SAN JUAN — Sen. Bill Nelson doesn't know how many Puerto Ricans have made their way to Florida since Hurricane Maria ravaged the Caribbean island on Sept. 20. And he doesn't know how many plan to stay on the mainland as their home slowly recovers.
But if they plan to stick around the Sunshine State, the Florida Democrat wants them to go to the polls in 2018, when he's up for reelection.
"If they will register to vote, which I'm certainly going to encourage, because I can tell you among the Puerto Rican community in the greater Orlando area, they have been very embracing of my public service," he said at a San Juan news conference after Puerto Rican reporter asked him about the post-storm migration. "The question is how many will want to register, and how many will want to return."
Standing next to Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, Nelson took pains to say he wasn't encouraging Puerto Ricans to depart forever. Puerto Ricans worry an exodus of working professionals — on the heels of years of emigration during the island's financial crisis — will only make it more difficult for the economy to get going again.
"It could be a while coming before things get back," Nelson said, referring in particular to the island's destroyed power grid. "I will certainly encourage our fellow citizens to return home."
The question of how a wave of Puerto Ricans, who tend to vote Democratic, could reshape Florida politics is perhaps more urgent for Nelson than for any other statewide politician. He faces a potential challenge next year from Republican Gov. Rick Scott, whose administration has set up relief centers for Puerto Rican arrivals at Orlando and Miami airports and seaports to assist them with schooling, housing and employment.
Also advocating on Puerto Ricans' behalf: Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, one of the first mainland politicians to trek to the island after the storm. At the time, Puerto Rico's non-voting representative in Congress, Jenniffer González-Colón, referred to Rubio as the closest thing the island had to a senator of its own.
"I have zero concern" of what an influx of Puerto Ricans might do to Florida politically, Rubio told the Miami Herald in a recent interview. "What's the difference between that and people moving here from New York, New Jersey or California?
"It's not a problem," he added. "It's a problem for Puerto Rico. It's not a problem for Florida."
Nelson said he wanted to visit Puerto Rico earlier. But a planned trip last weekend was canceled. So he hopped on a JetBlue flight to San Juan early Saturday morning.
He didn't just want to get the politician tour, he said. He wanted to go inland, to the hard-hit central mountains still struggling to get aid.
So Nelson boarded a helicopter with Rosselló and flew to Utuado, a town that has become a symbol of just how badly Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico.
"The main river there, it's washed out a number of the bridges," Nelson said. "But the people are very ingenious. They have strung a line with a pulley system" to get supplies across, using a supermarket cart over the water.
Without naming names, Nelson criticized fellow mainland lawmakers who have remarked after flying over Puerto Rico that the devastation doesn't look so bad because the island's homes weren't flattened.
"Well, they don't know what's happening inside that concrete structure that is wet, and now the mold and mildew is building up," Nelson said. "This is the story that I will tell tomorrow afternoon on the floor of the United States Senate, because a lot of the reports that have come back have not told about the extent of the damage."
Rosselló called Nelson a longtime "champion for Puerto Rico, and a great friend," and alluded to the help the island will need to get an aid package through Congress soon.
"Now more than ever we're going to need him and his colleagues to continue championing our efforts here," Rosselló said.
Contact Patricia Mazzei at [email protected].