|In a run-up to the 50th birthday of the commonwealth political status on July 25, Gov. Calderón made stops in New York and Washington this week to announce the launch of a Puerto Rico government-backed $6 million effort to register Puerto Ricans living in the states to vote.
In the same breadth, she defended the commonwealth status against its critics.
Her message was clear: Puerto Ricans can be a political force in the United States while remaining a commonwealth.
With 3.4 million Puerto Ricans living on the U.S. mainland, undertaking the voter registration drive is no doubt a worthy goal, but critics question whether the local government should be bankrolling the effort instead of investing in public schools and crime-fighting measures.
Senate Majority Leader Kenneth McClintock argued that the drive was a partisan political effort and therefore unconstitutional.
With New York Gov. George Pataki standing beside her, Calderón, with a straight face, said Monday that the "campaign is not partisan. It is for both parties, Republican and Democrat, and I am not affiliated with either and never will be."
But New York Democrats, angered by Patakis presence, boycotted the event -- a political statement if there ever was one.
The plan, however, is an attempt to flex Puerto Rican political power not even the governor denies that. When the Calderón roadshow hit Washington, D.C. Wednesday, she made a point to pitch the potential political power of Puerto Rican voters.
"Many Puerto Rican communities in the United States are located in strategic political areas that could sway the vote in future elections," she said.
The voter registration drive, dubbed "Nothing Will Stop Us," is getting attention from mainland politicians, but whether it pays off in the end remains to be seen, both on a practical level and as a way to lobby mainland politicians to embrace issues important to Puerto Rico.
Calderón argues that on the island, 80 percent of eligible voters go to the polls, while only 40 percent of the eligible Puerto Rican voters living on the mainland do so.
A large portion of these Puerto Rican non-voters, like those of other minority groups, live in disenfranchised communities in the inner city who feel shut off from many of the benefits of U.S. life. But a lot of these voters are likely second- and third-generation Puerto Ricans who have lost touch with their island roots. Would the Puerto Rican Federal Affairs Administration, which is running the drive, be a more effective vehicle in registering voters than local Democratic and Republican party organizers? Its doubtful.
Moreover, a main stumbling block to Puerto Ricans registering to vote in the United States is that they have not fully embraced life in their adopted communities. Thats also one of the main reasons why Puerto Ricans living in New York and elsewhere have progressed at a much slower rate than other minority communities.
The island, Puerto Rico, is always there for them, like a lifeboat, to which they can return to time and time again.
Many Puerto Ricans have emigrated to the United States and have chosen to make their lives there, to grow professionally and become involved in their communities. Most of these people, however, have already registered to vote.
Many of the unregistered voters, however, migrate back and forth between the states and the island and feel more at home in Puerto Rico than where they may well be spending most of their time.
The commonwealth political status, of course, makes such fluid, two-way migration possible for Puerto Ricans. Other immigrants, who dont have the luxury of U.S. citizenship and an easy route back to their homeland, are more likely to lay permanent stakes in the United States and eventually to grow and prosper there.
Commonwealth does not have to be a stumbling block to the progress of Puerto Rican communities in the United States and has helped many an individual émigré from the island win a better life in the United States.
At the same time, the mass emigration from Puerto Rico in the 1940s and 1950s helped improve the island economy and was instrumental in the success of the subsequent Operation Bootstrap economic development program.
Calderóns voter registration drive may be another step in making that argument.
In Washington, Calderón called commonwealth a "marvelous" status, saying she was "proud" of the benefits it has extended on both the United States and Puerto Rico.
But the Associated Press report on the news conference carried a quote from a Puerto Rican Congressional candidate calling commonwealth "a failed status, a dead end street for Puerto Rico."
Puerto Ricans infighting over status raises another question about the voter registration drive: how effective a tool will it be in pushing so-called Puerto Rico issues into the national debate?
Pataki, who has been wooing the Hispanic vote in his reelection efforts, no doubt was pleased to be standing beside Calderón when she kicked off the drive and will continue to support issues, like ending Navy training on Vieques and fighting for a new federal tax break, that enjoy widespread support in Puerto Rico.
But when Calderón says the drive will "make our voices stronger in matters of public policy that effect us all," she implies that there is a single "Puerto Rican voice" on the issues.
U.S. Rep. José Serrano, D-N.Y., threw such an idea into dispute soon after the governor articulated it.
As Calderón was announcing the drive in New York, Congress was set to vote on a routine resolution to congratulate Puerto Rico on the 50th anniversary of commonwealth. In a speech on the House floor at least partially as payback for Calderóns appearance with Pataki Serrano stood up to oppose the measure.
"Colonialism is not cause for celebration," he said. "Instead of celebrating the anniversary, we should be leting the more than 4 million Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens, decide their own destiny."
Registering Puerto Ricans living in the United States is a good deed that will help them.
But precisely because there is no one single voice on issues effecting Puerto Rico, it is an ineffective way to seek support for administration-backed initiatives.
John Marino, City Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at: Marino@coqui.net