Presidential debate moderators should ask about Puerto Rico

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This past week seems to have drawn strong conflicting emotions among Americans, not only with the news of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passing, but also because of the attention that both presidential campaigns are giving  to Puerto Rico. 

Despite three years having passed since Hurricane María pummeled Puerto Rico, there are many people still suffering from its aftermath, especially as relief and recovery efforts have been ever so slow. Surprisingly, both President Trump and the Biden campaign unveiled their ideas on how to help Puerto Rico after María.  

These new policy offerings may bring solace to those who were impacted by the hurricane. However, it would not be surprising if Puerto Rican voters living in battleground states ask candidates about the government’s level of attention these past three years. The presidential candidates should answer these questions from moderators and audience members in the upcoming presidential debates.

In many ways, Puerto Rico is a case study on the U.S. government’s response to current and future large scale disasters. The Trump administration just announced funding for FEMA’s emergency electrical infrastructure — three years after the storm; wouldn’t it be just and proper to ask if this response was timely given the magnitude of the damage and need? The Biden campaign also announced a comprehensive recovery plan for Puerto Rico, but it remains to be seen whether the candidates will debate about details of their plans.

Although these policies, announcements and plans may be good steps to address the long delayed aid, the ramifications go beyond Puerto Rico. How natural disasters are managed by the federal government is a concern for all of us across the country. Natural disasters such as floods or droughts that impact the middle of the country, hurricanes and erosion in the Eastern Seaboard, mega snowstorms in the North and super fires in the West are becoming common and larger in scale. Federal response effectiveness is not only an issue for U.S. territories in the Caribbean or in the Pacific. Presidential candidates should be asked about this issue in all the upcoming debates.

People want to know if they can trust their leaders to act on the peoples’ needs immediately and not based on political calculations. Natural disasters and health pandemics are becoming more complex; are our presidential candidates ready to meet the task at hand and tell us their plans? As with the pandemic response, there is a danger to the cohesion of our country and civility to each other if we start to question whether government relief and recovery funding efforts are not determined by need but on politics.   

One does not want to read that a president is considering taking needed emergency funding from states to use them on projects that might help them gain political points. It will be an awful precedent that can lead to future presidents continuing policies akin to what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Americans in states and territories expect to be treated fairly by federal agencies regardless of where they live, particularly in moments of great necessity.

Earlier in the campaign season, during the democratic party presidential debates, there was little mention of Puerto Rico. Events this past week have raised Puerto Rico as a national issue with electoral ramifications among Puerto Rican populations in Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio

As the moderators of the debates question the presidential candidates, I hope they ask some questions beyond the deficit, the Supreme Court or health care. I encourage them to ask why Puerto Rico has been subjected to many funding disparities and what is their plan to change that reality. Is it time for new laws and a new structure that help FEMA be more capable of handling the new and larger challenges ahead?   

We can honor and remember the victims of María by demanding words and actions of those who will wield the power to do something positive about it. 

Max J. Trujillo is president of MJTPOLICY LLC, a strategic policy and government relations consulting firm. He is a former senior policy advisor for Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.).

Tags 2020 Debates 2020 presidential race Coronavirus response debates disaster relief Donald Trump elections issues FEMA FEMA funding government response Hurricane Maria Hurricane Maria anniversary Hurricane preparedness presidential elections Puerto Ricans Puerto Rico Ruth Bader Ginsburg voters

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