TAMPA – Sen. Bill Nelson will visit Puerto Rico on Friday, the latest step in an intense battle with Gov. Rick Scott to court the island's Florida transplants.
The visit closely follows one by Scott, Nelson's re-election obstacle, who has also done a number of events aimed at the population, including one Tuesday in Tampa.
In Tampa on Thursday, Nelson informed a small group of Puerto Ricans that FEMA had agreed to extend housing assistance until June 30 — news that brought applause but was followed by calls for more than what one attendee called a "Band-aid."
"This is going to be long-term," said Nelson.
Speaking to reporters later, the Democrat defended his vote in support of PROMESA, the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act, which has triggered austerity measures in the face of a massive debt crisis. Nelson contended there was no good alternative and that measures he and Sen. Marco Rubio advocated for were not included.
On the question of statehood, Nelson hedged a bit, saying it should be driven by Puerto Ricans on the island. "But when there is this kind of discrepancy on how they've been treated vs. Texas (after Hurricane Harvey) then that's going to be a real surge, 'Boy, we're tired of being treated as second-class citizens.' "
Scott on Tuesday, said the U.S. should "respect the will of the people of Puerto Rico."
Nelson was appearing in his official Senate role (and has traveled the state this week) but the campaign stakes are clear. He and Scott have put an emphasis on courting Puerto Ricans, perhaps more than any other group.
"The Puerto Rican community, I've always had a very close relationships with," Nelson said in an interview. "I live in Orlando, you know the concentration there. The question is who has come (since the hurricane) and is going to stay and who will be interested enough to get politically involved."
Democrats are banking on animosity toward President Donald Trump over his administration's handling of Hurricane Maria. Nelson said he's heard complaints "everywhere I've gone."
"Here's what the lasting impression is," Nelson said, using his arms to mimic the scene to Trump tossing rolls of paper towels to Puerto Ricans.