Puerto Rican Vote May Determine Presidential Election… Presidential Candidates Disappoint Most Puerto Rican Leaders So Far… El Diario/La Prensa: Puerto Rico’s Lack Of Votes "Outrageous"

March 5, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

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Puerto Rican Vote May Determine Presidential Election

An Associated Press (AP) report Wednesday suggested that voters of Puerto Rican origin could determine the next President of the United States.

The news service analysis said Florida "remains the nation’s top toss-up State" in this year’s presidential election, recalling that the outcome of the extremely close vote in the State in 2000 made the critical difference in the awarding of the 2000 election to George W. Bush. It noted that a top swing vote district in the State is heavily populated with voters of Puerto Rican origin and went for Al Gore by 60% in 2000 but supported Governor Jeb Bush’s re-election in 2002.

Gore’s victory in the district and strong vote in surrounding areas of central Florida surprised the Bush 2000 presidential campaign and made the Florida result -- and the national election -- so close that it led to challenges to the count that were only resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court. It almost changed the outcome of the election.

Gore obtained the support in the area by focusing on the Puerto Ricans in the region. He visited the area and spoke on Spanish-language radio. He pledged to continue President Bill Clinton’s efforts to enable Puerto Rico to obtain a democratic governing arrangement and recalled other contributions to the territory by the Clinton-Gore Administration. He brought in then Puerto Rico Governor Pedro Rossello (statehood/D), who was popular in the area, to campaign for him.

By contrast, the Bush campaign viewed the Hispanic voters in the area as it did the overwhelmingly Republican voters of Cuban origin who are especially numerous in the southern part of the State. It put less effort into winning their votes than Gore did.

The number of residents of Florida of Puerto Rican origin doubled in the 1990s to half a million. About half of this population lives in the central part of the State. Many of these people are middle class and well-educated. A number are retirees who have been able to afford the move to the State, some from the northeastern States in addition to migrants from Puerto Rico. Many of the Puerto Ricans in Florida appear to support statehood for Puerto Rico.

The President’s brother’s gubernatorial re-election campaign in 2002 recognized the 2000 Republican presidential campaign’s mistake. The AP analysis reported that Jeb Bush "campaigned extensively in the Hispanic community, using his fluency in Spanish . . . He carried central Florida's Puerto Rican community and coupled it with overwhelming support of South Florida's Cuban-American community to build a strong Hispanic base."

Recognizing that Florida’s Puerto Ricans are mostly pro-statehood, Governor Bush ignored Puerto Rico Governor Sila Calderon’s offers to campaign for him and asked San Juan Mayor Jorge Santini to help him instead. Calderon is a member of Puerto Rico’s "commonwealth" party and has declined to identify with either national party. Santini is a statehooder and an active Republican.

Bush has also expressed support for statehood for Puerto Rico. He has maintained his alliance with Republicans who support statehood in the territory. He declined an invitation from Calderon to meet when he visited Puerto Rico for a campaign fundraiser arranged by local Republican statehooders. His distance from Calderon has frustrated her since she reportedly hired Bush’s former state Republican Party chairman and worked with Republicans in the State to register residents of Puerto Rican origin to vote in Florida.

At the same time, Calderon’s overtures to Bush upset Florida Puerto Rican leaders, who are mostly Democrats. So, too, did the unwillingness of Calderon’s resident commissioner in Washington, Anibal Acevedo Vila, a Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives, to support the Democratic candidate against Bush.

Wednesday’s AP report quoted the Republican state representative from the toss-up district dominated by voters of Puerto Rican origin saying he "plans to work overtime to urge Puerto Ricans, traditionally registered Democrats, to support" President Bush’s re-election.

Republican John Quinones recognized that recent migrants from Puerto Rico -- where the elections are contested among parties identified with different status visions for the territory -- are often not committed to either national political party. "You cannot just say that a group of Puerto Ricans as a bloc are going to vote Democratic or are going to vote Republican," the AP quoted him as saying.

The report noted that Florida’s Hispanic population was the fastest-growing element of the State’s population in the 1990s. Although it noted that Hispanic growth was 70% was in the 1990s as well as noting the size and importance of the vote of Puerto Rican origin, it did not point out that the growth of the Florida Puerto Rican population outstripped that of Hispanics as a whole by about 50%.

