Rick Scott woos the Puerto Rican vote in Tampa

“I can’t believe he has the gall” to campaign in West Tampa for Puerto Rican votes,” said Tampa Democratic U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor.
[William March | Tampa Bay Times]
[William March | Tampa Bay Times]
Published May 2, 2018

Think politicians in Florida aren't worried the Puerto Rican vote? Here's what happened Tuesday.

Local Republicans crowded into a small but popular West Tampa Puerto Rican restaurant, La Casona, to hear governor and Senate candidate Rick Scott talk about his Puerto Rican backing, including the island's Republican representative in Congress.

But as they were arriving and setting up Scott's sound system, prominent Tampa Democrats including U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor were in the restaurant's back room, strategizing how to turn out Puerto Rican Democratic votes.

As the Republicans packed in, the Democrats warily edged past them to leave before Scott showed up, including state Rep. Janet Cruz; a representative of Scott opponent Sen. Bill Nelson; and Puerto Rican political activist Luis Miranda of New York, father of famed Hamilton composer Lin-Manuel Miranda.

"I can't believe he has the gall" to campaign in West Tampa for Puerto Rican votes," Castor said of Scott as she left.

"They're Republicans," said Miranda. "When we think of Republicans, we think of Trump throwing paper towels."

Castor vowed the Democrats hadn't known the Republicans were coming.

La Casona owner Inocencio Garay and his daughter, Dee Garay, shrugged at the coincidence.

"My father always taught me, don't mix business with talking politics," she said.

For Scott, it was part of a two-city tour to show off backing from Jennifer González-Colón, resident commissioner and Puerto Rico's non-voting representative in the House.

In the aftermath of the devastating hurricanes that strafed the island, she said, Scott was "a champion for all Puerto Ricans."

She noted that he visited the island five times, lobbied the federal government and Congress for aid, and set up counseling centers at airports to help arriving Puerto Rican families get their children enrolled in school.

"He was always calling – 'Jennifer, what do you need?' " she said.

Gonzalez Colon said 35,000 are still without power in Puerto Rico, nearly seven months after Hurricane Maria and less than two months before the start of the next hurricane season.

Scott first took Gonzalez-Colon to a Puerto Rican restaurant in Kissimmee, center of a large community of Puerto Rican transplants, where he told the crowd he backs statehood for Puerto Rico.

They then headed to La Casona – it means "Big House" – just north of the heart of the heavily Hispanic West Tampa neighborhood, an area famed for small Hispanic restaurants where locals sip coffee and talk politics, and candidates show up frequently to troll for votes.

The Puerto Rican and Florida economy are completely attached," Scott told the crowd. "They come here and they bust their butts to live this dream.

"I will bust my butt" to help them, he said.

He didn't mention President Donald Trump.

How important those Puerto Rican votes will be is debatable.

Over the last 15 years, Puerto Rican arrivals have turned formerly Republican Orange and Osceola counties blue.

This year, Democrats hope for a "blue wave" fueled in part by Puerto Rican hurricane refugees. In January, Scott estimated that 300,000 have come since the hurricanes.

But state figures on school enrollment and aid requests suggest the number could be much lower, around 50,000 — many of whom will be too young to vote or won't get around to registering while trying to construct a life here.