American politicians visiting Puerto Rico for the first time could be excused if they found themselves in the midst of an identity crisis. Unlike the mainland where major party membership gravitates toward shared philosophies, issues, economics and the role of government, Puerto Rico’s three political parties differentiate themselves and their followers by their advocacy of one political status over another.

The Popular Democratic Party ("PDP") supports the commonwealth status quo, while the New Progressive Party ("PNP") advocates statehood and the Puerto Rico Independence Party ("PIP") aims to make the island and independent country. To further muddy the waters, Republicans and Democrats comprise the rank and file of all three.

If that wasn’t enough to confuse the casual observer, while differing over the fundamental matter of status two of the parties, the PDP and the PNP, are unanimous in their commitment to permanent union with the United States and irrevocable American citizenship.

But the PDP’s expansive definition of commonwealth, including greater autonomy in domestic and external affairs, a demand for veto power over U.S laws applicable to the island and the full funding of Federal programs, similar to the states, but without the corresponding obligation to pay Federal income taxes, has been rejected as constitutionally, politically and economically defective by the authors of the Young Bill, H.R. 856, and its Senate companion, S. 472.

Thus, finding commonwealth impermanent and enhanced commonwealth incompatible with the U.S. Constitution, it will remain the island’s status only until such time as one of the other options for full self-government, independence or statehood, is attained under both bill’s terms.

The PNP seeks to realize its objectives for Puerto Rico within the Constitution by full integration into the United States as the fifty-first state with all the rights and obligations, including the payment of Federal taxes, that status entails. As Senate President Charles A. Rodriguez would say "That’s a small price to pay for first class citizenship, electing voting members of congress and the president."

Within this framework the PNP wants to foster Puerto Rico’s American heritage while preserving its Hispanic culture. It has restored English as one of the island’s two official languages and advanced its instruction in the public schools. A position consistent with the Tenth Amendment implicitly reserving to each state the power to designate it own official language or languages.

At the other extreme is the PIP. While its electoral numbers have never gone much above 5 percent it believes that independence is the only political option in Puerto Rico’s future.

Convinced that Congress and the American people will never make Puerto Rico a state regardless of how a plebiscite might go and that commonwealth is merely a transitory stage to full self-government, party leaders believe that either voter frustration with Congresses failure to implement a statehood petition under the US-Puerto Rico Political Status Act, HR 856 and S. 472, or the high cost to the American taxpayer of maintaining the territorial commonwealth indefinitely -- some $13 billion annually -- will lead to a mutual parting of the ways.

That’s why the PIP is supporting H.R. 856 and S. 472.

Independence aside, the competition between statehood and the forever hopeful but failed commonwealth status for the minds, hearts and votes of the senators and congressmen necessary to effect their status choice under the Constitution’s Territorial Clause comes down not to the PNP or the PDP but to old fashioned, well-understood mainland party affiliations, Republicans and Democrats. Who supports which status choice and, if statehood, would Puerto Rico go Democratic or Republican thereby enhancing one party or the other’s power in the Senate and House with additional representatives and senators.

Obviously, the Republicans and Democrats in the PDP and the PNP support the status their party espouses. However, the PDP has been traditionally aligned with the mainland national Democratic Party. No matter that the current PNP Governor, Pedro Rossello, is a Democrat, the party’s founding patriarch, former governor Luis A. Ferre, is Puerto Rico’s Republican State Chairman.

Nor, for that matter, does it make sense to the outsider that a majority of the island’s mayors and legislators are also Republicans even though the PNP is in power.

What does resonate in Washington and may well have a profound effect on the ultimate relationship established between Puerto Rico and the U.S. is from which party, Republican or Democrat, would Puerto Rican senators and congressman be represented if the island attained statehood.

This is no small matter given Puerto Rico’s 3.8 million residents. As a state, under current apportionment formulas, Puerto Rico would rank among the top 24 in population entitling it to two senators and as many as seven representatives. The political balance of power in Congress could be affected by which side of the aisle these new members of congress sit.

