Hurricane Maria Anniversary Stirs Up Politics

On Thursday’s one-year anniversary of Hurricane Maria, Gov. Rick Scott made his eighth trip to Puerto Rico since the storm left the U.S. territory in tatters.

Cynics might view Scott’s visit, in which he was slated to join Puerto Rican officials at an afternoon ceremony, as an attempt to snag Boricua votes as the term-limited governor tries to unseat veteran U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson in November.

Announcing the trip, Scott’s press shop noted that the Florida governor has “been in contact with Puerto Rican officials to offer assistance and guidance” in response to the storm, even before Maria made landfall a year ago.

The somber occasion comes as top-of-the-ticket candidates continue to court Puerto Rican voters who had already emigrated to the Sunshine State as well as hurricane evacuees who have made Florida their new home.

But Democratic pols used the anniversary to link Scott and fellow Republican Ron DeSantis, the GOP’s gubernatorial nominee, to President Donald Trump. The president sparked outrage last week when he said the estimated 3,000 deaths caused by Maria in Puerto Rico was a trumped-up number created by Democrats.

Contradicting a flurry of press releases about how much Scott’s done to help Puerto Ricans on the island and in Florida, a trio of Democratic legislators with island roots told reporters Thursday that Puerto Rican evacuees remain in dire straits.

Housing, education and health care are among the struggles continuing to plague more than 1,000 families forced to relocate to Florida, according to state Sen. Victor Torres and state Reps. Amy Mercado and Robert Asencio.

The Democrats accused DeSantis, who stepped down from Congress last week to pursue his gubernatorial ambitions full-time, of failing to do anything to aid Puerto Ricans while he was in Washington.

And they don’t view Scott in a positive light, either.

“Rick Scott is visiting Puerto Rico again, on the loss of 3,000 lives. Really? Is that what this governor is going to go there and tell that we all know, we all know, this is what happened in Puerto Rico? Rick Scott is going back over there to do what?” Torres, D-Orlando, said.

Puerto Ricans have been “disrespected” and “treated like second-class citizens,” Mercado, also of Orlando, said.

The population of Puerto Ricans in Florida has swelled from 900,000 before Maria to up to 1.2 million since the storm slammed into the island, cutting off power, water and aid to many residents for months, according to Asencio.

“I want to make it very clear. The death of U.S. citizens is not a Republican or Democrat issue. It is a human tragedy,” the Miami Democrat said.

DeSantis --- who parlayed his endorsement by Trump into a primary victory last month --- and Scott contradicted Trump’s rejection of the death toll calculated by researchers at George Washington University.

But the Democrats on Thursday said the GOP candidates didn’t go far enough in denouncing the president.

“For political expedience, they put out the statements, but true in their hearts they believe that what Donald Trump has done is sufficient for our families. Make no mistake. They are tied together at the hips. They will follow in lockstep with this president no matter what happens,” Torres said.

DEBATING DEBATES

Floridians, it appears, will get a couple of chances to hear the candidates for U.S. Senate and governor debate issues such as socialism, education spending and the blame for environmental woes across South Florida.

But, so far, the rest of the statewide candidates aren’t matching calendar dates before the Nov. 6 elections.

The campaigns for the Cabinet positions of chief financial officer, attorney general and agriculture commission have yet to announce any joint debates or forums between the Republican and Democratic candidates in the races.

“We are in the process of working with media partners regarding debate opportunities,” Christina Johnson, a campaign spokeswoman for Republican attorney-general candidate Ashley Moody, said in an email Thursday.

Two weeks ago, word from campaign spokespeople was that talks were underway.

Meanwhile, it appears DeSantis and Democratic gubernatorial nominee Andrew Gillum have agreed to an Oct. 24 debate in Davie hosted by Leadership Florida and the Florida Press Association. Both candidates also profess a desire for a series of debates.

“We’ve accepted invites to the following debates: Leadership Florida, CBS Miami with Jim Defede, Telemundo in Orlando, Fox News and CNN,” DeSantis tweeted. “The bottom line is I’ll debate@AndrewGillum whenever possible --- because his high-tax, far-left policies would be a disaster for Florida.”

Gillum’s campaign has announced it is willing to take part in debates hosted by the Spanish-language station Univision 23 in Miami and with CNN.

"We are pleased that Congressman DeSantis has accepted our offer of three debates. Florida voters deserve to hear from both Mayor Gillum and Congressman DeSantis about their plans for the Sunshine State, and we’re proud to move forward accordingly,” Gillum’s campaign said Monday. “We strongly encourage Congressman DeSantis to reconsider his rejection of the Univision debate, so we can get the Spanish-language debate on the books as soon as possible."

However, even agreeing to the same debate network doesn’t close the deal.

Gillum, the Tallahassee mayor, is looking for a “town hall” event with CNN, while DeSantis is calling for a more traditional debate.

In the race for U.S. Senate, Nelson and Scott have agreed to two debates: Oct. 2 in Miami hosted by Telemundo and Oct. 16 hosted by CNN.

GOP ALSO-RAN SUES TO RUN IN NOVEMBER

Bruce Nathan, a physical therapist from Stuart who finished seventh out of eight candidates in last month’s Republican gubernatorial primary, has gone to court in a quest to run as an independent.

Leon County Circuit Judge Karen Gievers set a Monday afternoon hearing for Nathan, who has also requested a temporary injunction to suspend the Nov. 6 general election for governor until his qualification is clarified.

Nathan contends he had been registered with no political affiliation but was a Republican when he filed for the statewide campaign, paying the higher qualifying fee to run in the primary.

But the lack of voter support in the GOP primary didn’t diminish his ambitions, as he reverted his registration to no party.

As part of his argument to be placed on the November ballot, Nathan said state law declares the “candidate receiving the highest number cast in each contest in the primary election shall be declared nominated for such office.” However, he said state law is “open to interpretation” for its “absence of any statement about the candidates that did not received the highest votes.”

TWEET OF THE WEEK: “Just had dinner at @nusr_ett on Saturday, but never again! I will not support anyone who serves ‘fine dining’ to a dictator, while the people in his country suffers.” --- State Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, (@ShevrinJones) lending support to U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who tweeted displeasure with Turkish chef Nusret Gokce’s apparent delight in serving Venezuelan president Nicholas Maduro. Rubio posted the address and phone number of Gokce’s upscale Miami restaurant, Nusr-Et Steakhouse Miami.