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Full Text of Puerto Rico Herald Interview with Resident Commissioner Luis Fortuño, new Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico


January 14, 2005
Copyright © 2005
PUERTO RICO HERALD. All rights reserved. 

On December 22nd, from his law offices in San Juan, Resident Commissioner- Elect Luis Fortuño spoke to the Herald about his plans upon assuming his new post in Washington as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. At the time of the interview, the recount of votes from the November 2nd election in Puerto Rico had not been completed, although it appeared likely that Mr. Fortuño would prevail, but not his running mate for the office of Governor, Pedro Rosselló. Subsequently, the Fortuño victory was certified by the Puerto Rico Elections Commission (CEE) and he was sworn in as a member of the 109th Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on January 4, 2005.

December 22, 2004 -- San Juan, Puerto Rico

Full Text (Edited for pauses and redundancy)

HERALD: I was wondering if you could begin by sharing with us what paths you've taken to come to this intersection in your professional career?

FORTUÑO: I'm a lawyer by training and actually, in the last 20 years, I have practiced law for about 16 of those 20 years. I studied undergrad at Georgetown University in Washington, and I became involved in politics at the time. Actually, it was the Reagan 1980 presidential race, the first one in which I got involved. I would work preparing documents that would go out of a mailroom and stuff like that as a college student.

In 1982, I graduated (from Georgetown) and attended the University of Virginia law school. I was there for three years. Then, I returned to Puerto Rico to practice law for 16 of the last 20 years. There was a 4-year hiatus where I served in the Governor's (Rosselló) cabinet as head of tourism and Secretary of Economic Development and Commerce and, as an active Republican -- at the time the Republican Party won the Senate -- I was going back and forth to Washington a lot, and I frequently interacted with the Republican Senate. So that got me even closer to all of this. (After service in the Rosselló Administration) I went back to my practice of law and I've been doing that for the last 8 years.

At one point or another, I became a national committeeman for the Republican Party of Puerto Rico and that got me even more involved. I was involved in the 2002 mid-term election in Florida and elsewhere. And, with one thing leading to another, I entered the race for this Congressional at-large seat. And I won the primary and it seems that I also just won the general election (of November 2nd 2004).

HERALD: If I'm not mistaken, that would have been your first campaign for political office.

FORTUÑO: Yes, that's the first time I've run for office.

HERALD: And you were in some pretty fast company. Give us a feel for what your approach was and what your campaign platform offered the voters.

FORTUÑO: Well, it was a very tough primary race. We had former Governor Romero, State Senator Miriam Ramirez and former President of the State Senate, Charlie Rodriguez. And they all have a lot of experience. They all had run for office several times. And this was my first race. I decided that certainly I had to be different in that sense. And what I did is that I would stick to my values. I would talk about faith-based initiatives. I would talk about the need to work together with the private sector. I would talk about the need to get our economy moving at a faster pace than the national economy. And somehow it resonated well with the electorate and I ended up getting 62% of the vote in that primary race. And we had over 630,000 voters participating in that primary race. And it was an eye-opener for me. My campaign was positive. I never went to the negative side and my campaign stayed above the fray all along. I did the same thing in the general election and I believe that it paid off.

HERALD: What sort of questions did the voters ask you? What are their expectations of you?

FORTUÑO: Well one major issue was whether we needed a Republican or a Democrat in Washington. That was a big issue. And it became a larger issue when, in the general election, my main opponent became chairman of the Democratic Party in Puerto Rico and I was the national committeeman for the Republican Party in Puerto Rico. And that became an issue. So, that question was coming up, popping up all the time as to why do we need a Republican in Washington. And not only do I believe that I much better represent the real values of our electorate, but I believe it's the right time to send a Republican to Washington. And I'm glad that the election results at the National level prove me right, in the sense that not only did we get the President reelected, but we have a clear majority now in the House and the Senate. And that will assist me, and provide me with a tool that otherwise we (Puerto Rico) wouldn't have had to move our issues forward. That became a campaign issue. Everyone should know that. That was one of the main issues. The people (of Puerto Rico) chose a Republican over a Democrat.

HERALD: I understand that many candidates of your Party here, the New Progressive Party, have been handily elected and will be in the majority of both legislative chambers here.

FORTUÑO: Exactly!

HERALD: And the mayoral races turned out well for you. However, there's a chance that there'll be a split government here. How is that going to affect your approach to your job?

