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Democrats ignored Puerto Rico at the last debate. Here’s what they should focus on now.

These are the words that Puerto Ricans want to hear.

The flags of Puerto Rico and the US flying side by side on flagpoles.
The US territory of Puerto Rico is struggling under a mountain of debt.
Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

Democrats have another chance. On Tuesday and Wednesday, when presidential hopefuls meet on the debate stage in Michigan, they’ll have the opportunity to make up for one of their biggest mistakes during the first primary debate: ignoring Puerto Rico.

Moderators and candidates on the stage basically forgot about the island during the first Democratic debates in Florida. Only Julián Castro mentioned Puerto Rico, once. There were no questions about the US territory’s massive debt crisis. No questions about the island’s high poverty rate. No discussion about how to fortify the island’s fragile power grid. These problems have existed for years but came into sharp focus after Hurricane Maria’s category 4 winds pummeled the island in September 2017.

Puerto Rican debate viewers noted the snub.

It would be bad politics for Democrats to repeat the mistake. About 3 million people live on the US island territory, and as American citizens, they can vote in every presidential primary. (Puerto Ricans can’t vote in the general election unless they live in one of the states.) And the estimated 1.2 million Puerto Ricans who live in Florida are an important voting bloc in a super-competitive state.

Not to mention, it will be a lot harder for candidates to dismiss them this time around. Puerto Ricans have been making headlines for pushing out their governor for his role in several political scandals. The massive anti-government protests, which brought business in San Juan to a near standstill for about 12 days, surfaced decades of frustration among Puerto Ricans.

But not enough 2020 Democrats seem interested in what that frustration is about.

While at least eight candidates have weighed in on Puerto Rico’s political status and the push for statehood, according to NBC Latino, they haven’t explained how they would help resolve the divisive matter. So far Elizabeth Warren is paying the closest attention to Puerto Ricans’ needs and has a good plan to address Puerto Rico’s debt crisis. Sen. Bernie Sanders has also proposed a bill to increase access to Medicaid and food stamps on the island. Tulsi Gabbard wants to repeal a law that makes living in Puerto Rico expensive. While Castro has done less, his first campaign stop in San Juan was notable.

But Puerto Rican advocacy groups believe more candidates need to take their problems seriously.

At an absolute minimum, candidates should understand and at least acknowledge what Puerto Rico is going through. But here are the three things they should really be talking about.

1. The debt crisis and economic downturn

This is arguably the most important issue to Puerto Ricans.

Puerto Rico — a US territory since 1898 — is worse off than any of the states. Unemployment is at 7.7 percent, nearly double the national rate, and 44 percent of residents live in poverty.

Puerto Rico was already in horrible shape before the storm hit. The local government was bankrupt from years of irresponsible borrowing and Congress’ decision to let certain tax incentives expire for US companies doing business there. Democratic Gov. Ricardo Rosselló filed for bankruptcy-like protection in 2017 after defaulting on payments to Wall Street creditors (Puerto Rico owed $74 billion in bond debt).

While investment in Puerto Rico has spiked post-Maria, it’s nowhere near enough to lift up the economy to pay off the government’s debts. As part of the austerity plan, the board has ordered severe budget cuts to government pensions and public education spending, with no end in sight.

The next president needs to have a concrete plan to lift Puerto Rico out of this black hole. Elizabeth Warren is the only candidate who has taken Puerto Rico’s debt problem seriously.

In May, she reintroduced the US Territorial Relief Act. The bill would give American territories (Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa, and North Mariana Islands) the option to cancel their debt if they meet two out of three criteria: if they are struck by a major disaster, suffer major population loss, or experience a huge debt burden. Puerto Rico would meet all three criteria. The act would create a fund to pay back individual investors and groups that bought Puerto Rican bonds, but it would not pay back Wall Street creditors.

“I know that the vulture fund executives see the island’s desperation as just another opportunity to make a profit — and it makes me sick,” she wrote in a Medium post announcing her plan.

Candidates could also vow to reverse two congressional actions that have hurt Puerto Rico’s economy.

2. Washington, DC, lawmakers made it unaffordable to live in Puerto Rico

Congress made it incredibly expensive to live and do business in Puerto Rico for most of its history as a US territory. That’s largely a result of the Merchant Marine Act of 1920 (known as the Jones Act), which requires companies to hire US-based shipping crews to transport goods between US ports instead of letting them hire crews that offer the best price. The law did not exempt Puerto Rico, even though it’s an island in the Caribbean and can’t get goods trucked in. The law makes it expensive for Puerto Ricans to buy food, gas, and basic consumer goods from the mainland — and for US companies to operate there.

