After Hurricane Fiona hit, knocking out power to the entirety of Puerto Rico and killing at least 25 people, the organizers of the Somos Puerto Rico conference made a big decision: The show must go on. Cruise ships don’t turn on a dime, and neither does the New York political world’s equivalent – 1,500 people on a tropical beach, talking, drinking and sometimes gambling.
It’s not all a party. There is a day of policy panels. And in response to the storm, Somos Inc. and the Assembly Puerto Rican/Hispanic Task Force added more community service to the conference schedule and cut some of the more festive events. “We did scale down on the partying. Somos is not having parties,” explained Assembly Member Maritza Davila, chair of the task force and the de facto host of the five-day event. “I take this very seriously. Somos takes it very seriously.”
But you can’t transplant half of New York’s political community to a beachside resort and expect them to treat it like a courtroom. The parties will still happen – they’re just not an official part of the conference. “Hey, you’re adults, you do what you’ve got to do. We’ve got to be honest about things,” Davila said. “People that go there, they have their own receptions. We don’t have control over that.”
The social aspect is what gets so many New York politicos to fly south.
“I spent an hour in the ocean talking to (Brooklyn District Attorney) Eric Gonzalez. An hour, just the two of us. You can’t do that anywhere else,” said Allen Roskoff, a progressive advocate and president of the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club. They talked about “clemency, pardons, criminal justice and his lesbian aunt. … That discussion never would have taken place outside of Somos.”
The conference has exploded in popularity. Organizers sold out in September with 1,500 registrations – and even more people are expected to come down to schmooze on the sidelines.
“It’s an absolute must-go,” political consultant Jordan Barowitz told City & State. “Everybody in New York government, politics, civic life.”
Somos is an annual conference, centered at the Royal Sonesta hotel in Carolina, Puerto Rico, just outside the capital of San Juan, that will be held from Nov. 9-13. Officially, it’s a forum for policymakers to learn about and discuss issues affecting Puerto Ricans and the Latino community at large. For many politicians, it’s an essential pilgrimage, a way to show respect and appreciation for New York’s Latinos and particularly the more than 1 million Puerto Ricans that call the state home – and can vote.
There are two sets of workshops on Nov. 10 where attendees can listen to legislators and experts on various topics, including renewable energy in Puerto Rico and New York state, or the impact of cannabis legalization. Nov. 11 has seven hours devoted to a day of service and informational tours where New Yorkers will spread out across the island for projects like cleaning and painting a school in San Juan or transplanting and composting at a farm in Toa Baja. On Nov. 12, attendees were asked to give some time to sorting packages with food and household items for Puerto Ricans facing food insecurity after the storm. It’s hard to measure the impact, since Somos never releases public reports. But Somos Inc., the nonprofit organization that administers the conference, typically gives modest grants to service providers in Puerto Rico from a portion of the conference revenue. It also funds scholarships for young Latino New Yorkers to attend a spring political conference in Albany: the Angelo Del Toro Puerto Rican/Hispanic Youth Leadership Institute.
But there’s another service that attendees are providing: spending money.
“I see the suffering,” said Davila, who was born in Puerto Rico. “And Puerto Rico needs the revenue to be able to move forward. Those hotel workers need the money. Cab drivers over there need the money. The restaurants need the money. People need the money over there.”
There will be a lot of people at Somos eager to hear that message. Politicians drain their campaign accounts to buy flights and hotel rooms, while lobbyists pull out their company credit cards at the Fairmont El San Juan Hotel lobby bar. More than a work conference, Somos is the place to see and be seen in politics. The organizers have realized it and sold dozens of sponsorships to just about everyone looking to do business in Albany and at City Hall. Private companies like Uber, Meta and Coca-Cola. Gambling companies like Caesars, FanDuel and Resorts World. Labor unions like 1199SEIU, District Council 37 and the Building & Construction Trades Council of Greater New York. And lobbying firms like Brown & Weinraub, Actum and TBA. All contribute to Somos, and all get their names, their issues and employees in front of the political power players in attendance.
“I have a long history of hearing about Somos and how it was basically a place where people would go to talk to lobbyists and get drunk. And I found that very much to be true,” said City Council Member Alexa Avilés, who was born in Puerto Rico and attended the conference for the first time last year. She had a policy: “I was not going to meet with any lobbyists. My time was not for them there. If they want to meet with me, they will meet with me here on business hours.”
Avilés is attending again this year, and the democratic socialist legislator is planning to co-host a couple events, including a “resistance tour” highlighting Puerto Ricans fighting against “colonialization and all of its impacts.”
While Avilés thinks the conference misses the mark regarding engaging with Puerto Ricans, she appreciated its importance as a time for connecting with colleagues.
And there’s a lot to talk about around the pool. Somos’ timing, in the days immediately after the November general election, means political players are primed for Monday morning quarterbacking – and to plan for the next election. In 2018, the conference was a celebration of the Democrats taking the state Senate majority and speculation of what would happen in the upcoming public advocate special election. The next year, attendees were looking ahead to 2020 fearing primaries, with no knowledge of the global pandemic to come. The conference took a year off for the pandemic, then came back in a huge way in 2021. Eight candidates jockeyed for position in the race for New York City Council speaker. Letitia James and Kathy Hochul maneuvered around each other, as the attorney general tested the waters – if not the hotel pool – for a gubernatorial run. And Eric Adams strolled around with an entourage, fresh off his expected win in the New York City mayoral race. Yes, 2021 had a “celebrity factor,” said Greenberg Traurig lobbyist Ed Wallace. Adams, Hochul and U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer were like Elvis, Bill Clinton or Frank Sinatra with the way they owned the rooms, Wallace said. (Yes, for the Somos set, Clinton is on par with the stage legends.)
This year? An autopsy of Hochul’s race – however it may go – is expected to be the main topic of conversation, as well as congressional control, and who might get a City Council primary challenge in 2023. Among all that, there will also be a focus on the island playing host, promised Somos Executive Director Tania Capaz. “We’ve been developing the conference to be more Puerto Rico-centric and including the local community,” she said. “Each year we’ve gotten better at that.”
But Somos has always been great at getting hundreds of members of New York’s political community together in one place for a few days. “Everyone knows you must be at Somos,” Roskoff said. “It’s the best networking time for New Yorkers in our business.”
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