A native of Puerto Rico, Rodriguez is undecided this go-round. He and like-minded Puerto Ricans living in the Interstate 4 corridor — a wide swath of central Florida where the majority of the state’s Puerto Ricans live — are drawing unprecedented attention from the presidential campaigns.
“We’re at a period of renaissance,” said Rodriguez, who is running for city commissioner in Kissimmee, about 15 miles southeast of Walt Disney World. “Everybody wants our vote.”
The new interest stems from a combination of factors: sheer growth in Florida’s Puerto Rican population, an increase in civic involvement as Puerto Ricans become accustomed to the rough-and-tumble of state politics and a razor-close presidential contest in which Florida is playing a key role.
In the latest effort to woo a segment of the state’s most independent voters, Obama campaigned Thursday in the Orlando area. Before his speech at Rollins College, his motorcade pulled off the highway in Orlando’s Azalea Park neighborhood to stop at the restaurant Lechonera El Barrio. Obama greeted diners and left with a $6 plate of pulled pork with rice and beans.
In Miami, pop star Marc Anthony, whose family is from Puerto Rico, opened a campaign office for the president in Little Havana.
Mitt Romney’s Republican campaign is competing with Obama’s Democratic effort to step up the outreach to the I-4 corridor. To counter the president’s visit Thursday, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American, campaigned for Romney in Orlando.
Both campaigns also are paying more attention than ever to the U.S. commonwealth of Puerto Rico itself. Many in Florida still have family on the island, which will hold a referendum on its future Nov. 6, the day the rest of the nation chooses a president.
The number of Florida’s Puerto Rican voters has doubled in the last decade to more than 860,000 — about 1 in 14 voters overall. Island transplants and retirees, like Rodriguez from New York, now make up 28 percent of the state’s eligible Hispanic voters. That’s second only to Cuban-Americans, who make up 32 percent, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
For years Puerto Rican turnout has been far below that of Cuban-Americans. One big factor: Those in Puerto Rico, while American citizens, can’t vote for president because the island isn’t a state, and many new arrivals aren’t familiar with mainland — and more particularly Florida — politics.
Orlando radio talk show host and attorney Tony Suarez believes that’s changing.
A decade ago, when he won a seat in the Florida Legislature, Suarez could count on one hand the number of fellow Puerto Ricans elected statewide. This year, there are at least a dozen Puerto Rican officials and candidates. Last May, more than 200 candidates, business and community leaders schmoozed during the third annual summit on Puerto Rican Affairs in Orlando.