San Juan, Puerto Rico — In Puerto Rico’s hurricane-ravaged capital, it seems Carmen Yulin Cruz is everywhere these days: handing out bags of ice, wading through chest-deep floodwaters, hugging people in need of comfort.
Cruz has long won attention across the island for her hands-on style of leadership in San Juan. But this week she rose to international prominence as a target of Twitter attacks by U.S. President Donald Trump — including one tweet Sunday calling her and others “politically motivated ingrates.”
The insult came hours after “Saturday Night Live” portrayed Cruz in a skit highlighting the latest controversy for the 54-year-old former human resources executive, who occupies one of Puerto Rico’s most powerful posts and has become something of a divisive figure on the island of 3.4 million residents.
Some of Puerto Rico’s mayors have praised federal hurricane relief efforts, while others have joined Cruz in saying they have been insufficient and slow-moving.
In a U.S. territory whose relationship with the mainland is usually the single most prominent political issue, Cruz backs independence but is a member of the Popular Democratic Party, which supports maintaining the territorial status quo. A graduate of Boston University and Carnegie Mellon, she is also a former member of the island’s House of Representatives.
She first grabbed headlines in 2012 when she ran against San Juan’s three-term incumbent mayor, cobbling together a campaign committee in just three days after her party’s original candidate dropped out. Despite being a virtual unknown for many, she cruised to a surprising win by securing the support of a coalition of left-leaning interests from the LGBTQ community to university students to financially powerful unions.
“Imagine what I’ll do when I’m the mayor of San Juan,” she told reporters in August 2012, three months before the vote.
Once in office Cruz launched a million-dollar urban renewal program, renovated public parks and plazas and unionized San Juan employees as promised during her campaign. She aligned herself with Puerto Rico’s large and long-marginalized Dominican minority. She also made the poor a priority, working to secure federal funds to improve conditions for thousands on an island with a nearly 45 percent poverty rate.
“Her commitment has been through actions, not words, with the impoverished people of San Juan,” political analyst Nestor Duprey said, adding that those efforts continued after the hurricane.
“She has demonstrated an empathy and commitment to her people that have taken her to work day and night, very quietly at the beginning,”Duprey said.
That changed Friday when Cruz was asked about acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke’s comment that the federal response to Hurricane Maria was “a good news story.”
Appearing on television in a black shirt with white letters that read, “HELP US, WE ARE DYING,” Cruz argued that federal aid had been slow to reach Puerto Rico following Maria, which knocked out power to the entire island.
“If anybody out there is listening to us, we are dying and you are killing us with the inefficiency and the bureaucracy,” she said.
Criticism of his administration’s response apparently didn’t sit well with Trump, who took to Twitter the next day to defend it as “an amazing job.” He singled out the mayor, accusing her of “poor leadership ability,” and added, without elaborating, “They want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort.”
Neither Cruz nor her spokespeople responded to requests for comment. Since Trump’s tweets she has sought to emphasize a message of unity for the good of Puerto Rico in her own activity on the social media platform.
“I recognize the good heart that the (Federal Emergency Management Agency) people have. They want to help. But they just don’t have the resources,” she said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”
Cruz was born in the city over which she now presides, and is married with a daughter from a previous partner.
Telegenic and media-savvy, she has been criticized for micromanaging and for wearing herself down to the point where she loses her voice. She has been hospitalized a couple of times for asthma problems.
Critics have questioned Cruz’s management style, noting that some early supporters, including people who occupied key positions, have resigned or been dismissed.
She also took heat for offering a job to Puerto Rican independence militant Oscar Lopez Rivera, whose prison sentence was commuted in January by then-President Barack Obama. Rivera was released from prison in May after serving 35 years for his involvement with a group that claimed more than 100 bombings in the 1970s and ‘80s that killed or maimed dozens on the U.S. mainland.
In public appearances Cruz has a penchant for hugging people and sometimes crying during interviews, prompting some to praise her sincerity while others call her overly dramatic.
In recent days she has gone before news cameras repeatedly, issued more emotional pleas for help and tweeted images of her helping islanders in the hurricane’s aftermath, repeatedly emphasizing the slogan “One goal: saving lives.”
Hector Ferrer, the president of Cruz’s party who had a public falling out with her this year over political differences, said that while Cruz may be in the media spotlight, there are plenty of others working hard to help Puerto Rico recover.
“I’m going to communities to hand out water and food — without journalists and without photographers,” he said. “There are 78 mayors who are performing miracles with the resources they have. We have to recognize everyone’s work.”
But Ferrer said he respected Cruz’s efforts to help Puerto Ricans.
“The mayor operates on a different platform and is able to attract more attention, and I commend her for that,” he said.
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