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The Allentown Morning Call

Some In Puerto Rico Want Kerry To Take Up Status Debate

Puerto Rican Vote Could Be Key For Kerry; Status Of U.S. Territory Has Become A Campaign Issue

By Matthew Hay Brown Of The Morning Call

May 23, 2004
Copyright ©2004 The Allentown Morning Call. All rights reserved.

Democratic leaders here are bringing Puerto Rico's divisive status debate to the Kerry campaign -- and making Florida their first battleground.

The pro-statehood Senate Minority Leader Kenneth McClintock, the island's Democratic national committeeman, is telling U.S. Sen. John Kerry that Kerry can win the support of the large community of recently arrived Puerto Ricans in Central Florida's crucial Interstate 4 corridor, where some say Hispanic voters could hold the key to the White House.

The key, McClintock contends, is focusing on resolving whether the U.S. territory becomes the 51st state, remains a commonwealth or gains independence.

But the pro-commonwealth Sen. Roberto Prats, the chairman of the island Democratic Party, is urging the presumed Democratic nominee for president to reject that advice. He says Kerry is more likely to unite swing-voting Puerto Ricans behind him by promoting education and health care than by involving himself in the bitter debate over this Caribbean island's status.

The skirmish, which erupted last weekend during the National Latino Leadership Summit of the Democratic National Committee in Orlando, likely foreshadows a larger battle to come.

"Prats and McClintock are trying to control the platform committee of the Democratic Party at its convention in Boston," said the political analyst Juan Manuel Garcia Passalacqua, himself a Democratic former adviser to President Carter.

"What you're seeing is just jockeying for position."

For his part, Kerry has said he would expedite a status referendum on the island as a matter of self-determination. He has not expressed a preference himself.

In three non-binding votes, the most recent in 1998, Puerto Ricans have supported the current commonwealth status over statehood, with independence running a distant third.

The current confrontation among island Democrats is made possible by the quirk of cross-membership in Puerto Rican and American political parties.

On the island, McClintock is a leader in the pro-statehood New Progressive Party, while Prats is running for Congress as the candidate of the pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party.

When it comes to American politics, they come together as Democrats -- and not much else.

They represent opposing factions of the 58-member delegation the island will send to Boston in July, when each will attempt to shape the party's approach to status.

The island Republican Party, by contrast, has long been controlled by statehood supporters.

The party conventions give islanders a rare opportunity to influence U.S. policy. Residents here do not vote for president, and their representation in Congress is limited to a single non-voting delegate to the House of Representatives.

McClintock launched the first salvo last weekend in Orlando, when he said that "the Kerry campaign really doesn't get it."

Rather than view Latinos as a single voting bloc, McClintock said, Kerry should understand the community as a "mosaic."

And within that mosaic, he said, the tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans who have come to Central Florida in recent years want most to see a permanent resolution to the status question.

Prats fired off a letter to Kerry on Democratic Party stationery rejecting McClintock's comments.

"I want to emphasize with you, Senator Kerry, that Kenneth McClintock speaks for himself and his erroneous statements in no way reflect the feelings or stance of the Democratic Party of Puerto Rico," he wrote.

"I question McClintock's method of making public accusations that you allegedly "don't get it' when he should know those statements may hurt you now and down the stretch."

"I think he was trying to mislead the candidate to believe that Puerto Ricans in the states are for statehood, when there is no empirical data whatever to support that statement," Prats said.

"In Puerto Rico, we're divided, and if a candidate adopts a position of a political party in Puerto Rico, that means we're going to be dividing Puerto Ricans."

McClintock said he was not pushing a specific status on Kerry, but urging him to respond to the call of Puerto Ricans in Central Florida for "non-territorial, non-colonial options."

"He needs an activist position on self-determination," he said. "That will enthuse the I-4 Puerto Rican vote like nothing else.

"If he wins the I-4 corridor strongly with the Puerto Rican vote, that can help him carry Florida, and that can help him carry the nation."

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