Politics & Government

Puerto Rico’s governor praises Rick Scott’s work after backing Bill Nelson in 2018

Puerto Rico: The Forgotten Island

A year after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico the island remains in a state of recovery. The official death toll now stands at 2,975, making Maria one of the deadliest natural disasters in U.S. history. Narration by Rita Moreno.
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A year after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico the island remains in a state of recovery. The official death toll now stands at 2,975, making Maria one of the deadliest natural disasters in U.S. history. Narration by Rita Moreno.

Puerto Rico’s governor was no friend of Rick Scott’s during the 2018 campaign, even as Scott visited the territory eight times and pitched himself as Puerto Rico’s de facto senator in ads around the state as he sought votes from Puerto Ricans in Florida.

But Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said he’s impressed with Scott’s work on Puerto Rico during his first two months as a senator in Washington, even though Rosselló endorsed Democrat Bill Nelson after fighting with the White House over Hurricane Maria recovery efforts.

“Rick Scott has been a great friend of Puerto Rico,” Rosselló said in an interview in Washington on Friday. “There’s no doubt about it, he was a great friend prior when he was a governor and right now he’s used time on the floor, he’s submitted meaningful amendments and he has given a fight for some of these issues.”

Rosselló was referring to Scott’s first speech on the Senate floor, when he spoke in English and Spanish about his amendment to provide $600 million in nutritional assistance for Puerto Rico over the Office of Management and Budget’s objections.

“I rise today as a voice for the people of Puerto Rico. I intend to be their voice in the United States Senate,” Scott said in his maiden floor speech. “They are American as the people of Florida I was elected to represent. Their recovery is America’s recovery.”

Rosselló said he is in constant contact with Scott and his staff, and that his knowledge and dedication to Puerto Rico has continued after the 2018 election. Scott also has a close relationship with Jenniffer Gonzalez, Puerto Rico’s non-voting representative in Congress who is a pro-statehood Republican who endorsed Scott over Nelson last year.

“The offices communicate continuously and I had the senator in Puerto Rico two weeks ago and we had a conversation and it was very productive about where Puerto Rico was and how he could be helpful,” Rosselló said. “In spite of my decision to support Senator Nelson, he’s been very committed to helping Puerto Rico.”

Rosselló, a pro-statehood Democrat, needs to delicately maneuver relationships with both parties to move forward on his desire for Puerto Rican statehood, his top political priority. Many Republicans, including Scott and Sen. Marco Rubio, are advocates for statehood, while Democrats are vocal critics of the Trump administration’s handling of Hurricane Maria. Florida Republicans like Scott also see advocating for Puerto Rico as an issue that can pay off with Puerto Rican voters in Central Florida in statewide elections that are often decided by just thousands of votes.

Democrats in Puerto Rico are split on the statehood issue. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who is running for president, declined to state her views on statehood after visiting Puerto Rico last month, and Sen. Bernie Sanders announced San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, a Democrat who does not support statehood, as one of his 2020 presidential campaign co-chairs.

“The mayor and myself, we’re very much 180 degrees apart on policy,” Rosselló said. “That’s a politics-based decision that the senator made.”

But the governor is happy that Puerto Rico is continuing to command the attention of Republicans like Scott and 2020 Democrats like Warren and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, both of whom made visits within days of announcing their presidential runs.

“I don’t think that has ever happened before, even once, and to have that happen twice already establishes the fact that Puerto Rico is relevant in the broader discussion of American policy and politics,” Rosselló said.

A source close to Rosselló said Scott’s recent actions in the U.S. Senate has spurred Rubio to reengage with the governor after the two fought over Puerto Rico provisions that were left out of the GOP tax law. After the clash, Rubio publicly threw cold water on the possibility of statehood.

In recent months, Rosselló has become more vocal against certain actions of the Trump administration regarding Puerto Rico’s recovery from Hurricane Maria, including the possibility that the president could use disaster relief funds to pay for a border wall as well as Puerto Rico’s ongoing issues accessing FEMA funds like a U.S. state.

But his problems are with administration officials, not Republicans in Congress. Rosselló is hopeful that the nutrition assistance funds will pass the Democratic-controlled House and gain enough Republican support in the Senate, even if White House officials in the Office of Management and Budget oppose it. He’s hoping to get in a word about it with Trump during a meeting on Monday.

“I think Rick Scott understands the issues in Puerto Rico,” Rosselló said.. “He’s been there and I’m grateful that he’s supported both the [nutrition] relief and other considerations for equality in Puerto Rico, including statehood.”

Alex Daugherty is the Washington correspondent for the Miami Herald, covering South Florida from the nation’s capital. Previously, he worked as the Washington correspondent for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and for the Herald covering politics in Miami.