ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Puerto Rico’s governor endorsed the Democratic candidates in both the U.S. Senate and governor’s races, saying Monday he was impressed with incumbent U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson’s longstanding support for Puerto Rico and by gubernatorial candidate and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum’s charisma, energy and commitment.
Gov. Ricardo Rosello said at a news conference that it was tough to decide on a favorite for the Senate race because he called both Nelson and his challenger, Republican Gov. Rick Scott, “two great people running for office.”
But Rossello said decided to back Nelson because of the senator’s longstanding support for Puerto Rican equality when it comes to federal benefits, and his support for statehood for the island.
Later in the day, Rossello backed Gillum over GOP U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis in Florida’s gubernatorial race, saying he was impressed by Gillum’s charisma when a mutual friend introduced them before the August primary.
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Rossello’s endorsements could sway some of the tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans who have moved to Florida in the year since Hurricane Maria devastated the island.
Both Democrats and Republicans in Florida have courted the votes of Puerto Ricans, and Rossello said he was grateful for Scott’s multiple visits and aid to the island. Rossello said he and Scott had traded messages but hadn’t been able to talk to each other directly before he endorsed Nelson.
“In no way, should one take this as a negative toward somebody. It’s a positive for somebody,” said Rossello after the news conference in Orlando. “This might fall on deaf ears but we need to steer away from, in every contest, to see who the villain is and who the superhero is. In many cases, we have fine folks running for office.”
About 20 Puerto Rican supporters of Scott protested outside in Orlando, waving Puerto Rican flags and signs that said, “Rossello Ungrateful” and “Do Nothing Nelson.”
Miriam Ramirez, a former senator in Puerto Rico who is a Republican, said Rossello should have stayed neutral in the race. She is backing Scott.
“I’m very, very disturbed our governor is now supporting a Democrat publicly,” Ramirez said. “He had promised he wouldn’t get involved. He’s gotten involved, so we’re getting involved.”
Scott’s campaign on Monday released statements of support for the Florida governor from Puerto Rico’s lieutenant governor, resident commissioner to the U.S. Congress, secretary of state, Senate president and House speaker.
Ahead of Rossello’s endorsement of Gillum, DeSantis’ campaign released a statement of support from Jennifer Gonzalez-Colon, Puerto Rico’s resident commissioner to the U.S. Congress, who said, that Gillum “has done nothing for the island of Puerto Rico.” DeSantis was championed in the Florida GOP gubernatorial primary by President Trump, who last month was criticized by some Puerto Ricans for saying the death toll from Hurricane Maria was inflated and that the number rose to 3,000 “like magic.”
At a rally in Kissimmee, Florida with Rossello, Gillum, using a Spanish term for Puerto Ricans, told the crowd of about 75 supporters, “I’m here to ask to be the candidate for governor who is the candidate choice of the Boriquas, right here in the state of Florida.”
Even though Rossello endorsed Gwen Graham over Gillum in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, the Puerto Rican governor said Monday that he was impressed with Gillum’s charisma when a mutual friend introduced them before the August primary. The friend had told Rossello that Gillum was “algo especial,” or something special, Puerto Rico’s governor recounted to the crowd.
“As I opened the door to my office when Mayor Gillum was coming in, it was like energy just flew over the room,” said Rossello, who added that he didn’t think Gillum had a chance since he was trailing in the polls. “Then, of course, it happened. That hope, that commitment to change galvanized the polls.”
Follow Mike Schneider on Twitter at https://twitter.com/MikeSchneiderAP