‘They’re all adults’: How Democrats handled a post-hurricane political party in Puerto Rico

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — On Saturday, hundreds of members of New York’s Democratic Party stalked a half-mile strip of the beachside resorts here gaming out their evening options: drop by the conference’s final farewell bash at a private beach, rally a group to club in Old San Juan’s La Factoria or try to crash a house party hosted by billionaire crypto investor and former child star Brock Pierce.

But on the southwestern corner and more remote regions of the island, Puerto Ricans were continuing to patch up homes wrecked by earthquakes and Hurricane Fiona in September that knocked out power across the island and killed at least 30 people.

New York has the largest Puerto Rican population outside the island, and its leaders have long hosted the annual SOMOS conference in San Juan after Election Day to both honor its ties with the U.S. territory and to let loose about their wins and losses at the ballot box.

With Puerto Rico’s struggles to rebuild after years of devastating natural disasters, the Democrats’ pilgrimage has become more complicated: They need to avoid being impervious to the residents’ needs while also enjoying all the island and its sprawling resorts offer.

The four-day conference this year that ended over the past weekend carried a heightened emphasis on service projects just weeks after Fiona. But that collided with residents increasingly skeptical of officials’ overtures after years of feeling they are propped up when politically convenient, but otherwise neglected.

“Politicians are politicians; it doesn't matter if they are from the United States or if they are from Puerto Rico,” said Luis Nazarilo, a 67-year-old resident of the coastal town of Guánica who showed a POLITICO reporter cracks running through the walls of his home after the most recent disaster.

“They are all the same,” he said. “They take what little money we have in our pockets and use it for their own selfish needs.”

SOMOS, 2022 style

This year, SOMOS organizers weighed dropping the conference, but determined that the good from bringing visibility and economic activity to the territory outweighed any perceived negatives, said Brooklyn Assemblymember Maritza Davila, who is chair of the state Assembly's Puerto Rican and Hispanic Task Force.

“They’re all adults,” Davila, who was born in Puerto Rico, said of the some 1,500 registered attendees. “People do what they want to do. If you go to an island and you have a drink — we can’t control that. It's about celebrating the mere fact people have enough respect to come out here and enjoy each other's company.”

Few at the conference denied the optics of the November escape to the Caribbean are just weird. But Davila and other organizers say the soiree is more nuanced than creating a debaucherous den for the political class. It’s an ode to their family and friends who live on the island and the more than 1 million Puerto Ricans who live in New York.

The conference — which began in its Albany iteration in the late 1980s when the group was first named “Somos Uno”, or "We are One" — is compared to a family reunion, a grimacing nod both to its massive scale and its guests’ tendencies to gossip about someone across the room just moments after greeting them with a kiss at the door.

SOMOS Inc., which administers the conference, is a non-profit aimed at providing services and resources for the state’s Latino community in collaboration with the New York Legislature's Puerto Rican and Hispanic Task Force. The annual shindig in Puerto Rico, now an essential event for all of the state’s political players, is sponsored by the groups most interested in influencing both City Hall and Albany, including companies like Uber, FanDuel, AirBnB; top trade unions and healthcare companies.

Most of New York’s active elected officials pay for the trip with campaign or personal funds. Other attendees range from first-year legislative staffers to powerful founders of the state’s oldest lobbying firms, all of whom are somewhat equalized by the varied levels of beachwear during daytime poolside meetings.

“I was told it’s best to leave the conference before you see someone you don’t want to see naked from the waist up,” joked one first time attendee who works in the health care sector. “You can’t unsee that.”

SOMOS is best known, and most valued, for myriad small corners to offer secrets and strike deals, often aided by social lubricants from the bars scattered throughout the grounds of the Royal Sonesta and El San Juan hotels. Strategic navigating and a sharp eye can allow almost anyone to snag face time with top officials who are rarely accessible in their daily capacities: the MTA’s chairperson and CEO Janno Lieber made an unusual debut this year, for instance.

During some election years, it doubles as a campaign extension for candidates to declare specific allegiances by attending certain evening receptions, most of which are not hosted by the official SOMOS organization but rather ancillary political or industry groups.

A reception at the Chabad Jewish Center of Puerto Rico hosted by Met Council CEO David Greenfield on Friday drew names such as New York City Mayor Eric Adams, Council Speaker Adrienne Adams, Attorney General Letitia James and Reps. Hakeem Jeffries and Ritchie Torres all at once, though that could also be for its full spread of kosher desserts.

Bridging a disconnect

After debating whether to hold the conference so soon after Fiona, organizers ultimately decided on slightly scaled back festivities with an extra day of service projects. And hundreds of high-powered visitors could only help a place where tourism drives the economy, Davila said.

“If you’re working in Puerto Rico only making $7 an hour and only seven people come in — this is the only way I can explain it — and then all of a sudden, 25 or 30 people are coming in one day, and tipping, because the conference is happening. That means a lot to those people,” she said.

The potential effects of a tourism surge were digestible at the packed San Juan resort circuit, where an apologetic waitress at the Royal Sonesta’s on-site steakhouse said a delay in food service was due to an unprecedented number of guests from the conference, one of whom required extra vigilance because she looked “about to pass out on the table.”

The benefits are less direct elsewhere on the island. Back in Guánica are regular reminders of Fiona’s continued devastation: mudslides causing road blockages, houses condemned as too dangerous to re-inhabit, and roofs covered with tarps, some dating back to Hurricane Maria in 2017.

