By Suzanne Gamboa
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Two days after jumping into the 2020 presidential race, Julián Castro made the lingering misery of hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico the focus of the first stop of his campaign.
His visit, along with other events that drew 30 members of Congress to the island — the largest delegation to visit the island — and the presence of award-winning entertainer Lin-Manuel Miranda for performances of “Hamilton” threw the spotlight on Puerto Rico and what hasn’t been done since the U.S. territory was ravaged by Hurricane Maria in September 19, 2016.
“I want all the people of Puerto Rico to know that you count, that we respect you. I want them to know that we are thinking about them as they recover from Hurricane Maria,” Castro said at the political “summit” held by Latino Victory Fund, a political action committee, or PAC, that financially backs Latino candidates for election to political office.
Addressing the reports that the administration is considering diverting funds allocated to Puerto Rico’s recovery for the wall, Castro said it was “completely objectionable, immoral and should never happen.”
Castro was straightforward in describing his intentions for the trip — to contrast how the island has fared under the Trump administration versus how it would do under an administration he’d run.
“It’s a statement that we’re not going to fail the people of Puerto Rico or anybody else the way that the Trump administration has failed the people here,” Castro told NBC News after his plane landed in San Juan Sunday. “And it’s failed the people here because it doesn’t believe anybody counts, but I do.”
Castro jumped into the presidential race on Saturday, announcing his bid from his hometown San Antonio, Texas.
Puerto Ricans can vote in the primaries, which are in June, of the presidential election, but not in the general election.
Castro said in his announcement speech Saturday that he would not accept any PAC money for his campaign. Castro’s campaign paid for his trip to Puerto Rico for the speech.
Following the speech, he was to tour hurricane recovery efforts in the capital, with San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz as his guide.
He also was to meet with local residents to discuss their challenges since the hurricane. In a news release, his press team referred to the residents as “American citizens the federal government has abandoned.
After Puerto Rico, Castro heads to New Hampshire to participate in “Politics and Eggs”, a traditional, almost mandatory stop for presidential candidates. The forum allows candidates to speak to business leaders and participate in the tradition of autographing wooden eggs.
Separately, several members of Congress had come to the island for the annual conference of Bold PAC, the political fundraising arm of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. Some members attended a performance of “Hamilton,” whose run in the island is benefiting arts non-profits.
The congressional trip was drawing criticism, particularly in conservative media, that the members were there during the federal shutdown, with focus on a photo that was tweeted of Sen. Bob Menendez on the beach in swimming shorts.
Bold PAC usually holds its conference in Maryland but decided months ago to move it to the island to bring attention to Puerto Rico’s troubles, said Bold PAC chairman Rep. Tony Cárdenas, D-Calif. The conference was scheduled long before the federal shutdown was a possibility, he said.
When asked about the the criticism over the timing of the visit, several attendees said that while there were receptions and Hamilton performances, they spent most of Saturday in briefings with Puerto Rican officials, including Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, learning about where things stand for Puerto Rico’s recovery.
Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., who serves as chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, said the trip was valuable for him in learning about the inability of veterans on the island to get a form of veterans’ health insurance coverage they’d get if they lived on the island and about the loss of health care professionals.
He said his time here helped him form ideas around use Puerto Rico’s bilingual higher education institutions and medical schools to develop bilingual health care professionals. Congressional members who attended Hamilton, including Takano, paid for their tickets, he said.
Rep. Lou Correa, D-Calif., led a few members to a meeting with the island’s Coast Guard, Takano said.
“What really bothered me about how this weekend had been portrayed by the right wing press, I don’t think most people thought Puerto Rico is my vacation destination. Most people are concerned about is Puerto Rico back? Is it rebuilding?” Takano said.
“To portray this as like, oh, a party and a holiday, is a very cynical attempt to deflect from a president who wanted to divert disaster relief funds from Puerto Rico into building a wall (on the U.S. Mexico border) which comes from also a very racist, nativist place that’s hostile to Latinos,” Takano said.