POLITICS

Meet Darren Soto, poised to make history as first Florida Puerto Rican in Congress

Congressional candidate Darren Soto, Florida Democrat

Congressional candidate Darren Soto, Florida Democrat  (DarrenSoto.com)

He is, like so many of his constituents, the product of parents who left a familiar language and culture hoping for a better life.

Darren Soto, the son of a computer worker and hairdresser who left Puerto Rico in 1996 for the U.S. mainland, became a lawyer, and is favored to win the election to represent the 9th congressional district in Florida.

A victory for Soto, 38, in this Democratic-leaning district in Central Florida would be much more than a personal milestone for the New Jersey-born transplant who served in the state House of Representatives and now is in the state Senate.

It would be a milestone for Central Florida’s increasingly influential Puerto Rican community, which has ballooned in recent years as Puerto Rico’s economy has suffered a crisis, with unemployment topping 12 percent. Puerto Ricans in Florida number about 1 million, with about 1,000 a month settling in the state.

Soto would be the first Puerto Rican to represent Florida in Congress. His GOP rival for the House seat, which is open because of incumbent Rep. Alan Grayson’s decision not to seek re-election, is engineer and businessman Wayne Liebnitzky.

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“It’s been a long time coming,” Soto said to Fox News Latino. “We finally get representation in our nation’s capital.”

Soto would join several other Puerto Ricans in Congress, including Illinois Congressman Luis Gutierréz, a Democrat, and Idaho Congressman Raúl Labrador, a Republican. The island has a Resident Commissioner in Congress, but it is a non-voting position.

Soto says he plans to be a persistent advocate for funding to combat the Zika virus, raising the minimum age, bringing high-tech jobs to the district and improving access to quality education, among other things.

Soto, who beat three rivals in the Democratic primary, says he would approach immigration in Congress “from a moral point of view.”

His fellow Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens, he says, generally support a humane approach to immigration.

“We all have neighbors who are immigrants, and have family members who marry immigrants,” Soto said.

The district includes parts of Orange and Polk counties and all Osceola County. The district tends to go Democratic, but has a large segment of Latino independent voters.

Liebnitzsky won the GOP nomination in the August primaries with more than 60 percent of the vote.

A U.S. Navy veteran, Liebnitzky has pledged to work for senior citizens and those who have served in the military. He wants a hard line on foreign policy and fiscal conservatism.

“We have people that have defended our country,” Liebnitzky said in an interview with MyNews13.com, “and we have people that have built our country, and we treat them like second-class citizens. That’s not how I plan to represent this country.”

Efforts to reach Liebnitzky were not successful.

If Soto wins in Florida, and Adriano Espaillat wins in New York, succeeding retiring Rep. Charles Rangel, the two Democratic state lawmakers would bring the number of Latinos in the House to a new record of 31. Espaillat, who also is favored to win his race, also would make history, becoming the first Dominican-American in Congress.

“As a population, we’ve been critical since 2008,” Soto said of Puerto Ricans, “when many Puerto Ricans came out here. The [community] is not new, and it’s getting bigger each year.”

From 2005 to 2015, the Puerto Rican population in Florida has grown by about 67 percent.

Soto would like to see his fellow Puerto Ricans – who have thronged to Central Florida from such places as New York and Chicago, in addition to directly from the island – get more involved in mainland politics.

“There’s been a struggle,” he said, “to get my fellow Puerto Ricans to vote in elections. They’re busy with acclimation to the area, that’s one factor.”

The community also is consumed with trying to make ends meet, Puerto Rican leaders say. They’re dealing with higher unemployment than other Florida residents as well as other Latino groups.

Puerto Ricans had an 11.6 percent jobless rate between 2010 and 2014, compared with 10.6 for Florida residents in general and 10.7 for Latinos. Their median family income is $53,800, lower than the average Florida income of $69,500.

Be that as it may, however, Soto hopes this exceptional presidential race is energizing his fellow Puerto Ricans to flex their political muscle.

“There’s excitement about the presidential election,” Soto said.

A new analysis by the Center for American Progress concluded that while the Cuban population in Florida “has long established its dynamic role in national and local politics, it’s the state’s burgeoning Puerto Rican community that is set to push the state’s political leanings and shape the national conversation for years to come.”

Ruy Teixeira, Senior Fellow of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, said in a statement: “We need to change our picture of how we think of Florida Hispanic voters. We have to think of them in an entirely different way.”

Soto, who attended Rutgers University and got his law degree at George Washington University, moved to Florida from New Jersey in 2001.

While he intends to be a voice for all his constituents in Central Florida, the Orlando resident wants to advocate for what he sees as the best interests of Puerto Rico.

“I talked about the things we care about,” Soto said of his conversations with Puerto Rican constituents during his congressional campaign. “The whole Central Florida community wants to see recovery in Puerto Rico. They are a strong trading partner with us. We believe that increased prosperity in Puerto Rico will increase prosperity in Central Florida.”

Elizabeth Llorente is Senior Reporter for FoxNews.com, and can be reached at Elizabeth.Llorente@Foxnews.com. Follow her on https://twitter.com/Liz_Llorente