Fortuno Makes A Splash In Washington… Washington (State) Finished With Governor’s Race Count

November 19, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

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Fortuno Makes A Splash In Washington

Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner in the U.S.-Elect, Luis Fortuno (statehood party/R), made a significant impact during his first official trip to Washington this past week.

His achievements suggested that he will be able to obtain substantial accomplishments for Puerto Rico over the next four years as the territory’s official representative to its national government.

Fortuno was in town for orientation meetings for "freshmen" members of the U.S. House of Representatives. The resident commissioner has a seat in the U.S. House with a vote in committees on which he serves and in his party’s caucus. The Commonwealth’s sole representative in the Congress’ lower house cannot, however, vote in the full House, and represents about six times as many people as do representatives, who are actual Members of the House.

Puerto Rico’s Republican National Committeeman, however, quickly became a leader in the House. He was elected vice president of the "class" of 23 new House Republicans who will officially take office January 3rd in the 109th Congress. House Republican Conference Chair Deborah Pryce, a representative from Ohio, noted that this made Fortuno a member of the formal House leadership.

Pryce made her comment in a welcoming press event for Fortuno organized by the Congressional Hispanic Conference, the Latino group of House Republicans. The event focused unusual attention on the Puerto Rican lawyer.

It also revealed that Fortuno would be a key leader in the House on Puerto Rico issues. Among those present was House Speaker Dennis Hastert (IL). The House’s principal leader made it clear that Fortuno would be the chamber’s leader on the Commonwealth’s fundamental issue: it’s undemocratic and unresolved political status.

Noting that Fortuno had already told him that he wanted action to resolve the issue, Hastert said that Fortuno "is going to be the person who will move that agenda . . . Now we have a person who is within the process [of resolving the Puerto Rico status question] and can move that debate ahead." The debate Hastert referred to is the question of whether the Commonwealth’s current status as unincorporated territory of the U.S. is a problem for the U.S.

Hastert’s vesting in Fortuno the leadership on the issue was particularly important because the House speaker was one of the majority of House Republicans who opposed a bill that the House passed in 1998. It would have authorized Puerto Ricans to determine the Commonwealth’s ultimate status.

Hastert also responded encouragingly when asked about the possibility of the 109th Congress passing a bill to support a Puerto Rican status choice. He said, "the fact that Luis Fortuno is here is a very good omen for the people of Puerto Rico deciding what they want to do."

During his appearance, Hastert was enthusiastic about Fortuno’s election, saying that, "Of all the victories we’ve had this year, I am extremely proud of this one."

He went on to explain why . . . and the reason that Fortuno was so warmly embraced by Republicans this week. He said, "Mr. Fortuno, your victory sends our country and other parts of the world a very important message. It says that the Republican agenda is not just one that resonates with Middle America . . . but transcends geography, culture, and language."

Fortuno noted the praise saying that both Hastert and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (TX) said they had "great plans" for him.

A leading House Hispanic Republican, Representative Lincoln Diaz-Balart (FL), echoed Hastert’s explanation of the importance Republicans see in Fortuno’s election. He said that, "the victory of the Republican Party is a clear message . . . Our principles as Republicans are the same as most of the country, and the election of the resident commissioner is an example of that."

Another House leader, Deputy Majority Whip Jerry Weller, a representative from Illinois, also referred to Fortuno’s importance to the Republican effort to attract votes from the eighth of the United States that is Hispanic in origin. He said that Fortuno will "be a leader in the Capitol who will not only represent the almost four million citizens in Puerto Rico, but also . . . all Hispanics in the country." Weller has been a strong booster of Fortuno within the national Republican Party. Fortuno will attend Weller’s wedding in Guatemala this weekend.

Yet another House Republican leader who reveled in Fortuno’s victory was National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (NY), who, like Weller, had given Fortuno strong support during the latter’s campaign. In introducing the 23 Republican freshmen to the entire House Republican Conference, Reynolds saved Fortuno for last to emphasize the national importance of Fortuno’s victory.

