What The Election Results Mean For Puerto Rico In DC: Fortuno Poised To Be Most Powerful Resident Commissioner; Puerto Rico Democracy Gains In The Senate; & Puerto Rico Issues Should Benefit From Vote Of Puerto Ricans In States

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

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A number of the November 2nd election results in the States as well as in Puerto Rico have noteworthy -- if not clearly important -- implications for the territory.

Fortuno Poised to be Most Powerful Resident Commissioner

Puerto Rico’s resident commissioner-elect, Luis Fortuno (statehood party/R), will probably be the territory’s most powerful representative to its national government in more than half a century -- at least since Puerto Ricans began electing their governor in 1948.

At the same time, if the provisional winner of Puerto Rico’s gubernatorial race, Resident Commissioner Anibal Acevedo Vila ("commonwealth"/D), ultimately is determined to have been elected, Acevedo will have less influence with the territory’s national government than any governor -- appointed or elected -- in Puerto Rico’s history, dating to its initial Spanish colonization.

Fortuno’s power will stem from his two strong political party affiliations and his thoughtful and collaborative method of operating.

His party affiliations will provide potent power bases. As a statehood party member, Fortuno will be able to count on the support of the Commonwealth’s ultimate local policy-making branch of government -- its legislature -- since other party members won two-thirds control of the Senate and almost two-thirds control of the House of Representatives. (As a United States territory, Puerto Rico’s truly ultimate policy-making branch of government is the U.S. Congress.)

If Acevedo actually wins the governorship, Fortuno will also benefit from the restraints that the legislature should impose on the Commonwealth’s local executive branch of government. Through its law-making -- including budgetary -- powers and its oversight investigatory powers, the legislature would be able to prevent Acevedo from exercising the power that Puerto Rican governors have always had in the territory’s national capital.

The legislature would be able to force Acevedo to accept policy that he would not otherwise -- so long as it is reasonable.

The legislature will also be able to deny him the tens of millions of dollars a year that Governor Sila Calderon ("commonwealth"/no national party) has been spending in the States to promote their joint agenda -- including their partisan political agenda as well as their official governmental goals. This agenda has been assisted by several $1 million-a-year plus lobbying firms as well as by public relations companies and campaign consultants. It has also been advanced by a comparatively huge governor’s office in Washington as well as satellite offices throughout the States.

Puerto Rico needs substantial representation assistance in the States because its 3.9 million people (U.S. citizens) lack equal voting representation in their national government. The Commonwealth does not have votes in the Congress or in the election of the president of the U.S.

The legislature will additionally be able to control excesses and improper activity in the promotion of the local executive’s agenda in the States by exposing it. The scrutiny of the administration of government that is typical in republican forms of government is all but unprecedented in Puerto Rico’s history.

Fortuno is Puerto Rico’s Republican National Committeeman. His national party affiliation will be more important than it has been for any resident commissioner in history. National Republicans sought Fortuno’s candidacy and his support in the elections.

  • President Bush personally asked Fortuno to campaign for him in one of the most critical battlegrounds of the presidential election: Central Florida, where thousands of new migrants from Puerto Rico were considered pivotal to the election.
  • High-ranking Bush aides sought a reluctant Fortuno’s candidacy.
  • Top congressional Republicans gave support to Fortuno’s campaign.

The chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, Representative Tom Reynolds (NY), was the Fortuno’s primary congressional advocate in his role of seeking to add Republicans to the U.S. House of Representatives. After the election, Reynolds noted Fortuno’s victory to national political reporters and party activists during his official review of the elections.

The chairman of the House committee with jurisdiction over many of the Commonwealth’s most important federal issues -- taxes and health care programs, Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (CA), sent Puerto Ricans an important message by saying that he would be able to help them with these issues if they had Fortuno’s type of representation in contrast to Acevedo’s.

Fortuno was also endorsed by the majority leader of the U.S. Senate, Bill Frist (R-TN), as well as by the Speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert (IL).

Fortuno’s strong Republican national ties and record portend unprecedented support for a resident commissioner’s goals from the federal administration and Congress.

