How Puerto Rican voters could help turn the Senate blue
Earlier this month Deborah Gonzalez became the first Latina in Georgia to be elected district attorney and the first Puerto Rican woman in the U.S. elected to that position. Her election is also significant because she is the public face of a community that could be critical in Georgia’s highly contested Senate runoff elections — the Puerto Rican voter.
As everyone knows, Georgia’s runoff elections will determine which party has control of the U.S. Senate. President-elect Joe Biden won Georgia by only 11,779 votes and communities of color were key to his win. The Senate races are equally tight. Since literally every vote will count, the road to victory requires courting every community that might support the ticket. Democrats could benefit by being attentive to Puerto Rican voters. Even though there are just 97,000 Puerto Ricans living in Georgia, their votes could make the difference.
Puerto Ricans fly under the radar in Georgia. They represent only 10 percent of the total Latino population in the state, mostly living in the greater Atlanta metropolitan area. They are better educated and have a higher median income than other Puerto Ricans in the mainland and the island. Many wrongly assume that their interests are identical to the interests of the larger Latino community, predominantly Mexican-Americans. But Puerto Ricans, as U.S. citizens, have somewhat different concerns and political interests.
Puerto Ricans, unlike members of other Latino communities, need not fear deportation and, therefore, issues like immigration policy and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) mean little to them. Instead, they care deeply about the political status and economic viability of their home island, where all of them still have family and friends.
Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff has stated that he supports statehood for Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, but this comment can backfire in two ways. First, not all Puerto Ricans favor statehood as former Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) recently pointed out to Ossoff in a series of tweets. Second, adding two potentially Democratic states is precisely the argument Republicans make for keeping control of the Senate.
A smarter appeal to the Puerto Rican voter would focus not only on the things that matter deeply to all Georgians — health care and the economy, for starters — but also on the issues that affect the island most. Biden recently outlined these issues, and his proposed solutions, in a Plan for Puerto Rico. This far-reaching proposal supports reconstruction of the island’s infrastructure, parity in key federal programs and economic development initiatives.
While many aspects of the plan can be implemented unilaterally by the incoming administration, many require Congressional cooperation to become permanent. This is unlikely to happen in a Republican Senate led by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who in a reprise of the Obama years will do his best to cripple the Biden administration prior to the 2022 midterm elections.
Puerto Ricans in the U.S. generally trend Democrat, as shown in the battleground states of Florida and Pennsylvania where about 69 percent of them voted for Biden. The Democratic candidates in Georgia would do well to echo their commitment to Biden’s plan for Puerto Rico and to explain why a Republican led Congress would be fatal for the island. A concerted push to feature support for the island could increase voter interest and potentially swing the upcoming election to the Democratic side.
Gretchen Sierra-Zorita is a founding member of the National Puerto Rican Agenda and heads the consulting firm Polivox787.