Another event made the importance that Republicans attach to the Hispanic vote -- and, thus, Republican Fortuno’s election -- even clearer. Referring to a report that President Bush won 44 percent of the Hispanic vote in his re-election, Bush’s campaign manager, Ken Mehlman, called the percentage "the single most important number that has come out of the election." The description was one that many national Democrats would not dispute. Mehlman has been tapped to become chairman of the Republican National Committee on which Fortuno serves.

Fortuno was also given important attention at the White House. At a lunch with Bush, Vice President Cheney, and top Bush aides, Fortuno was sat next to Chief of Staff Andrew Card. Card was an executive director of the White House Task Force on Puerto Rico in the administration of President Ronald Reagan and oversaw Commonwealth issues in the White House while Deputy Chief of Staff to President Bush’s father, the first President Bush.

Card spoke to Fortuno about Puerto Rico at length, Fortuno said later, disclosing that they agreed to have a meeting to talk about Puerto Rico’s status issue. The discussion is to focus on the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status. President Bush has delayed the work of the advisory group, which was established by President Bill Clinton to work with congressional and Puerto Rican leaders to clarify the territory’s status options and enable Puerto Ricans to choose the Commonwealth’s ultimate status.

Fortuno and President Bush’s chief political adviser also agreed at the lunch to have a more formal meeting. Their conversation began when Rove approached Fortuno.

Rove’s interest is particularly significant because it is widely believed that he is responsible for the Bush White House not doing more on the Puerto Rico status issue. This view suggests that he has delayed action on it due to the influence of former Republican National Committee Chairman Charlie Black. Black’s lobbying firm is reportedly paid $100,000 a month by the administration of Puerto Rico Governor Sila Calderon ("commonwealth" party/no national party).

Calderon has been an opponent of the Task Force and any other federal effort to clarify Puerto Rico’s status options. She knows that the federal government will not approve the "commonwealth" party’s status proposal.

Under this idea, championed by incumbent Resident Commissioner Anibal Acevedo Vila, the Commonwealth would be recognized as a nation to which the U.S. is permanently bound. The Commonwealth would have the power to veto federal laws and enter into international trade agreements as if it were a sovereign nation. The U.S. would continue to grant citizenship and all current aid as well as provide additional assistance to the Commonwealth.

During the White House event, Bush thanked Fortuno for helping him win the State of Florida -- a key to his election — in addition to congratulating Fortuno for having been elected. Bush’s brother who is the governor of Florida also this week sent Fortuno a congratulatory message.

The attention from the Bush brothers highlighted the importance of the vote of the estimated 650,000 people of Puerto Rican origin in Florida. The vote was a prized battleground in the campaign between President Bush and the national Democratic Party campaign.

Fortuno also reached out to Democrats while he was in Washington this week. Among his Democratic meetings was one with the number two Democrat in the House, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (MD). Hoyer has been a leader in the House on the issue of Puerto Ricans choosing the Commonwealth’s ultimate status. Although Hoyer supported Fortuno’s Democratic opponent, a commonwealther, he supported statehood party candidate Pedro Rossello, a Democrat, for governor of Puerto Rico.

Another important Democratic meeting was with the senior representative of Puerto Rican origin in the House, Jose Serrano (NY), also a leader in the effort to enable Puerto Rico to obtain a political status that is democratic at the national government level.

Serrano, additionally, is the senior Democrat on the House appropriations subcommittee that determines most of the funding for several major government agencies, including the Commerce, Justice, and State Departments. He has repeatedly used the position to help Puerto Rico in addition to his own district.

Like Hastert, Serrano saw a good omen for the cause of resolving Puerto Rico’s status issue in Fortuno’s election even though he had not supported Fortuno. "Perhaps with his victory, the stars might be aligning to resolve this issue once and for all," he said.

Noting that he has no preference between nationhood and U.S. Statehood for Puerto Rico, the New York Democrat also said that, "The current status offends me as a Puerto Rican, but it offends me more as an American. The United States shouldn’t have colonies. Nearly four million U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico can’t vote for their national government. This current status is truly a travesty of American democracy."