Nazarilo has lived in the town for 25 years, and his view of politicians visiting the island is informed by the fact that the government has never helped him rebuild after a disaster. Fiona was smaller in scale, but almost worse than Maria, he said, because it decimated everything that was left. And he’s not seen money promised after Maria from the U.S. government materialize for him or his community.

“If they say they are coming to help, they are lying,” he said. “The politicians of the United States come here, and they get money from Puerto Ricans and they boost their campaigns.”

Nazarilo said he had insurance so he was lucky this time. His neighbors weren’t: one neighbor was in such a dire financial situation after an earthquake in January that he committed suicide. Another had a heart attack right after Fiona, Nazarilo said.

His feelings were shared by others. When traveling across the island, many Puerto Ricans laughed when asked if politicians can make a difference. “Políticos son políticos” or "politicians are politicians" was the response heard over and over again from locals on the southern coast, many of whom didn't want to be quoted. Months of blackouts after storms, surging costs of food and necessities, a crippling infrastructure, and rampant crime are reminders of promises left unfulfilled, they said.

Visitors for SOMOS should be aware of the disconnect between their experiences and those of many of the islands’ residents, said Hispanic Federation’s Charlotte Gossett Navarro, the chief director of the non-profit’s Puerto Rico team. But they should also understand how their public profiles can be helpful if they use their platforms strategically.

“I think it's always a complicated issue, especially after a disaster,” Gossett Navarro said. “There’s always this strange dynamic of ‘what am I doing relaxing on the beach while others are suffering?’ I think that's an effect that should happen for any tourist that comes to Puerto Rico, whether it's for a conference or for a family vacation.”

'A real serious role to play'

The Hispanic Federation works to facilitate many of the policy and project-oriented portions of the conference, and Gossett Navarro said organizers were intentional about running the conference in a socially conscious way.

This year’s schedule included workshops Thursday on topics like renewable energy, lessons from hurricane recovery policy and legal resources for Latinos in the U.S.

Much of Friday was blocked off for days for service that included tours of revitalization efforts at a local farm, cleaning and painting at a K-8 school in San Juan, and transplanting trees with a conservation group. On Saturday, attendees, including New York City Mayor Eric Adams, signed up to pack up food and household items for Puerto Rican families in need.

The effects of the day projects are hard to judge — the conference doesn’t release public reports — and most of the conference’s non-elected attendees forgo them. “My friend advised against actually signing up and attending the conference and instead just staying at the fancy hotel it’s at,” said one staffer for a downstate politician.

But one of the key benefits of SOMOS is getting state and federal eyes on issues that immediately affect Puerto Ricans, specifically within its status as a U.S. territory that limits its voice and federal funding sources, Gossett Navarro said.

That extends to key projects, like the renewable energy investments after Hurricane Maria that were largely successful in September. One of the federally qualified health centers with a rooftop solar system — that Gov. Kathy Hochul had visited during SOMOS in 2021 — never lost power during Fiona. The goal is to increase visibility around the kind of efforts that are aimed at long-term resiliency, drawing both political and philanthropic resources, she said.

It’s the kind of thing that can happen after Hochul handed out backpacks at a local K-8 school with AFT president Randi Weingarten and announced a new office in the Bronx to extend official Puerto Rico governmental services to Puerto Ricans in the U.S., or when Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand told a group of health workers and advocates she would “certainly call your governor and yell at him” if they thought it would help get resources for reproductive health care.

And it was the aim of other trips outside the conference’s official schedule.

Bronx Sen. Gustavo Rivera and progressive NYC Council members Alexa Avilés, Tiffany Cabán and Amanda Farías on Saturday took a bus tour to visit community spaces that have been built up to fight disaster and recovery, such as a trans feminist art space built around an old San Juan airplane hangar that began to mobilize resources after Maria.

“This is not us coming in paternalistically and telling them “We’re fancy-ass New Yorkers and we know how it's done,” he said. “It's like, “No, what are y'all doing? How are you transforming the limited resources that you have into abundance? And how can we then help you to continue to do that?'"

Rivera, who was born in Puerto Rico but admitted he’s never enjoyed the weather, said he was satisfied the tour was successful in its goals: Introducing first time SOMOS attendees to community resources and being ready to raise their concerns to New York politicians they can access at the federal level, such as U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, if necessary.

New York is usually the first state to come to the island’s assistance after natural disasters. Rivera was a harsh critic of former Gov. Andrew Cuomo, but said that Cuomo’s actions in 2017 after Maria, including connecting CUNY and SUNY students with rebuilding efforts and offering the state’s Medicaid expertise to health officials, made a real difference.

“I'm not saying don't enjoy your piña colada,” Rivera said. “I'm not saying don't go into Old San Juan and enjoy your sweaty dancing in a gay club at 3 a.m. in the morning, like [names Democratic lawmaker] -- Oh yes, I’m shouting her out! -- was doing last night and the night before that,” he said. “But don’t forget that there are things we can do from our position, there are things that we can bring to bear by helping people who live here and are challenged every day.”

Mid-conference, Brooklyn Sen. Zellnor Myrie said he was excited about both the beach and the Thursday workshop on Puerto Rico’s successes with renewable energy he had just attended. If an attendee can’t find ways to do both, then SOMOS “might not be the right place for you,” he said.

"I love it all, but we have a real serious role to play, and the entire political class is here,” he added. “I think it presents good opportunities for us to have some of these family conversations we [Democrats] need to have, but to also be thinking deeply about policy that can help both the island and those folks back home.”