Kerry Dictates Evenly-Balanced Puerto Rico Delegation… Kerry Criticized For Lack Of Leadership On Puerto Rico Status Issue… Dean Endorses Commonwealther After Favoring Statehood

June 4, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

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Kerry Dictates Evenly-Balanced Puerto Rico Delegation

Puerto Rico will have a delegation to the national Democratic Party’s presidential nominating convention that is evenly split between the territory’s "commonwealth" and statehood parties. The 50/50 split was insisted on by representatives of U.S. Senator John Kerry (MA), the assured nominee.

Puerto Rico is accorded state-like representation at Democratic national conventions. Fifty-three of its 58 delegates to this year’s convention were to be elected at district caucuses June 6 and a territorial convention June 13.

But around the filing deadline this week for candidates for the 53 seats, leaders of the two local political parties filed a total of 53 candidacies for the 53 seats. No one else filed as a candidate.

Anticipating that there would be only as many candidates as seats, one of the local party leaders, "commonwealth" party Senator -- and congressional candidate -- Roberto Prats, used his position as chair of the territorial Democratic committee to cancel the caucuses.

The statehood party’s Senate leader, Kenneth McClintock, Puerto Rico’s Democratic National Committeeman, negotiated the composition of the delegation with Prats. It includes 29 people nominated by Prats and 29 put forth by McClintock. In addition to Prats and McClintock and the 53 "elected" delegates, the delegation includes "commonwealth" party gubernatorial candidate Anibal Acevedo Vila because of his position as the territory’s resident commissioner in the U.S. Congress, Puerto Rico’s Democratic National Committeewoman, and the territorial Democratic committee’s vice-chair.

The "commonwealth" party, which controls the Democratic committee due to an election nine years ago, had hoped to have a majority of the delegation. But various proposals for a "commonwealth" party majority put forward by Prats were not accepted by McClintock.

Even more important, Prats was told by representatives of Senator Kerry that his campaign would ensure an even split of the delegation no matter how many commonwealthers were filed for the seats and even though commonwealthers hold four of the five automatic seats (the Democratic National Committeeman and Committeewoman, the territorial Democratic committee chair and vice chair, and the resident commissioner).

The Kerry campaign had the power to enforce its position because it could veto candidates "running" as pledged to support the senator from Massachusetts. With Kerry having no opposition for the nomination, all of Puerto Rico’s delegates are to be ‘Kerry delegates’ -- giving the Kerry campaign the power to insist on the even split between the local parties.

One of the two Kerry campaign officials delivering the even-split message to Prats was a Puerto Rican. Washington lobbyist Manuel Ortiz is a national vice chair of Kerry’s campaign. Ortiz is also the coordinator in the States of the campaign of the statehood party’s gubernatorial candidate, former Governor Pedro Rossello, himself an influential national Democrat.

Kerry Criticized for Lack of Leadership on Puerto Rico Status Issue

"Commonwealth" party leaders may be disappointed that the Kerry campaign did not let them grab a majority of the delegation but they are delighted that the campaign has favored a key element of their position on Puerto Rico’s fundamental issue, its future political status, even though the campaign’s stance is inconsistent with Kerry’s legislative record on the issue.

During the campaign, Kerry has said that "continued status as a commonwealth" should be an option for Puerto Rico’s future status, although he recognizes that Puerto Rico remains a territory of the U.S. In the Senate, however, Kerry has sponsored legislation to give Puerto Rico’s voters an on-going power to determine whether the territory will become a State of the U.S or a sovereign nation, either fully independent from or in a free (i.e., non-binding) association with the U.S.

Kerry’s campaign position favors the "commonwealth" view because "commonwealth" is not a political status and is merely the name of Puerto Rico’s local government. Additionally, Puerto Rico’s territorial status does not provide Puerto Ricans with voting representation in their national government and only a status that does can be a permanent status.

National Journal magazine, a weekly that has wide readership and respect in official and political circles in Washington, Friday reported that one of the most the influential Hispanic members of the U.S. House of Representatives, Rep. Jose Serrano (D-NY) complained about "Kerry's lack of leadership" on the issue and said the it is of "critical concern to his constituents in the Bronx," where many of the residents are, like Serrano, of Puerto Rican origin.

"I was disappointed when he said recently that he would go along with whatever the Puerto Ricans want on the status of the island. It's not up to them. Puerto Ricans are ruled under the territory clause of the Constitution," the article quoted Serrano as saying.

The article noted that the Puerto Rico status issue is "of prime concern" to Puerto Ricans in the States and termed Kerry’s stance a political "misstep."

Dean Endorses Commonwealther After Favoring Statehood

Kerry’s predecessor as front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, was scheduled to be in Puerto Rico Friday. His agenda included endorsing "commonwealth" party resident commissioner candidate Prats.

