It came at the very end and was only 28 words long, but Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley‘s shout-out in the Democratic Presidential Debate Sunday night caught the attention of Central Florida Puerto Ricans eager for political attention for the island.
O’Malley’s comment came after debate moderator Lester Holt of NBC News asked him, essentially, “Anything else?”
“We haven’t discussed the shameful treatment that the people of Puerto Rico, our fellow Americans, are being treated with by the hedge funds that are working them over,” O’Malley said.
In Central Florida, where more than 300,000 Puerto Ricans dominate the Hispanic population, the national TV statement was widely welcomed among Democrats, even if it came from the candidate who’s a far-distant third in the polls.
Many want to elevate Puerto Rico into an election issue as the commonwealth struggles with $72 billion in debts it cannot pay. Much of it is held by hedge funds while the economy spirals downward; creating a consensus that island residents receive far fewer federal benefits than those stateside.
“I was watching and I was glad to see him bring up the fact that this is a key issue for our nation,” said Orlando Democratic state Sen. Darren Soto, trying to become the first Puerto Rican elected to Congress from Florida.
“I’m glad that it was mentioned by one of the candidates,” said state Rep. Victor Torres, a fellow Orlando Democrat who is running to replace Soto in Senate District 15.
Yet they and others cautioned that Puerto Rico relief talk, mostly among Democrats from President Barack Obama on down, has been going on for a while, but little actual relief is on the horizon in Congress. All three Democratic presidential candidates, including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, have supported relief for Puerto Rico, as has Republican Jeb Bush, Florida’s former governor.
Bush and Clinton both talked about helping Puerto Rico during campaign appearances in Orlando last year. Though O’Malley has campaigned on the island, neither he nor Sanders have appeared in Orlando yet, nor have many of the Republican candidates, not counting two large gatherings targeting national audiences from Orlando.
‘What we’ve been looking for is to see who not only makes statements but also to take stands to pressure Congress to take action to help,” said Betsy Franceschini, Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration regional director, based in Kissimmee.
While the issue is sensitive in Central Florida, another issue also is well-known: that the region’s Puerto Rican residents, who trend Democrat or independent, register in relatively small numbers and vote in even smaller numbers.
So while local Puerto Ricans hope the Orlando area’s status as a key swing area in a key swing state would force national candidates to make Puerto Rico promises here, they also know Puerto Rico’s fate might not be much of a factor in either voter turnout or election results.
“It’s something that will be talked about,” said Orange County Democratic Executive Committee Chairman Juan Lopez. “But at the end of the day it will only be maybe a 1-3 percent swing. Maybe that could be the deciding factor in Florida in a primary. … It will be something brought up. Absolutely. Will it turn out a significant amount of votes? We’ll soon see.”