Puerto Ricans frustrated by the island’s economic crisis voted Sunday in the U.S. territory’s Democratic presidential primary and local elections, as front-runner Hillary Clinton drew closer to securing the number of delegates needed to win her party’s White House nomination.
After a blowout victory Saturday in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Ms. Clinton was just 60 delegates short of the 2,383 needed to win the Democratic nomination and advance to the November general election, according to an Associated Press count.
There were 60 pledged delegates at stake in Puerto Rico, and Ms. Clinton would need a commanding performance to get them all.
But voters’ focus was mostly on the island’s economic crisis.
Ms. Clinton and her rival, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, have visited Puerto Rico and pledged to help as the island’s government tries to restructure $70 billion worth of public debt the governor has said is unpayable.
“This is one of the most important political moments for Puerto Rico,” said Emanuel Rosado, a 29-year-old Clinton supporter. “I’m taking action as a result of the economic crisis.”
Two weeks before the primary, Mr. Sanders criticised a rescue deal, negotiated by U.S. House leaders and the Obama administration, as having colonial overtones.
In a letter to fellow Senate Democrats, Mr. Sanders said the House bill to create a federal control board and allow some restructuring of the territory’s $70 billion debt would make “a terrible situation even worse.”
“That bill is anti-democratic and it’s not in the best interest of Puerto Rico,” said Jorge Gaskins, a 67-year-old farmer who supports Sanders and opposes a control board. “What we have now is a colonial relationship with the U.S.”
Ms. Clinton has said she has serious concerns about the board’s powers, but believes the legislation should move forward, or “too many Puerto Ricans will continue to suffer.”
Both Ms. Clinton and Mr. Sanders spent Sunday in California, the biggest prize among the five states voting on Tuesday. Ms. Clinton told an enthusiastic crowd at Greater St. Paul Baptist Church in Oakland the country is “getting indifferent to the great toll of gun violence,” while Sanders made a series of stops in Los Angeles before an evening rally in San Diego.
“Sorry to disturb your brunch,” Mr. Sanders said at Hamburger Mary’s, taking the microphone during their “drag brunch” as disco lights swirled inside. “I just wanted to say that on Tuesday as you all know there is a very important Democratic primary here in California. And my hope is that everyone will stand up and make clear it is too late for establishment politics and establishment economics. We need real change in this country.”
Nearly 2.9 million people are registered to vote in Puerto Rico. Turnout was expected to be high given that Puerto Ricans also were narrowing down their choice for the next governor, as well as senators, representatives and mayors.
Polls closed at 3 p.m. Some voters waited in line for hours in the heat, fanning themselves and requesting chairs.
Juan Carlos Rosario, a 40-year-old designer and Mr. Sanders supporter, said he was disappointed about the House bill.
“I haven’t seen anything that would help improve Puerto Rico’s economy,” he said. “The thing I’m most worried about is lobbyists aligning themselves with some candidates who obviously are not seeking what’s best for Puerto Rico, but what’s best for those who have donated to their campaigns and made them rich.”
While they can participate in presidential primaries, Puerto Ricans do not vote in the November presidential election.
No matter, said former Gov. Anibal Acevedo Vila. He supports Puerto Rico’s current political status as a commonwealth and urged voters to participate in the primary.
“Many in the past and today think that these presidential primaries are a ‘sham’ without consequences,” he said. “But given the threat that comes from the North and the powerful allies it has here, not taking advantage of this ‘sham’ to make our voice heard could be a precious wasted opportunity.”
Among those voting was Democratic Party superdelegate Andres Lopez, one of the insiders who can vote for the candidate of their choice at the summer convention. He had remained uncommitted, but said Sunday he will support Ms. Clinton.
Ms. Clinton has 1,776 pledged delegates won in primaries and caucuses; Mr. Sanders has 1,501. When including superdelegates, her lead over Mr. Sanders is substantial 2,323 to 1,547.
It takes 2,383 to win.
With Lopez’s endorsement, all seven of Puerto Rico’s superdelegates have pledged their support for Ms. Clinton.
“It is time to focus on squashing ‘El Trumpo,’” he said, referring to presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.