Tulsi Gabbard is the only candidate whose platform specifically supports repealing the Jones Act.

Candidates could also vow to reintroduce tax incentives to companies that create jobs in Puerto Rico. In 2006, Congress removed a tax-incentive program that had encouraged investment in Puerto Rico, prompting US companies to leave the island, along with their workers. Consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble and drug makers Pfizer and Teva Pharmaceutical Industries were among the many companies that closed their Puerto Rican factories after the tax incentive was repealed. That move, which coincided with the Great Recession, collapsed the territory’s tax base and led the Puerto Rican government to issue bonds and rack up massive debt to pay its bills.

These fixes are easy ones. The hardest issue to solve is a political one.

3. Resolve the political status of Puerto Rico

Candidates need to make more of an effort to find out what Puerto Ricans really want for their future, and whether or not that involves becoming a US state. The status of Puerto Rico has been the main political issue on the island since the United States annexed it in 1898 at the end of the Spanish-American War.

Over the years, Congress has ceded small amounts of autonomy to Puerto Rico, which now operates as a quasi-state. It has an independent elected local government, but without all the power and benefits of being a state — including a lack of real representation in Congress.

Puerto Ricans are American citizens, but they don’t pay federal income taxes if they live on the island. They pay payroll taxes to fund Social Security and Medicare, but the island gets limited funding for Medicaid and food stamps.

Strong political divisions within Puerto Rico over the future of the island have made it easy for Congress to ignore petitions to become a US state. There’s no consensus among the island’s 3.5 million people about whether it’s best to join the United States, remain a commonwealth, or gain complete independence.

The island’s current economic crisis, which began around 2008, has renewed the effort to gain statehood. More federal money would flow to Puerto Rico if it were a state, though it would also increase federal taxes on the people who live there.

In June 2017, after the pro-statehood party swept into power, Puerto Ricans on the island voted to join the United States as the 51st state. It was the fifth time the island has held a non-binding referendum on whether to join the republic. The vast majority voted in favor of statehood: 97 percent — the largest number yet.

The problem is that fewer than a quarter of registered voters turned out to the polls. That was mostly the result of a boycott from the anti-statehood political groups, who were upset with the wording of the referendum.

Puerto Rico’s non-voting representative in Congress, House Delegate Jenniffer González-Colón, recently introduced two House bills that would allow Puerto Rico to become the 51st American state — one before Hurricane Maria hit and the other last summer.

The Puerto Rico Admission Act would create a task force to immediately start the process of transitioning Puerto Rico into a US state, which would happen by January 1, 2021. The latest bill has 53 Republican and Democratic co-sponsors.

But nothing has moved forward since. And many Puerto Ricans want to know if the next president is fine with the current second-class status of the island. One easy thing candidates could do is promise to help Puerto Rico organize a binding referendum on the issue that meets federal standards. And if a majority of Puerto Ricans choose statehood, the next president needs to have a plan to make it a reality.

Puerto Ricans vote, so addressing their concerns matters

The 3,500-square-mile island in the Caribbean looks tiny on a map, but the population is dense — more Americans live in Puerto Rico than in Nevada, Montana, or Maine. So voters who live on the island send a fair amount of delegates to the Democratic National Convention during primary season. Puerto Rico’s estimated 59 delegates outnumber those in more than half of US states.

For example, about 58,800 voters in Puerto Rico cast ballots during the June 2016 Democratic primary. The island ended up pledging 37 delegates to Hillary Clinton and 23 to Bernie Sanders. In the Republican primary that year, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio won all 23 delegates.

For a decade now, Puerto Rican families have been resettling in Central Florida, largely because of the limited economic opportunities on the island (and, more recently, because of the hurricane). The number of Puerto Ricans living in central Florida had climbed to more than 332,000 even before Hurricane Maria hit, and demographers believe they will soon outnumber Cuban Americans as the largest Latinx group in Florida.

The arrival of Puerto Ricans over the past 15 years has helped flip the once-Republican Orlando region into a Democratic stronghold. Puerto Ricans are widely considered swing voters but tend to vote for Democrats.

Puerto Ricans also overwhelmingly despise Trump, who repeatedly denigrated hurricane survivors and keeps trying to withhold disaster aid. So whoever wins the Democratic nomination will more than likely have boricua (aka Puerto Rican) support. But is their contempt for Trump enough reason to get high turnout at the polls? That’s still unclear.

Which makes it all the more important for Democrats to share a compelling vision for Puerto Rico’s future — one that looks a lot different from the present.