Unlike previous practice where states were admitted in pairs, one presumably Republican and the other presumably Democrat to maintain political balance, there is no likely pairing for Puerto Rico.

If history is any guide the pitfalls of political prognostication are obvious. The last pairing, Alaska and Hawaii, were thought to be safe Democratic and Republican states, respectively. The ensuing years have proven the reverse.

But, to play the game, just how would the state of Puerto Rico go, Republican or Democrat? Looking solely at the numbers of elected officials, Republicans could be confident that Puerto Rico’s delegation would bolster their ranks. Yet, although no Democrat has ever been elected to office as a Democrat, running under the status party banners they have won island wide offices. The current governor and Resident Commissioner are both Democrats.

Perhaps the key to figuring out how many representatives and senators will come from each of the national parties is to look at how elections are won in Puerto Rico and the values of the Puerto Rican people.

Rossello’s re-election is widely credited to his strong leadership and government management skills. His pro-statehood position had little effect on his successful candidacy. Rossello is highly popular among all status factions and across party lines.

And this model is repeated throughout island elections. Candidates win on issues, values and good government. Plebiscites are the time when Puerto Ricans choose sides on status.

Republicans can also find much to cheer about in the past election results as their majorities can attest. But, there’s more to Republican appeal for Puerto Ricans.

Puerto Ricans, according to a recent poll conducted by the Center For Research and Public Policy, embrace the same conservative values as the Republican Party.

  • The people of Puerto Rico are pro-family. Almost 83% support voluntary prayer, 78% support education vouchers.
  • They are conservative on eradicating crime: 88% support mandatory prison terms for those convicted of violent crimes.

  • Finally, they endorse economic growth and opportunity: By a two-to-one margin, they support a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced state budget with a limitation an tax increases
  • Citing these figures, former Christian Coalition head Ralph Reed said in a recent San Juan speech: "If Puerto Rico became a state tomorrow and congressional elections were held, we would expect that Republicans would fare very well."

    But for Washington’s Republicans and Democrats, alike, what happens in elections in the distant future in Puerto Rico may be much less important than how they vote on this year’s Puerto Rico self-determination bills, H.R. 856 and S. 472.

    It’s no secret that the Hispanic American vote on the mainland has become key to the outcome of local and state offices and the presidency. Control of the House in 1998 and Congress and the White House in 2000 may well rest on the Hispanic American vote.

    The demographics vividly illustrate this. Hispanic Americans will soon represent nearly one-fifth of all Americans. In less than 10 years (2005 to be exact), the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that they will be the nation’s largest minority. By 2025, Hispanic Americans will be the single largest group in the state of California and half the population of Texas..

    The Hispanic American vote is increasingly the swing vote in American politics. In 1996, 6.6 million Hispanic American voters participated in the Presidential election. A twenty-percent increase from just four years earlier. And overwhelmingly, they supported the Democratic ticket – 60% in 1992 and an astounding 72% in 1996.

    This vote was critical in denying Republicans electoral victories in states from Arizona to California to Florida. It may very well have cost the GOP the presidency in 1996.

    If Republicans hope to re-capture the Hispanic American vote then their own votes on Puerto Rico self-determination may be crucial to that goal. It would be difficult indeed to appeal to Americans of Hispanic descent to vote Republican on the one hand while, on the other, simultaneously denying nearly 4 million Puerto Ricans the opportunity to freely determine their future by opposing Puerto Rico self-determination legislation.

    Similarly, Democrats should not take for granted the Hispanic American vote and the inroads they have made in recent years at the expense of the GOP. Hispanic Americans, as in Puerto Rico, vote on issues and values. Party is not everything, principle and a track record is.

    As Republicans and Democrats try to guess how many of their own party Puerto Ricans may send to Washington as the fifty-first state, they might be better off looking to the effect that their votes on Puerto Rico self-determination will have on voting patterns of the mainland’s 27 million Hispanic Americans.

    They have already flexed their muscles and altered election outcomes. How congressional Republicans and Democrats treat their Puerto Rican counterparts could determine how Hispanic Americans treat their own elected representatives this fall and the fall’s thereafter.

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