News of the impending endorsement upset Democrats who are statehooders since Dean has been a friend of gubernatorial candidate Rossello and has said that he favors statehood for the territory. The two were so close that Rossello was one of the first people Dean reached out to when he was planning his presidential candidacy.

Dean and Rossello became friends while both were leaders of the Democratic Governors Association. The former Vermont governor was publicly enthusiastic at the time about the possibility of Puerto Rico becoming a State.

He continued to tell people that he strongly favored statehood throughout his presidential campaign but did not say so publicly. He only expressed his statehood sentiments privately, he confided, because he wanted to obtain the support of "commonwealth" party Democrats in addition to that of statehooders.

Because Dean was initially considered the likely Democratic nominee and he was so close to Rossello, "commonwealth" party leaders made a great effort to neutralize him on the status issue. They traded support of his presidential campaign in return for his silence on the issue.

The commonwealthers’ initial approach to Dean was made by former Governor Rafael Hernandez Colon. He tried to get to Dean through a political consultant that they both had used extensively, Joe Napolitan.

A major goal was to get Dean to speak with "commonwealth" party gubernatorial candidate Acevedo.

A Commonwealth lobbyist who had initially been retained during the Hernandez Colon Administration, former U.S. Senator John Culver, also weighed in. Culver ‘warned’ Dean aides that Rossello might be corrupt, hoping to discourage the former Vermont governor from continuing his close relationship with the former Puerto Rico governor.

But it was a New York labor leader who calls himself an ‘independentista’ who succeeded with Dean on behalf of Acevedo and his "commonwealth" allies. Dennis Rivera, a native of Puerto Rico, heads the largest ‘local’ of the Service Employees International Union and is a national vice-president of the union, the second-largest in the States.

Rivera is a significant figure in the national Democratic Party, primarily because he donates millions of dollars collected from his low-income membership to Democratic candidates. He is also a major contributor to the "commonwealth" party, influencing Democratic candidates and officials to support the party’s agenda as well as providing it with funds.

Rivera played a major role in convincing Democrats around the country that Dean was likely to win the nomination. He swung his national union’s support to Dean against the advice of the union’s president by obtaining the backing of other local leaders.

In negotiating the endorsement, Rivera got Dean to say that he would be publicly neutral on Puerto Rico’s status issue although he told Rivera that he would privately remain in favor of statehood. Rivera also secured a joint appearance for Hernandez Colon with Dean and Dean phone calls to Acevedo and Prats.

In addition, Rivera delivered endorsements of Dean by Acevedo and Prats, who were expected to control half the presidential nominating convention delegation. Commonwealthers also made substantial financial contributions to Dean.

At the time, Dean called Rossello to explain what he was doing and why. He also reiterated a commitment to work to enable Puerto Ricans to have a status that provides a democratic form of government at the national level once the presidential nomination was assured.

Rossello told Dean that he understood his friend’s desire to obtain the support of pro-"commonwealth" convention delegate votes in addition to pro-statehood votes. He also explained that he was not seeking support for statehood from Dean; he only wanted a pledge to work to enable Puerto Rico to have a "non-territorial’ status. Rossello noted that the "commonwealth" party’s official position on the issue also supports Puerto Rico not being a territory of the U.S., although party leaders often take other stances on the question.

Dean agreed and his campaign prepared to issue a statement proclaiming that a President Dean would actively try to enable Puerto Rico to become a State of the U.S., an independent nation, or a nation in a free association with the U.S. and the choice is Puerto Ricans’ to make

When the draft was sent to self-proclaimed "independentista" Rivera, the power-broker proposed the addition of two more options for a Puerto Rican status choice: "commonwealth" AND "enhanced commonwealth." He had reportedly consulted Acevedo. He also objected to Puerto Rico becoming a sovereign nation in a voluntary association with the U.S.

Dean, again, personally checked with Rossello. His friend said that he could not accept non-existent and federally-rejected "commonwealth" proposals as options for Puerto Rico’s status. Rossello also, however, suggested a compromise: not identifying the status options at all but stating that the status had to be non-territorial and provide a form of government that is democratic at the national government level -- principles that Prats and Acevedo had publicly embraced.

A statement revised along the lines Rossello had suggested was shown to Rivera, who once again objected. This caused Dean’s advisors to put aside the issue as the former Vermont governor started to lose most of his support around the nation.

Happy that Dean had expressed no commitment to help resolve Puerto Rico’s status problem, Acevedo and Prats remained two of his last supporters.

Dean is to see Acevedo as well as Prats during his visit. He had also planned to meet with statehood party Senate leader McClintock, who also supported his candidacy, and Rossello. It is unclear, however, whether Rossello will meet with his old friend.

The "Washington Update" appears weekly.

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