Governor visits Puerto Rico as island transplants loom large in 2018 election

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TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott spent Monday on a state visit to Puerto Rico, talking with officials about the slow recovery from last fall’s Hurricane Maria but with an eye clearly on this fall’s U.S. Senate race.

Scott fired off a series of tweets on his meetings with Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello, Red Cross workers and his stop at a Federal Emergency Management Agency field office.

It marked Scott’s fifth visit to the island since Hurricane Maria, but his first since officially announcing that he is challenging three-term Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson in November.

Democrats quickly accused Scott of focusing on Puerto Rico’s troubles largely to win favor with a powerful voting bloc — one million Floridians of Puerto Rican descent who usually side with Democrats in statewide races.

“Rick Scott continues to ignore the real needs of Puerto Rican evacuees in exchange for photo ops on the island to make it look like he cares,” said Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando.

Smith ridiculed the Republican governor for signing into law a state budget that swept $182 million from affordable housing programs and used it to cover other spending holes.

While FEMA last week extended into mid-May temporary hotel vouchers for 79 Central Florida families who left Puerto Rico after last September’s storm, many other arrivals are doubling up with relatives and friends because rents are unaffordable.

“It’s good that Gov. Scott and Gov. Rossello are keeping the pressure on FEMA and the federal government to help,” said Rep. Bob Cortes, R-Altamonte Springs, adding that housing is the critical issue for new arrivals.

“I think the community will remember this attention, and it’s genuine,” he said.

State economists forecast that more than 53,000 Puerto Ricans and U.S. Virgin Islanders who fled the destruction and power outages following Hurricane Maria could settle permanently in Florida this year.

Though incoming Puerto Ricans represent a small number of new residents in a state expecting 386,000 new arrivals this year, Scott has been pushing hard to appeal to Florida’s sizable Puerto Rican population.

When he announced his candidacy in Orlando this month, he was joined by Puerto Rico’s lieutenant governor, Luis Rivera-Martin, who called him “a good friend of Puerto Rico, a good friend of all Hispanics.”

Scott, who can now speak some Spanish, also poured $1 million into a Spanish-language TV ad, part of a $3 million campaign buy launched in the opening weeks of his run against Nelson.

Both Nelson and Scott held events Friday in Kissimmee, a Puerto Rican stronghold. The Scott campaign deflected criticism Monday by accusing Nelson of not doing enough to help Puerto Rico in the U.S. Senate.

Ryan Patmintra, a Scott campaign spokesman, criticized Nelson for earlier encouraging those arriving in Florida to register to vote. Patmintra said that for Nelson, the “first question with every tragedy always seems to be ‘how can this help me?’”

The Nelson campaign, though, said the Democrat has been a steady advocate for the island — especially since the storm, while the Trump administration has been drawing heat for the depth of its focus.

The U.S. Senate in February approved a spending bill that included aid for Florida schools dealing with an influx of students, $2 billion for Puerto Rico to rebuild its power grid, and $4.8 billion to finance the island’s Medicaid program for two years.

Smith said Scott did little to urge help from the White House, although the governor has frequently cited his close relationship with Trump.

“Scott can wave the Puerto Rico flag as much as he wants, but it doesn’t change his record of inaction that left Puerto Rican evacuees homeless, in need of housing, health care and jobs,” Smith said.

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