Congressional candidate under fire for saying Puerto Rican evacuees shouldn’t vote in Florida
A Florida congressional candidate is under fire for saying that he didn’t believe hurricane evacuees from Puerto Rico should be allowed to register to vote in the Sunshine State, a comment that some fellow Republicans denounced as complicating GOP efforts to reach out to a growing segment of voters.
Amid the blowback at his remarks, political newcomer John Ward clarified his comments Monday to POLITICO to stress that he believes Puerto Rican voters are U.S. citizens and that they should be allowed to register to vote in Florida if they decide to become permanent residents of the state.
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Ward’s GOP primary opponent in Florida’s 6th Congressional District, former state Rep. Fred Costello, called Ward’s new position “horse manure.” He noted that Ward didn’t clarify his remarks at the time — even when a lawyer of Puerto Rican descent chastised Ward immediately after the comments he made April 23 at the Mount Dora Republican Club.
Now Ward is in damage-control mode as he tries to blunt the effects on his campaign of his remarks last month.
The controversy erupted almost immediately after a voter asked both candidates: “A lot of Puerto Ricans have moved either temporarily or permanently to Florida. How do you respond to them when they say that they need more help and that the aid to Puerto Rico is not enough?”
Said Ward at the April event: “First of all, I don’t think they should be allowed to register to vote. And it’s not lost on me that, I think, the Democrat Party’s really hoping that they can change the voting [registration] in a lot of counties and districts. And I don’t think they should be allowed to do that.”
Ward said he has a friend in the shipping industry who has informed him that “the situation’s improving a lot” in Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria devastated the island last year, sending tens of thousands of residents fleeing to Florida.
“We should be looking to put the Puerto Ricans back in their homes,” Ward said. “So the idea that they can come to the mainland United States, I don’t necessarily have a problem with that. But I think we should be thinking about it in terms of getting them back home and providing the capital and resources to rebuild Puerto Rico, which I honestly think is where they belong.”
Costello shot back: “I absolutely disagree. Puerto Ricans are citizens of the United States of America. They have a right to go anywhere in the United States. Do I want them coming here and registering Democrat? Of course not. I want them to understand that they moved here for opportunity. They moved to Florida because they want to take care of their families. And if they want individual liberty and personal responsibility and equal opportunity, we — the Republican Party — need to show them why we’re the party that they need to gravitate to.”
Though he said he welcomed hurricane evacuees to Florida, Costello also made sure to point out that he didn’t want them to continue receiving public assistance so long after the storm.
A week ago, Costello’s campaign posted the exchange on YouTube with the headline “John Ward says we shouldn’t let Puerto Ricans vote here.”
One of Costello’s colleagues who’s of Puerto Rican descent, state Rep. Bob Cortes (R-Altamonte Springs), said he was “outraged” by the remarks and decided to publicly endorse Costello and condemn Ward. Cortes said Ward’s remarks would only help Democrats stereotype Republicans as ignorant nativists just as the GOP, under Gov. Rick Scott’s U.S. Senate campaign, is making an all-out effort to appeal to Puerto Rican voters in the state.
“It’s incredibly ignorant. This is the exact message Democrats are going for,” Cortes said, predicting that Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo Rossello, a member of the New Progressive Party, will seize on remarks like that as he launches plans to harness the power of the Boricua diaspora on the mainland to influence state and federal elections.
Before Hurricane Maria struck, Florida had about 1.1 million Puerto Rican residents, and experts estimated that about 500,000 were registered to vote. Estimates for the numbers of Puerto Ricans who moved to Florida after the storm have hit as high as 280,000, but some demographic experts put the number of those who changed residency closer to 50,000.
Puerto Rican voters have a tendency to lean Democratic, but in recent years they’ve increasingly registered as no-party-affiliation voters. And their turnout rate has been relatively low compared with, say, Cuban-American voters in Florida.