In the decade since U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist served as Florida’s governor, the state has become one of the most popular destinations for Puerto Ricans moving to the U.S. mainland, approaching and at points surpassing New York. After Hurricane Maria battered the island in 2017, Florida saw a surge in new residents.
That population growth has changed the political calculus of Florida candidates and made the island a common campaign stop. On Friday, Crist visited Puerto Rico for the first time as part of his campaign for governor.
Crist traveled with U.S. Rep. Darren Soto, a representative from the Central Florida area and the first congressman of Puerto Rican descent elected in Florida.
On his three-day trip, Crist said he’ll meet with the mayor of San Juan, local business owners, Puerto Rican veterans and union members. With more than a million Florida residents from the island and with family ties to it, Crist said it’s important for him to learn about the culture.
“Simply showing the respect of visiting the island, their homeland if you will, I think is a powerful message of care and concern and a desire to understand the homeland and the culture that much more,” Crist said.
Friday morning, Sen. Annette Taddeo, D-Miami, announced she also plans to take a campaign trip to Puerto Rico in May.
“As the first and only Latina running for Governor, it is incredibly important to me that we take this trip to hear from the people about how we can further strengthen the relationship between Florida and Puerto Rico,” Taddeo said in a statement.
Though Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, residents of the island cannot vote in state or federal elections. Those who move and become residents of a U.S. state can vote, and in 2018, candidates traveled to the island and Central Florida in an attempt to woo new voters who had settled after Hurricane Maria, marking the beginning of what has become a regular election-season pilgrimage.
Then a candidate, Gov. Ron DeSantis visited the island in 2018. And Rick Scott, then a candidate for Senate traveling in his capacity as the governor, also visited.
A majority of Florida’s Puerto Rican residents are in South and Central Florida, the latter considered a key swing area for candidates hoping to win statewide races. A study from the Bureau of Economic and Business Research at the University of Florida showed Puerto Ricans moving to Florida settle predominantly in Orange County, then Osceola County, followed by Hillsborough and Miami-Dade.
The race to secure Hispanic votes in Florida is not new, but has drawn renewed attention after former President Donald Trump got record support from the demographic in South Florida in the 2020 election.
In Congress, Crist co-sponsored of a piece of legislation that would give Puerto Rico statehood. He said his view is to abide by the will of Puerto Ricans and pointed to polling that showed the idea was popular with a majority of island residents.
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Crist said he doesn’t fear any backlash by getting involved in Puerto Rican politics. He said it’s important to get to know the island better because of the close ties with Florida.
Crist sees key similarities between what’s important in Florida and Puerto Rico, especially when it comes to the economy, infrastructure and disaster relief. He said a goal of the trip is to both learn about the issues and learn how Florida can work to help.
“In the case of Puerto Ricans they’re our fellow Americans,” he said. “There’s a real, I think, significant bond between us.”
Crist is running as a Democrat for Florida governor. He faces Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and Taddeo in the primary.