Prominent Pennsylvania Puerto Ricans are struggling to use the Democratic National Convention to highlight the multitude of woes afflicting the debt-burdened U.S. territory.
Botched economic development programs, a flagging local economy and archaic financial regulations are among the factors that have crippled the Commonwealth with some $70 billion in debt, all but paralyzing key government services.
The island’s crisis has particular resonance here beyond the confluence of the Democratic National Convention and a recent Congressional bailout package: The Keystone State has the third-largest Puerto Rican population of any state, and is widely viewed to be one of the keys to the White House this year via its potential impact on the hotly contested presidential race here.
“I hoped to remind everyone who attended of the power of their individual votes and of the influence we can have as a community if we stand together in this cause,” said Philadelphia City Council member Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, who hosted a “Puerto Rico United” rally on Monday. “We have a diverse community, both here in Pennsylvania and on the island, with many political perspectives, but we all agree that federal policy in Puerto Rico requires significant reform and action.”
The councilwoman cast the debt issue as a “humanitarian crisis.” Some hospitals have been forced to curtail services because of cuts to Medicaid payments mandated by Congress, and some are worried school and infrastructure services will be among the next rounds of cuts effected in order to pay off creditors.
On the final day of the convention, the National Puerto Rican Agenda, a nonpartisan coalition of interest groups, hosted a Latino Politics roundtable focused on the political relationship between the tiny island and the diaspora community in Pennsylvania.
Nilda Ruiz, president of a Puerto Rican social services nonprofit, told the audience the fixes emanating from Congress so far amounted to dangerous “austerity” measures.
But Ruiz, like many community leaders, said Democrats weren’t listening.
“I haven’t heard Hillary Clinton talk about these issues,” she said. “Puerto Rico has struggled to bring its plight to the DNC.”
One of the main takeaways from the program: Ruiz said that Puerto Ricans in Pennsylvanian needed to organize politically, like the Cuban community in Florida, another key swing state.
Clinton holds a small lead over Republican Donald Trump in PA, and will need every vote she can get from the state’s 300,000 Puerto Ricans.
“We need to take a lesson from the Jewish diaspora and how they organized themselves politically,” Ruiz said, alluding to prominent and powerful Jewish interest groups like the American Israel Political Action Committee.
For now, that may remain an aspirational goal. No elected officials showed up to the Thursday panel.