SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Puerto Ricans on the island can’t vote for president this November. But those who are from the U.S. territory and live on the mainland are becoming a major priority for Joe Biden’s campaign. 

Trading in chilly Washington for tropical temperatures, Vice President Kamala Harris landed in Puerto Rico on Friday for her first official visit to Puerto Rico since taking office, touting the Biden administration’s support for the island as it continues to rebuild following several hurricanes.

The vice president highlighted how the Biden administration has invested more than $140 billion in Puerto Rico to improve infrastructure, support clean energy and increase access to capital for small businesses. She visited a home outside San Juan to show how a program funded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development is helping rebuild and repair homes. 

“I think it’s critically important to remember this island is home to some of the most talented and innovative people in our nation,” said Harris, who last visited Puerto Rico as a senator in 2017.

The administration is trying to sell what it says are its accomplishments on the island as the Puerto Rican diaspora on the U.S. mainland gains more political clout ahead of what’s expected to be a tight presidential race. The crucial swing state of Pennsylvania has the third-largest population of Puerto Ricans in the U.S. — about 500,000 — behind Florida and New York. 

The Biden campaign has been investing more in Latino outreach much sooner this election cycle — and it’s not just focusing on the usual wide-reaching outlets like Univision and Telemundo, both owned by NBC News’ parent company, NBCUniversal. 

The campaign is already airing ads on WAPA-TV, a major station in Puerto Rico, contrasting Biden’s record with Donald Trump’s on health care costs and reproductive rights, hoping the message will find its way back to the mainland. It is also running ads on local radio stations on the island and across the U.S. targeting Puerto Ricans and Latinos more broadly. 

“People that are part of the diaspora receive their information from it,” said one Biden campaign official familiar with the strategy. “We’re being intentional.”

‘We need to put Pennsylvania on the map’

The rising number of Puerto Ricans in central Florida — a key area in a perennial battleground state — has drawn plenty of attention from campaigns in previous election cycles. But with Florida leaning further to the right in recent years, Democrats are placing a greater emphasis on Puerto Rican voters in the more narrowly divided Pennsylvania in 2024.

Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, a former City Council member in Philadelphia who’s now working with Boricuas Con Biden, a group organizing Puerto Rican voters for the president, said the campaign engaged with the Latino community overall in Pennsylvania too late in 2020, but she’s encouraged by the early outreach this year.

“The Puerto Rican/Latino community is not only growing, but electing people in all corners of the state,” she said. “So we become that margin that others don’t look at that’s going to make the difference if the campaign engages us — and ties our reality to the future of our country.” 

While Philadelphia has long been home to a sizable Puerto Rican population, Democratic operatives are also eyeing other cities in Pennsylvania, such as Allentown, Scranton, Lancaster and Erie.

“We need to put Pennsylvania on the map and make it a blue state, not a purple state,” Quiñones-Sánchez said.

Puerto Rico’s complex politics 

Hurricanes Irma and Maria battered Puerto Rico in 2017, with Maria killing an estimated 3,000 people and becoming one of the costliest disasters in U.S. history. A less severe Hurricane Fiona drenched the island in 2022, but still caused significant flooding. The hurricanes — along with mounting financial troubles over the last decade — have prompted many Puerto Ricans to move to the mainland.

Puerto Ricans still on the island — U.S. citizens — can only vote in presidential primaries, not the general election, but they can still influence their relatives on the mainland.

Still, politics in Puerto Rico are vastly different and don’t break down cleanly along traditional Republican and Democrat ideologies, which could pose challenges for the Biden campaign’s efforts. 

While Trump drew headlines for minimizing the death toll following Hurricane Maria and tossing paper towels to residents during a visit, many Puerto Ricans on the island feel deep skepticism and resentment towards the federal government — of any political party — after what is seen by many here as a brutal history of colonialism. 

After the island realized it couldn’t pay more than $70 billion in debts a decade ago, the Obama administration and Congress put its finances under a fiscal control board. Many residents have derisively referred to it as “La Junta” — and see it as another example of the federal government exerting its control over Puerto Rico.

Biden has attempted to promote his connection to the Puerto Rican community in his native Pennsylvania. “I was sort of raised in the Puerto Rican community at home, politically,” Biden said in October of 2022 when he visited the island in the aftermath of Hurricane Fiona.

Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi was the first person to greet Harris at the airport Friday. He is locked in a tight re-election race after winning in 2020 by roughly 19,000 votes. He received just 33% of the total vote and more recently has faced protests over a number of issues.

As Puerto Rico emerges from bankruptcy and begins to utilize billions of American tax dollars to rebuilt its infrastructure following Hurricane Maria, there are plenty of controversies on the island that rarely get much attention on the U.S. mainland: recurring blackouts; the privatization of power distribution; and controversial tax breaks known as Act 22 that critics argue are causing gentrification.

Harris visited Canóvanas, a town near San Juan that was devastated by Hurricane Maria. As Harris drove by, one woman held up a sign that read: “Help me for my house. I don’t have one since Hurricane Maria.”

The vice president toured a home that had been rebuilt and finished a year ago. Canóvanas Mayor Lornna Soto Villanueva said the town has received $310 million in federal funds following the Category 4 storm.

“It’s very important that the White House chose to visit us,” she said.

Not all Puerto Ricans welcomed the trip. Some shouted “Yankees go home!” during Harris’ stop at a community center in the Santurce neighborhood of San Juan. Others held signs opposing the Israel-Hamas war.

Danielle Alvarez, a spokesperson for the Trump campaign, quipped that in 2020, Biden’s idea of Hispanic outreach was playing “Despacito” — a hit pop song that translates to “Slowly” — during a speech.  

“Boricuas won’t forget that Crooked Joe shipped Puerto Rico’s pharmaceutical industry to China and President Trump fought to bring it back,” Alvarez said. “Biden is a disaster for all Americans, especially La Isla Del Encanto.” 

Trump has attempted to attack Biden over a vote he made in the Senate in 1996 for a bill that, among other things, phased out a tax break that supporters said attracted business to the island, including pharmaceutical companies.

Erica Gonzalez, the director of the advocacy group Power 4 Puerto Rico, said there has been a lot of “gestures” from the administration, but they’ve fallen short so far. 

“What’s been disappointing is that they haven’t taken action on some structural issues like Act 22 and the fiscal control board,” she said. “On those issues, there hasn’t been visible leadership.”

Whether the Biden campaign can convince her and others in the Puerto Rican community to trust them could be a pivotal question in the fall.

“Puerto Ricans are going to be critical,” Gonzalez said.

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