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The New York Sun

Puerto Ricans: Untapped Conservatives


August 9, 2004
Copyright © 2004 The New York Sun, One SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

According to the last census, there are 789,200 Puerto Ricans in New York City. They represent the largest group in the Hispanic community, and most are registered Democrats. But according to Luis Fortuno, Puerto Rico is very conservative, with values that are more in line with those of the Republican Party.

Mr. Fortuno was in New York City recently at a fund-raiser at the Yale Club. He is campaigning to become the resident commissioner to Congress from Puerto Rico. If elected, he will be the first Republican delegate, and he is leading in all the polls.

He also confirmed what I have been writing for years about the Hispanic community. We basically have conservative, traditional family values, and the current Hispanic community leaders do not represent who we are.

According to Frank Luntz of the Luntz Research Company, Puerto Rico polled as one of the most conservative of all the regions surveyed. The majority of the island residents is pro-life and anti-same-sex marriages. Puerto Rico is more than 90% Christian, with 60% Roman Catholic.

Mr. Fortuno is running against state Senator Roberto Prats, who is also the chairman of the Democratic Party. The difference in their positions on the issues is as great as those between George Bush and John Kerry. Mr. Fortuno is for smaller government, lower taxes, school choice, and for statehood for Puerto Rico. Mr. Prats has voted for raising taxes in the past and believes that Puerto Rico should remain a commonwealth.

Whether Puerto Rico should remain a commonwealth or become a state or an independent nation is a question that many Americans do not consider important, but a recently released book may change their minds.

When I first received the book, "Pay to the Order of Puerto Rico," I was slightly affronted by the title. The subtitle of the book is "The Cost of Dependence to the American Taxpayer," and since I am certainly an Hispanic of Puerto Rican heritage, it was worth a look.

This analysis of the controversy by Alexander Odishelidze and Arthur Laffer comes down squarely on the side of Mr. Fortuno and is an eye-opener on the quagmire that is the colonial status of Puerto Rico. I must confess that I know about as much about Puerto Rico as any hyphenated American knows about the local politics of her ancestor's homeland. But the cost of maintaining the status of Puerto Rico as a territory is a burden taxpayers deserve to examine closely.

Puerto Rico is a tax shelter haven for American corporations and, because of Puerto Rico's unique status and relationship to America, it is also an ideal place for conversion of drug cash into "legitimate" revenue.

Colonialism has not benefited Puerto Rico, which still has a poverty rate higher than any of the 50 states. Mr. Fortuno says that if statehood is achieved, there will be a transitional period, but it will be the best choice for Puerto Rico.

Mr. Fortuno believes statehood is the only logical answer to the economic future of Puerto Rico, and besides that, it is richly deserved.

"Puerto Ricans have fully participated in every American war," he said. "There are 5,200 Puerto Rican National Guard personnel in Iraq. Sixteen have been killed. These numbers, of course, apply only to residents of Puerto Rico. Many Puerto Ricans from the mainland are also serving in the military in disproportionate numbers to the population."

If Puerto Rico is so conservative, why do Hispanic New Yorkers vote for liberal community leaders? From my own experience living in the barrio, I would venture to say that there was never any other political presence in our neighborhood. There were only Democratic social clubs that provided easy access to politicians who would work directly with the community. Besides, once upon a time, the Democratic Party was conservative and the liberal issues that are now part of its platform would have been unthinkable.

Slowly but surely, the message is leaking out. There have been conversions by lifelong Hispanic Democrats that may eventually spread throughout the community.

Olga Mendez is running for re-election for the state Senate for the first time as a Republican. She is representing my former neighborhood of East Harlem, and the race is expected to be a real battle.

This will be an interesting campaign to watch, as will the race for the Puerto Rican delegate to Congress. Luis Fortuno has received the endorsement and encouragement of Governor Pataki and other Republican leaders.

An interesting coincidence cropped up in my interview with Mr. Fortuno. I asked him about his family and he told me he has been married for 20 years to his wife, Luce.

"Any children?" I asked. "Triplets," he answered. His three children are 12 years old. The two boys, Luis and Guillermo, and one girl, Maria, are the center of his life.

I then told him about New Yorker Amy Richards, who had two of her triplets aborted because she only wanted one child. He looked stunned and I'm not even sure he believed me. Perhaps because, in Puerto Rico, that choice would be unthinkable.

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