The New York Times, New York, NY

In Push for Puerto Rico Vote, Conservative Bent Is Stressed


(07/24/98, Copyright © 1998 New York Times Company)

WASHINGTON, July 23 -- The Democratic Governor of Puerto Rico, pushing for a chance for his island to vote for statehood, has come up with a tempting sales pitch for the Republican-controlled Congress.

Imagine a place, Gov. Pedro J. Rossello and his lobbyists say, that opposes abortion, hands out vouchers so children can attend parochial schools, has sliced capital gains taxes, allows school pupils five minutes for prayer, and is busy privatizing many of its major industries. The place, they add, hoping to clinch the deal, is Puerto Rico.

''Puerto Rico passed the 'Contract With America,' '' said an important backer in Congress, Senator Larry E. Craig, and it is a point that the Idaho Republican never fails to make to incredulous colleagues as he pushes his legislation for a Congressionally sanctioned referendum on Puerto Rico's status.

It is an uphill battle to persuade his fellow Republican senators, especially the majority leader, Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi, to take the chance that Puerto Rico will not, as a state, send two Democratic senators and six Democratic representatives to Washington. That fear, along with the fact that Puerto Rico is Spanish-speaking, has kept the Republican-controlled Congress from acting quickly in accordance with the party's 1996 platform plank that ''we support the right of the United States citizens of Puerto Rico to be admitted to the Union as a fully sovereign state after they freely so determine.''

To get the party to live up to that pledge, Governor Rossello is trying to convince Republicans that the island will make a stellar 51st state and that Puerto Ricans will not necessarily vote for Democrats.

It is a message that other statehood supporters are sending, too. Just last month, Jack Marquez, a Puerto Rican who was decorated for his service in the Vietnam War, established the Puerto Rican American Foundation here. The lobbying group, modeled on the influential Cuban American National Foundation and working independently of the Puerto Rican Government, seeks to spread the gospel about Puerto Rico's conservative conversion.

''This is a very conservative society,'' Mr. Marquez said. ''Not a 'West Side Story,' welfare-cheating society as it is portrayed in some circles.''

His group recently ran an advertisement on conservative talk shows supporting a Republican bill for education tax credits, saying, ''If school choice can work in Puerto Rico, it will work for America.''

Opponents of statehood counter that the Republican image is not as pure as Mr. Rossello and his supporters have presented it. Puerto Rico also has strict gun control laws and a universal health care system. ''And we still have the view that the Government is the most important player guaranteeing social justice for the people,'' said Anibal Acevedo Vila, president of the Popular Democratic Party, which supports keeping a variation of the island's current commonwealth status. In other words, despite the Governor's recent efforts, many Puerto Ricans love big government, Mr. Avevedo Vila said.

In March, the United States House of Representatives voted 209 to 208 to set Puerto Rico self-determination in motion. The 10-year process would begin with a referendum allowing Puerto Ricans to choose among three options: independence, statehood or commonwealth status.

The bill was supported by proponents of statehood, including Mr. Rossello and both houses of the Puerto Rican Legislature, as well as the relatively small faction supporting independence. It was vigorously opposed by commonwealth backers, who said the bill, in putting forward a narrow definition of commonwealth for the referendum, was unfairly slanted toward statehood.

Now the onus is on the United States Senate. Mr. Lott has said there is simply not enough time this year to grapple with an issue as contentious as Puerto Rico's self-determination. But Senator Frank H. Murkowski, the Alaska Republican who heads the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and vividly remembers Alaska's own struggle for statehood, is forging ahead with a streamlined bill that at the least would allow for a referendum and a set of approved definitions.

Republican pollsters and consultants have advised party members to seize on the issue of Puerto Rican self-determination, saying it is a natural for Hispanic voters and one that tracks with the party's support of statehood.

''Hispanics in this country hold many of the same virtues and values as Republicans, but they continue to feel alienated by what they characterize as the close-mindedness on the part of Republicans in their approach to governing,'' two Republican pollsters, Ed Goeas and William Stewart, wrote in a report on a national study of Hispanic attitudes.

The issue is complicated, especially in an election year, confronting as it does questions of language and cultural identity. Although Puerto Rico is predominantly Spanish-speaking, English is routinely spoken in government and business, and it has a distinct culture.

''No one should assume that the road to a status change will be short or smooth,'' Senator Murkowski warned at a recent hearing.

Spain ceded Puerto Rico to the United States in 1898 after the Spanish-American War. Congress granted United States citizenship to Puerto Ricans in 1917 and made the island a commonwealth in 1952. Puerto Rico has its own laws, taxes and government. Puerto Ricans who live on the island are subject to United States military service, but do not pay Federal taxes, cannot vote for Presidential or Congressional candidates, and are not entitled to most Federal benefits.

Puerto Ricans are almost equally split between statehood and commonwealth status. Relatively few favor independence.

''At least 75 percent of Puerto Rican voters align themselves with status options rather than candidates, programs or solutions to pressing problems,'' Senator Murkowski said. ''This orientation distorts governance.''

One important battle over the referendum bill centers on how to define ''commonwealth.'' Commonwealth supporters pushed for a broad definition that would guarantee American citizenship, among other things. The House rejected that definition, and now commonwealth backers say they will boycott the referendum, if it comes to pass. Statehood supporters say a definition guaranteeing citizenship is unconstitutional.

Without a guarantee of United States citizenship, most Puerto Ricans, even those who see economic advantages in commonwealth status, are likely to vote for statehood.

In pressing their case for a referendum, which they believe will lead to statehood and greater economic prosperity on the island, Mr. Rossello and his chief lobbyist, Xavier Romeu, have painstakingly listed the Governor's chief accomplishments since 1992.

Mr. Rossello has privatized the government-owned shipping industry, the hotel industry and, most recently, the telephone industry. He has cut the capital gains tax to 7 percent from 20 percent. He has slashed welfare spending by 20 percent and made both English and Spanish official languages. And Puerto Rico has seen a 19 percent reduction in the personal income tax.

The pitch does not thrill Democrats of Puerto Rican descent. Representative Jose E. Serrano, a New York liberal who supports the referendum, practically grimaces at the thought of Puerto Rico as a conservative bastion, describing it as pandering.

''You do so much to please the master,'' said Mr. Serrano, who calls Puerto Rico the last United States colony. ''People are desperate to make their point. It's like we can make you guys wish you had another 50 states just like us.''

Photo: Xavier Romeu, the chief Washington lobbyist for Gov. Pedro J. Rossello of Puerto Rico. Puerto Ricans are divided on whether to seek statehood or retain their commonwealth status, but few favor independence. (Justin Lane for The New York Times) (pg. A19)

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