Fortuno and Serrano will be members of the two rival Hispanic groups in the House in the next Congress, Fortuno in the Republican Congressional Hispanic Conference and Serrano in the more than three times as large Democratic Congressional Hispanic Caucus. Fortuno will be the sixth Hispanic member of the Republican group.

The Puerto Rican also made a fast friendship with a freshman who Democrats welcomed with open arms because of his battleground race, John Salazar of Colorado. The two spoke about "working together for Hispanics on a bipartisan basis."

Washington Finished With Governor’s Race Count

The initial count of votes for governor in the November 2nd election was finally completed this past Wednesday night . . . in the State of Washington.

The closeness of the results has triggered a mandatory recount that will begin Saturday, November 20th and is expected to be finished before Thanksgiving, although a second recount is also possible. (The first recount would be done mechanically; the second by hand.) The results have also prompted litigation.

The contrast between the way that the situation of a very close result has been dealt with in Washington and how it has been dealt with in Puerto Rico is stark.

In Washington, the candidates at issue are Attorney General Christine Gregoire, a Democrat, and former State Senator Dino Rossi, a Republican. In Puerto Rico, they are Resident Commissioner Acevedo and former Governor Rossello.

The incomplete Washington vote count election night gave Rossi a lead of approximately 1,000 votes out of 2,742,000 plus. The incomplete Puerto Rico vote count election night gave Acevedo a 3,880 vote lead out of 1,996,000 plus.

Based on the partial and close count, Washington’s top elections official, its secretary of state, did not preliminarily certify Rossi as the winner, as the president of Puerto Rico’s elections commission did in the case of fellow "commonwealth" party member Acevedo.

And Rossi has not acted as though he had been elected as have Acevedo and Governor Calderon.

The initial count completed late Wednesday, however, determined that Rossi was the winner --- but the 261 vote margin was so slim that he still has not declared victory and Gregoire has not conceded defeat.

Washington’s secretary of state supported their caution. He told reporters, ". . . if you're within a few hundred votes, we still don't know who is going to win the race because that many votes can easily shift" in a full and more careful and full count.

The most that Rossi’s campaign has done is begin to call him "Soon-To-Be Governor Rossi."

Acevedo and Calderon, by contrast, have taken short-circuiting the elections process to the height of beginning a formal transition with public funds and having Acevedo’s children pick out bedrooms in the governor’s residence.

In another contrast, Rossello has been more circumspect about his hope that he will win in the final count than Gregoire. At the time that Rossi’s tentative 261-vote victory was determined, she was introducing her transition-team director to supporters. Rossello has not even identified a transition team.

Like Rossello, though, Gregoire has called for measures to expedite the vote counting process. Puerto Rico’s elections commission president has agreed with Acevedo on a more drawn-out process than Rossello wants.

Under the commonwealthers’ process, the count is not expected by the elections commission president to be completed until December 22nd. And he says that timetable could be further delayed by litigation. Puerto Rico’s new governor is due to be sworn into office January 2nd.

In contrast to the respect that both Rossi and Gregoire have demonstrated for the November 2nd vote, the Acevedo/Calderon approach seems to be that Acevedo can inherit the governorship from Calderon, his political mentor, by simply acting as if he had won and convincing the public of it, rather than by the votes.

Gregoire, like Rossello, wants to make sure, in her words that, "every single vote counts." The Democratic campaign in Washington, like the statehooders in Puerto Rico, has gone to court over ballot issues. The Washington Republicans opposed the Democratic suit, as the commonwealthers did the statehooders’.

The Democratic complaint was upheld in Washington, and the provisional disputed ballots and late-arriving absentee votes wound up reducing Rossi’s lead. So far, provisional ballots in Puerto Rico have cut Acevedo’s lead. Statehooders in Washington, DC who organized an absentee vote drive that included many late-arriving ballots said Thursday that they are hopeful those votes will also help Rossello.

The "Washington Update" appears weekly.

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