After the fallout over President Donald Trump’s response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, Republican politicians hoping to win elections in Pennsylvania might have cause to worry, say advocacy groups and politicians who work with the state’s Puerto Rican population.
Of states that voted for Trump in 2016, Pennsylvania is home to the second largest number of people of Puerto Rican descent, about 450,000 people. The hurricane has caused billions of dollars in damage to the U.S. territory; according to CBS News, the majority of people living on the island of Puerto Rico have been without power for more than 46 days, the longest blackout in American history.
In response to this disaster, Trump got in a Twitter spat with the mayor of Puerto Rico’s capital city of San Juan, and was videotaped tossing paper towels to Puerto Ricans waiting for relief supplies like he was handing out T-shirts at a baseball game. He even congratulated island-dwelling Puerto Ricans for experiencing a smaller death toll than Hurricane Katrina victims in Louisiana.
“The abysmal Trump response to this tragedy has enraged and energized the Puerto Rican community in Reading and Allentown,” wrote Adanjesus Marin of statewide Latino-rights group Make the Road Pennsylvania, in an email to CP. “We are helping to direct this outrage not only into the streets, but into the ballot boxes.” Marin wrote that the number of Puerto Rican volunteers at Make the Road has doubled since the hurricane.
Historically, Puerto Rican voters have had little sway in Pennsylvania politics, but things could be changing. Trump won Pennsylvania by only about 44,000 votes. The state’s Puerto Rican population is growing fast, and part of it is concentrated in Republican-held districts. Since 2006, Pennsylvania’s Puerto Rican population has grown by 153,700 residents, according to U.S. Census figures. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens by birth and can vote in elections, once they move to any U.S. state.
And there are reasons for Pennsylvanian Puerto Ricans to be upset with many Republican politicians, not just Trump. Three Pennsylvania representatives, U.S. Rep. Keith Rothfus (R-Sewickley), U.S. Rep. Scott Perry (R-York) and U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Lehigh), voted against the aid package for hurricane relief to Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico. During an October CNN appearance, Perry even claimed that the numbers on the lack of water and power on the island were fabricated.
Of all the Republican-held districts in the U.S., the two with the most Puerto Ricans are in Pennsylvania. Lloyd Smucker’s (R-Lancaster) district is home to 72,500 people of Puerto Rican descent, largely concentrated in Reading. And the state’s 15th Congressional District, currently represented by Charlie Dent (R-Lehigh), who announced he’s not seeking re-election, is home to 70,000, largely concentrated in Allentown.
Marin says a large majority of Puerto Ricans in Pennsylvania typically vote Democrat, but voter turnout has been low in the past. According to a 2016 Penn State study, only 74 percent of Pennsylvania Puerto Ricans were registered in 2012, and only 61 percent voted that year. But not only does Marin expect more to vote come 2018 and 2020, he expects there to be more potential Puerto Rican voters, period.
“It’s hard to predict how many will eventually move here, but not a day goes by that we don’t learn of multiple families arriving in Reading and Allentown,” wrote Marin. “We are expecting the initial flow to be in the [hundreds], but that number will snowball into the thousands.”
Western Pennsylvania is home to few Puerto Ricans, but Monica Ruiz, of Latino service organization Casa San Jose, says Puerto Ricans here are getting motivated too. Ruiz, who is half Puerto Rican, says Puerto Rican family members and others she knows were initially supportive of or indifferent to Trump. “People who would send me messages about how wonderful Trump is, they are no longer doing this,” says Ruiz. “Many people that didn’t vote are kicking themselves in the butt. And others that voted for him, they are changing their tune.”
And Philadelphia, home to the largest concentration of Puerto Ricans in the state, is already taking advantage of Puerto Ricans’ new energy. Philadelphia City Councilor Maria Quinoñes-Sánchez, who was born in Puerto Rico, says her Puerto Rican constituents have an “incredible amount of frustration and anger” at Trump and other Republicans.
“If people feel hopeless in Puerto Rico, they will come to the U.S., and they will vote against those who voted against them,” says Quinoñes-Sánchez. She says a crisis center in Philadelphia has already taken in 600 Puerto Ricans from the island, and she expects thousands more to relocate to Pennsylvania over the next year.
Quinoñes-Sánchez says many of her constituents will be attending a PA4PR summit in Philadelphia on Nov. 11 and marching in the Unity March for Puerto Rico, in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 19. She says this is the first time many Puerto Ricans have become politically active.
“There are a lot of us who have never been to a march,” says Quinoñes-Sánchez. “[Many politicians] take us for granted in every single election. We have to organize and send a message.”