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The Boston Globe

With Party Switch, Politics Isn't Local: Puerto Rico’s Statehood Fight Prompts Move

By Jenn Abelson

January 22, 2002
Copyright © 2002
The Boston Globe. All Rights Reserved.

For Victor Ortiz, switching his party affiliation to Democrat from Republican is more than just a state of mind. It's about statehood .

"I am in favor of statehood for Puerto Rico , and the Republicans refuse to endorse that," said Ortiz, who is running for a seat on the Board of Selectmen. "We've been a territory of the US for 100 years. Enough is enough."

Ortiz, a registered Republican since he arrived from Guayama, Puerto Rico , in 1973, switched to the Democratic Party on Jan. 9, the day he filed his nomination for the Board of Selectmen.

While switching parties may not make much of a difference in the nonpartisan race, Ortiz said peace of mind would be the real winner.

"I've been thinking of switching for a long time," said Ortiz, who has been a Town Meeting member for 15 years. "So if my goal is getting statehood for Puerto Rico , I should be a Democrat."

Ortiz explained that he initially joined the Republicans because they are affiliated with his conservative party in Puerto Rico , the New Progressive Party. Although a fiscal conservative, Ortiz's support for the New Progressives stemmed mainly from their stance supporting statehood .

"In Puerto Rico , we are halfway US citizens," he said. "We can vote in the primaries, but we don't have the right to vote in the presidential election. I don't want that."

Ortiz believes the Republican Party refuses to support Puerto Rico as a state because the majority of the island's 3.8 million citizens are registered Popular Democrats, which is associated with the mainland's Democratic Party. If Puerto Rico gained statehood , it would have two Senators and seven representatives, Ortiz said.

"The Republicans know if Puerto Rico becomes a state, it will be Democratic. They don't want that," he said.

Esther Hopkins, chairwoman of the Democratic Town Committee and an incumbent selectwoman who will face Ortiz and six others in a March preliminary election, said she's always pleased to welcome newcomers to the party.

"One would think he's seen the light," she said.

Others in the race are perenial selectman candidate Thomas J. M. Blandford; Housing Authority chairman Mark R. Galante; Edward J. Noonan, a Town Meeting member who is chairman of the Capital Budget Committee; Zoning Board of Appeals chairman Philip R. Ottaviani Jr.; and Town Meeting members Christopher Ross and Malvin W. Schulze.

Ortiz said that although he was a registered Republican, he never voted strictly along party lines. He supported President Bush, but didn't vote for former governor Paul Cellucci.

"Whether politicians are registered Republican or Democrat really doesn't matter. What I see is how I vote," Ortiz said.

In fact, some politicians thought he was a Democrat.

Several weeks before Ortiz swapped party affiliations, a representative from Secretary of State William Galvin, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor, asked Ortiz to serve as a delegate. He declined.

"My decision to run had no bearing on my decision to switch parties," Ortiz said. "I want people to vote for me because they think I can do the job. Not because I am a Democrat or Republican. If they are voting just because I am a Democrat, I prefer they don't vote for me."

A close friend, Argentina Arias, said Ortiz never mentioned wanting to change his party affiliation. Arias, also a native of Puerto Rico , said she brought it up to him last year when Ortiz decided to run for the Board of Selectmen.

"I told him if he wanted to get elected he has to change parties because this is a Democratic town. But he just laughed," said Arias, who isn't a registered member of any party. "I'm pro- statehood for Puerto Rico , but there are some things in both the Democratic and Republican parties that I don't like."

Doug Freeman, chairman of the Republican Town Committee, said Ortiz's change of parties wouldn't affect the race because it is a nonpartisan contest. In addition, Ortiz's lack of leadership in Republican circles makes his departure a nonissue, Freeman said.

Ortiz, a facility director at South Middlesex Opportunity Council, underscored that the decision was purely personal, saying that he hadn't yet told his wife, a Democrat.

"She doesn't know and she doesn't care," Ortiz said. "We don't discuss politics. That's how we've stayed married so long."

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