It did, however, underscore that neither national party -- especially the Democratic Party -- can presume that it is likely to win the lion’s share of the State’s new voters. It reported that from 2001-3, 218,000 people have registered to vote without choosing a party affiliation, 156,000 registered as Republicans -- due to an aggressive Republican effort, and only 100,000 have registered as Democrats.

The report noted that there are more registered Democrats than Republicans in the State -- 3.88 million to 3.58 million -- "But statewide elections tend to pivot" on 1.8 million independent voters. Also, "Many conservative Democrats in north Florida . . . tend to support Republicans in national and state elections."

The analysis explained why:

  • Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry went to Florida Wednesday just after wrapping up his party’s nomination;
  • Democratic strategists are focusing on the Florida Hispanic vote;
  • Aides to President Bush are now focusing on the Florida Puerto Rican vote; and
  • Democrats continue to talk about Florida’s two U.S. senators as potential vice-presidential running mates for Kerry.

Both senators, Bob Graham and Bill Nelson, have been sensitive to Puerto Rican issues. Graham has been one of the Senate’s leaders on the issues, championing legislation to enable Puerto Rico to obtain a democratic status and to provide greater federal assistance to the low-income half of Puerto Rico’s population.

Presidential Candidates Disappoint Most Puerto Rican Leaders So Far

In the view of many leaders of Puerto Ricans and voters of Puerto Rican origin in the States, the platforms regarding Puerto Rico of both presidential candidates leave a lot to be desired.

Several expressed frustration this week.

  • One of the top elected leaders of Puerto Ricans in the States, Bronx Democratic Party Chairman and New York State Assemblyman Jose Rivera, tried -- and failed -- to get Senator John Kerry (MA) and his then rival for the Democratic nomination, Senator John Edwards (NC), to explain their positions on Puerto Rico’s fundamental undemocratic status issue in their debate before the NY Democratic primary. Rivera remains determined to have Kerry address the issue.
  • Puerto Rico Representative Jorge Colberg Toro, a "commonwealth" party link to the Edwards campaign, admitted that he had failed to get Edwards to take a position on the issue despite drafting one for Edwards. Colberg said that the issue just was not on "the radar" of the presidential candidates.
  • Puerto Rico statehood party gubernatorial candidate Pedro Rossello -- so prominent a Democrat that 2000 candidate Al Gore had him in mind for a top position if Gore was elected president -- did not endorse Kerry after a meeting with the senator although he said he would support the Democratic candidate in the general election. Rossello has been friendly to Kerry and the two share an aide in Washington lobbyist Manuel Ortiz but Rossello has said that he will not endorse a candidate for the nomination who does not commit to work to enable Puerto Rico to obtain a democratic status.
  • The executive director of Connecticut’s Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission said that "No particular candidate [in the State’s Democratic presidential primary] was speaking to Latino issues." He made the statement when it was learned that Hispanics were only two percent of the primary vote. Connecticut’s population is 10% Hispanic with much of it of Puerto Rican origin. Four percent of the vote in the 2000 Democratic primary came from Hispanics.
  • A strong Puerto Republican and long-time Bush supporter reflected the disappointment that many Puerto Ricans -- Republican and otherwise -- felt the previous Friday when Vice President Cheney failed to even mention the status issue or any other Puerto Rico issue when he briefly visited San Juan for a $250,000 fundraising lunch for the campaign.

The only Puerto Rican leader who seemed happy this week about the lackluster platforms of the presidential candidates on Puerto Rico’s status issue was Resident Commissioner Acevedo Vila. He had supported former Vermont Governor Howard Dean for the Democratic nomination in return for Dean agreeing to not reiterate his support of statehood for Puerto Rico.

This week, Acevedo, the "commonwealth" party’s gubernatorial candidate, said he would campaign for Kerry when he had time. He made the statement after apparently succeeding in getting Kerry to not change his written position on the status issue.

Since last summer, a statement on Kerry’s Web site says that Kerry, as president, would support a referendum in Puerto Rico among the options of statehood, independence, and "continued status as a commonwealth" (sic). The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is, of course, an unincorporated territory of the U.S. "Commonwealth" is not a political status under the U.S. constitution.

The Kerry campaign’s claim that Puerto Rico is "a commonwealth," however, supports Acevedo’s interpretation that "commonwealth" is a status against the positions of all three branches of the federal government.

Kerry’s campaign has also, however, taken a contradictory position on the issue. Last December, Kerry’s political director at the time told attendees at a National Puerto Rican Coalition candidates’ forum that the senator supports Puerto Rico’s status options being democratic. This position was similar to the one that made retired General Wesley Clark the most popular presidential candidate in Puerto Rico this year.

