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Election Results Impact Unclear
By Iván Román
October 13, 2002
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- With the close battle between Democrats and Republicans for control of the House and Senate less than a month away, many in government in San Juan will be watching.
But just out of the corner of their eyes.
That's because Gov. Sila Calderón and her government have been very careful about not formally or publicly taking sides in what analysts now say is a dead heat and could be a cliffhanger until Election Day. Calderón has refused to declare any stateside party affiliation since her days as a candidate in 1999.
Now in office, she has met with Republicans and Democrats alike, and it's through high-profile Republicans, such as Gov. George Pataki of New York, that she gained part of whatever access she has to the White House, particularly on the controversial issue of getting the U.S. Navy out of Vieques.
But her public "collaborations" with colleagues such as Pataki notwithstanding, many in San Juan secretly hope the Democrats expand their one-seat advantage in the Senate and shoot to a six-seat gain to rule the House. On Capitol Hill, most think that it's the Democrats who are Puerto Rico's friends.
"I think we can move the important things in Puerto Rico's agenda forward with either party," said Resident Commissioner Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, the island's sole, nonvoting representative in Congress. "But we'd be in a better position to do so with the Democrats."
If the Democrats took control of the House, Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., described as one of the island's best friends on Capitol Hill, would be in line to chair the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, which oversees tax issues crucial to the island's economy. Puerto Rico has been unsuccessful in getting Congress to allow U.S. companies in Puerto Rico to take advantage of the tax breaks spelled out in Section 956 of the Internal Revenue Code. The code applies to companies doing business in foreign countries. In addition, Senate committees controlled by Democrats have approved immediate parity for Medicare reimbursements for hospitals in Puerto Rico, while the Republican-led House favors phasing it in over five years, Acevedo Vilá said.
A Democratic victory would also put two Puerto Ricans in charge of committees. José Serrano, D-N.Y., would chair the Commerce, Justice, State, Judiciary and Related Agencies Subcommittee on Appropriations, while Nydia Velázquez, D-N.Y., could head the Committee on Small Business.
But others say with a race this close and the constant worrisome headlines in the United States, for Puerto Rico, the results on Election Day are a tossup.
"The benefits Puerto Rico can obtain now by federal legislation seem so far off that neither party represents a big advantage," said José Garriga Picó, a political-science professor at the University of Puerto Rico. "On Capitol Hill, they are focused on two things, a war with Iraq and a recession, so Puerto Rico is not even a blip on the radar screen."
At least 40 members of Congress, mostly Democrats, have sent letters to President Bush urging him to issue an executive order that the U.S. Navy will stop bombing and leave Vieques by May. But burned by pro-military Republicans on this issue, the island's government has set its sights on the White House.
"I don't see the Vieques issue changing because of this election," Acevedo Vilá said. "It's in the hands of the president, and that doesn't change."
Despite its hands-off philosophy in the bigger congressional contest, the island's government hasn't been quietly sitting on the sidelines. It registered 71,370 Puerto Ricans to vote in several states this year -- 10,267 of them in Orlando alone.
For now, the impact of this effort could most likely be felt in local races. But in some cases, such as in Florida, the impact could be statewide. In Central Florida, the potential of Puerto Ricans to be part of a crucial swing vote has not been lost on the gubernatorial candidates. At the Puerto Rican Day Parade in Orlando recently, Gov. Jeb Bush showed up while Democratic challenger Bill McBride sent one of his lieutenants.
Many analysts speculate that delivering Puerto Rican votes for Bush in Florida will be a way for Calderón to get to his brother, the president, who wants to make sure Florida stays in the family. Calderón has also said that besides empowerment, her voter-registration drive was about helping those who are and can be friends of Puerto Rico.
Many will be watching to see whether it worked.