of a movement, that unless we started a robust, results-oriented structure, we were always going to be on the short end of the stick,” Rosselló told Yahoo News in a classroom at Ana G. Mendez University in Orlando, Fla.
Analysts estimate that the loss of business incentives could cost Puerto Rico hundreds of thousands of jobs when it desperately needs to get new tax revenue in order to keep pace with its staggering
“We had congressmen who came to Puerto Rico and pledged their support, and we had the opportunity to explain why it [the tax reform bill] would be devastating. They just couldn’t move the needle, so it was very frustrating,” said Rosselló, who at 39 years old is youthful looking and photogenic, and is the son of former Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Rosselló.
Rosselló is a former tennis prodigy who studied biomedical engineering and economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before getting a PhD in the former from the University of Michigan. He does not need experts to explain to him that the tax bill provision coupled with the excruciatingly slow progress of restoring power and running water to the island’s 3.4 million residents meant that even more Puerto Ricans would soon be packing their bags and leaving for the mainland. He, therefore, decided to turn the situation into an advantage.
The governor was in Central Florida last Tuesday to announce the formation of Poder Puerto Rico, a nonpartisan 501(c)4 organization that aims to register displaced Puerto Ricans living in swing states so as to give a political voice to those still “living in a state of powerlessness” on the island. Puerto Rico sends a nonvoting representative to Congress, and its residents do not cast votes in presidential elections.
“I recognize that the situation of Puerto Rico is hard to explain. I mean, we’re talking about a colonial territory in the 21st century, the oldest, most populated colonial territory in the world, and it is under the biggest democracy in the world,” said Rosselló, who is a Democrat.
After arriving on the mainland and establishing residency, Puerto Ricans who register are immediately eligible to vote, so long as they don’t change their address. In Florida, officials estimate that as many as 385,000 islanders could put down roots by the end of the year, a number more than big enough to potentially swing an election in a state where election margins have been razor thin in recent cycles.
The same day Rosselló unveiled his new political organization in Orlando, Florida Gov. Rick Scott was paying his fifth visit to Puerto Rico since Maria hit the island. When Scott returned to an Orlando agricultural equipment factory for a campaign rally two days later — he is running for the Senate seat now held by Democrat Bill Nelson, in what is likely to be the most expensive Senate race in the nation this year — Yahoo News asked him if he agreed with Trump’s evaluation of his administration’s relief efforts.
go we had Matthew and before that we [Florida] had Hermine. I think my expectation, I think everybody’s expectation, is that they want their power back on immediately,” S