President Bush’s Puerto Rico status platform has also not enthused Puerto Ricans. Bush is said by aides to support Puerto Ricans choosing the territory’s ultimate status between statehood and independence and Bush has acted to continue the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status established by his predecessor. But the Bush administration has not advanced the issue or evidently paid much attention to it. After not getting the task force to work until recent months, the president even delayed the deadline for a progress report on the overall issue from this December to December 2005 -- when he might not be in office.

Bush also does not have much of a record in addressing Puerto Rico’s social and economic needs. Last year, he proposed eight million dollars for water infrastructure for the San Juan area but the funds were not appropriated by the Congress. This year, he renewed the proposal at half the amount. He has also proposed continuing grants to Puerto Rico of an additional $2.75 per proof gallon in federal excise tax collections on rum produced in the territory and foreign countries but this was an initiative of his predecessor’s.

Kerry has done more during the past year to help Puerto Ricans economically and socially. He led the Senate effort to have Medicare pay for in-patient hospital services in Puerto Rico at the rates it pays in rest of the nation -- an effort that succeeded 50%. He led the Senate Finance Committee in extending to Puerto Rico a nine percent cut in the corporate income tax for income from U.S. manufacturing. He proposed extending the life of the expiring tax credit for wages, investments, and local taxes that manufacturers based in the States pay in Puerto Rico.

Whether either candidate will do more to attract support from the 3.5 million citizens of the States of Puerto Rican origin or the 3.9 million residents of the territory is unclear.

NY Puerto Rican Paper: Puerto Rico’s Lack of Votes "Outrageous"

New York’s premiere Hispanic newspaper, El Diario/La Prensa, Monday issued a strong condemnation of Puerto Rico’s lack of votes in the U.S. government. It said that the situation, in which U.S. citizens of the territory do not have voting representation in their national government, is "outrageous."

The editorial was prompted by the attack on the U.S. House of Representatives by Puerto Rican nationalists 50 years to the day before. The attack protested the false portrayal of Puerto Rico as having been ‘decolonized’ by the adoption of the locally written local constitution for the territory, which named the local government, "The Commonwealth."

The newspaper with strong ties to NY’s Puerto Rican community called for U.S. and Puerto Rican leaders "to engage in serious discussions" about the territory’s situation, a political status that it wrote "should be intolerable for any fair-minded American."

The editorial reflects the view of many people of Puerto Rican origin in the States. They understand -- even if they do not agree with -- efforts to make Puerto Rico a sovereign nation so long as the U.S. citizens of the territory do not have the democratic representation in the federal government that they deserve.

The editorial follows.

The Unfinished History of Puerto Rico

It was 50 years ago today that four Puerto Rican Nationalists opened fire in the U.S. Congress, wounding five U.S. representatives in the name of independence for the Caribbean island that has been a U.S. territory since 1898. Through the years the nationalists have been labeled both heroes and terrorists. And the political status of the island of Puerto Rico remains unresolved.

Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens but do not have a voting representative in Congress and do not vote for president. Puerto Rico is an Estado Libre Asociado, a territory of the U.S. with very limited self-rule. The sad joke among Puerto Ricans is that the designation is a grave misnomer: Puerto Rico is not a state and it`s not free. In English it`s called a commonwealth, a status most Americans don`t understand.

The Nationalists made their move on the Congress after decades of persecution against the movement and its leader, Pedro Albizu Campos. La Ley de La Mordaza was in full force on the island in the 1950s. The law banned violent opposition to the U.S. occupation but was used to harass and imprison thousands of Nationalists and their supporters. Flying the Puerto Rican flag was considered an act of treason.

It is for that reason that Nationalist Lolita Lebron unfurled the Puerto Rican flag from the visitor`s gallery of the House of Representatives before the group opened fire on that March day in 1954.

While most Puerto Ricans don't agree with the violence of 50 years ago, they support the principles the Nationalists fought for. Even today, it is outrageous that we continue to tolerate a situation where more than 3.5 million U.S. citizens -Puerto Ricans living on the island - cannot vote for president and have no say in federal matters that affect them.

This anniversary gives the United States and Puerto Rico the opportunity to engage in serious discussions about the political realities of an island whose peculiar status should be intolerable for any fair-minded American.

The "Washington Update" appears weekly.

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