If Acevedo is determined to have actually won, Fortuno will not be totally handicapped in dealing with national Democrats -- who have enough votes in the U.S. Senate to block Republican control. This is principally because of the election of his close friend, Kenneth McClintock, as Puerto Rico’s Senate president. McClintock is the territory’s Democratic National Committeeman and has been an active national Democrat for years.

Even if Acevedo becomes governor, Fortuno’s party power bases will make the resident commissioner’s office what it is intended by law to be: the principal representation of the territory to the federal government, rather than just a member of the House with a vote only in committees and his party’s caucus.

If former Governor Pedro Rossello (statehood/D) is determined to have edged past Acevedo in the final count of votes for governor, Fortuno’s power will be different but still substantial. Rossello will be able to lead the legislature and set Puerto Rico’s federal agenda . . . but that should not be a problem except insofar as any national party matters may arise. Fortuno served in Rossello’s cabinet and the two have a personal rapport and have a common outlook on Puerto Rico issues.

Rossello is a respected national Democrat. Although his disagreement with Fortuno on national politics is significant, he would be able to bring substantial U.S. Senate House Democratic support to their mutual goals. Rossello has close ties with at least four times as many Democratic senators as Acevedo. He also has deep links to House Democratic leaders such as Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (MD).

The Democratic support that Rossello could enlist could make up for Republican backing Fortuno might not be able to obtain because of the reluctance of some national Republicans to advance the statehood agenda. This reluctance has been primarily due to lobbying by very conservative Republicans working for nominal Democrat Acevedo. (Even if Acevedo is restrained in hiring political representation in the States as governor, he may be able to work out some official representation and he, or a successor as head of the "commonwealth" party, would be able to retain assistance using party funds and the budgets of the minority of Puerto Rico’s municipalities that will have "commonwealth" party mayors.)

Puerto Rico Democracy Gains in the Senate

Several election results are good news for those who want Puerto Rico’s status to develop into one that provides for a democratic form of government at the national level (independence, nationhood in free association with the U.S., or U.S. Statehood).

The election to the U.S. Senate of a member of each of the national parties who is of Hispanic heritage is particularly important: Mel Martinez, a Republican from Florida, and Ken Salazar, a Democrat from Colorado.

Martinez is the most noteworthy in this regard because he has a family member in Puerto Rico who is an active statehooder. Additionally, pro-statehood Central Florida Puerto Ricans helped him win a tight race.

Martinez is also familiar with Puerto Rico from his tenure as President Bush’s Housing and Urban Development Department secretary and from his previous position as the top elected official of a Florida country populated by many migrants from Puerto Rico.

There are currently no people of Hispanic heritage in the Senate. The election of Hispanics should be helpful to the cause of Puerto Rico democracy because a major argument used by "commonwealth" party leader Acevedo against a real Puerto Rican status choice is that Puerto Ricans are culturally incompatible with other U.S. citizens. This argument would be offensive to Martinez, who is originally from Cuba, and Salazar, now Colorado’s attorney general, whose family came from Mexico.

Harry Reid (D-NV) will be the new Minority Leader of the U.S. Senate. Reid has been an advocate of Puerto Rico attaining a fully-democratic form of government and personally favors U.S. Statehood for the territory. Outgoing Democratic leader Tom Daschle was an outspoken champion of Puerto Rican democracy but held back his views during the past four years due to lobbying by Calderon and Acevedo.

The outcome of the race to succeed Reid as Minority Whip may determine whether that office is supportive of Puerto Rican democracy. As of this writing, the competition is between Byron Dorgan (ND) and Richard Durbin (IL).

Dorgan has been a supporter of Puerto Ricans choosing the territory’s ultimate status. Durbin pays some attention to the most ardent supporter of territory status and the "commonwealth" party in the Congress, Rep. Luis Gutierrez, who is also from Illinois.

Although the Republican majority in the Senate increased in the elections from 51 of the 100 seats to 55, Republicans cannot count on controlling the chamber on all issues because 60 votes are needed to break an action-stopping filibuster.

The determination of who will be the next chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee may also lead to an advancement of the Puerto Rico status issue. The candidates are Arlen Specter (R-PA) and Larry Craig (R-ID). Craig has been an outspoken critic of Acevedo’s "commonwealth" agenda, with criticism focused on its unconstitutional aspects. He has also championed Status choice legislation.

Puerto Rico Issues Should Benefit from Vote of Puerto Ricans in States

In this past week’s election for president of the U.S., Puerto Rico’s undemocratic territorial status became an issue in the campaign in the States for the first time since the election of 1900. The campaign of Senator John Kerry, the Democratic candidate, criticized President Bush’s lack of action on the issue and pledged action by a President Kerry in radio ads run in three States that were battlegrounds and had a substantial number of voters of Puerto Rican origin. Republicans responded with a news release and radio ads in the State with the largest number of Puerto Ricans, Florida, touting the little that Bush has done on the issue.

Democratic ads by an independent Democratic group as well as by the Kerry campaign and the Democratic National Committee also criticized Bush and promoted Kerry’s agenda on issues of the unequal treatment of Puerto Rico in programs providing health and other assistance to low-income people. Republicans responded in statements to reporters in Central Florida.

The debate over Puerto Rico issues was loud enough to attract the attention of mainstream news media around the country as well as in Central Florida. It should lead to greater attention to Puerto Rico issues in Washington.

The purpose of the debate was to attract hundreds of thousands of new voters of Puerto Rican origin, most direct migrants from the territory. And the vote made an impact, although it may only have been decisive in the U.S. Senate election in Florida of Mel Martinez.

According to interviews of voters as they left polling places, Kerry -- who made a much greater effort to win the votes of Puerto Ricans than Bush -- won 58% of the prized Central Florida Puerto Rican vote, compared with Bush’s 36%. Kerry’s Puerto Rican vote was a clear achievement because of results that showed that many of the Puerto Ricans had split their tickets between Democratic and Republican candidates.

According to the same exit poll, only 44% voted a straight Democratic ticket. Thirty-seven percent voted for both Democratic and Republican candidates and 19% voted a straight Republican ballot.

And in a Florida House of Representatives race between two Puerto Ricans in a district with many Puerto Rican voters, incumbent Republican John Quinones beat back Democratic challenger Israel Mercado 52.4% to 47.6%.

The percentage of Puerto Ricans in Central Florida turning out to vote was high in comparison to other groups.

Kerry’s strong Puerto Rican vote enabled him to come close to the Florida Hispanic vote for Bush. Bush had a much stronger Hispanic vote in Florida than in the country as a whole because of his strong support among voters of Cuban origin. More than half the Hispanic vote in the States, Bush was estimated to have won about four-fifths of the Cuban vote -- two-fifths of Florida’s Hispanic vote.

Different surveys differed on the percentage of the Hispanic vote won by Bush nationally. One put it at 41% while another had it at 31%.

The Puerto Rican did not prove to be a significant factor outside of Florida. The exit poll of Puerto Rican voters in the States done by the Commonwealth’s local government said Kerry won 91% of the Ohio Puerto Rican vote. But the total number of Puerto Ricans in the State -- about 70,000 -- was far less than Bush’s margin of victory. There were more Puerto Ricans in the battleground State of Pennsylvania -- 250,000 -- where Kerry was said to have won 82% of the Puerto Rican vote. But Bush ran too far behind in the State for the Puerto Rican vote to make a difference. The same was true in the other States where the Puerto Rican vote was sizeable.

The Florida Puerto Rican vote is now a critical vote in national elections because of its size -- there are reportedly up to 650,000 Puerto Ricans in the State -- and because many of the voters will cast Republican as well as Democratic ballots based on the candidate and campaign. A poll in April found that 69% of the Central Florida Puerto Ricans -- where two-thirds of the State’s Puerto Ricans live -- would be more likely to vote for a candidate who pledged to work to enable Puerto Rico to choose the Commonwealth’s ultimate political status -- 45% much more likely. Three-quarters would support statehood if the territory’s voters wanted it. But 62% wouldn’t support nationhood even if it was chosen in a referendum in the territory.

The "Washington Update" appears weekly.

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