FORTUÑO: Well, I certainly would rather have had a member of my Party as the Governor. But the electorate, they have made the decision. The way I see it, is that I have a job to do regardless of who's the Governor, that I have to serve the people and that I have a clientele. On the one hand, that’s the state (Commonwealth) government, but my (constituents) are the 78 mayors, the presidents of the private and public universities, the heads of the NGO's, all of the community-based and faith-based organizations, and so on and so forth. So I have a diverse clientele, shall we say, and I will be working with all of them. In terms of my relationship with the Governor, I'm hoping that it will be a constructive one, but that will be up to him. I feel very comfortable by sitting in the (Republican) majority in the House in Washington. And I will do what I have to do to deliver results for the electorate that elected me.

HERALD: You will caucus with the Republicans will you not?

FORTUÑO: Yes, indeed.

HERALD: And what will be your agenda, your legislative agenda?

FORTUÑO: Well, I understand that there will be a number of pieces of legislation that will move forward, regardless, like Social Security and the reform that we need, and maybe some legislation to deal with Medicare issues stemming from major Medicare reform of last year. And, I am convinced that there will be some cost-cutting measures because of the national deficit.

However, having said that, in terms of Puerto Rico, I see on the one hand that there's a need to take advantage of certain pieces of legislation that will be creating jobs throughout the nation, and Puerto Rico should not be left out.

One of those pieces of legislation is enterprise zone legislation, or as the president has called it, opportunity zone legislation. And I will be working to make sure that Puerto Rico is included in that legislation.

Secondly, just last October Congress approved some major tax legislation that provides incentives to maintain manufacturing operations in the United States. Puerto Rico was left out. And I'm hoping there will be some technical legislation that will allow us to make sure that Puerto Rico's territory, U.S. territory will be included in that legislation, so that we're not at a disadvantage, vis-à-vis the 50 states, for manufacturing purposes.

Thirdly, there is legislation regarding Medicare I'm looking forward to see approved, in terms of the formula that is used to reimburse hospitals in Puerto Rico. We are not on par with the hospitals in the 50 states, and we need to make sure that that happens. So, I'll be looking forward to be sure that that happens.

There is legislation regarding the use of the former Roosevelt Roads military base. And I intend to make sure that it is adequate legislation, in terms of creating job opportunities in Puerto Rico and at the same time protecting some very sensitive areas that have flourished within what used to be Roosevelt Roads.

And, then there is status. And I believe that the time is ripe to continue to move forward on that issue. President Bush, just a year ago, named the individuals that compose the White House Task Force on Puerto Rico. And in 2005 they'll be providing the president and Congress with specific recommendations on how to move this issue forward. It just happens that both national parties, the Democratic and the Republican parties in their platform, 2004 platforms, call for movement on this issue, with non-territorial options. So I believe there will be some movement in this area as a result of this; but especially as a result of the report to be provided by the White House Task Force, sometime in 2005.

HERALD: Since you mentioned status, what do you think is the appropriate mechanism by which Puerto Rico can gain a permanent political status?

FORTUÑO: Well, I'm convinced that it will have to be by the direct vote of the voters, not by constitutional assemblies, as has been proposed by pro-independence elements. In that sense, it is the leadership to be provided by Congress and the President that will be key, so the people in Puerto Rico will have before them non-territorial options that will solve the issue once and for all. And it is time; it's the right time to do it. I understand it's a process. It will take years to complete, but with this President having named that White House task force, I believe it provides the foundation to move forward this issue in the next year.

HERALD: What do you understand by "non-territorial status?"

FORTUÑO: Certainly not what we have today. Nowadays, we have almost 4 million US citizens, 5 thousand of which are defending democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan as we speak; but they could not vote for the Commander-in-Chief. That is morally wrong in the 21st Century. It makes no sense, especially when you have such a large population submitted to such a condition. We need options that either provide full sovereignty to the state -- and that could be as an independent republic or some sort of associated republic -- or for Puerto Rico to become fully integrated into the nation with full representation in Congress; and being able to vote for the President and also having the responsibilities that US citizens have in the 50 states.

HERALD: That raises another question. As an Hispanic member of Congress you will affiliate with the Republican Caucus. Yet, some years ago it was House Democrats that supported the self-determination process proposed by the "Young Bill," particularly Hispanics members. I understand that the Hispanic House Caucuses are now divided among Republicans and the Democrats. How do you plan to bridge that gap? Or is there a gap?

FORTUÑO: Well, there is somewhat of a gap in the sense that we have two separate conferences. However, above those conferences there is an institute and I intend to join Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Latina from Florida who still belongs to that institute. Plus, I have used my time in Washington so far to build bridges to other Hispanic members. There's a new member from Colorado, John Salazar, who is the brother of Senator-elect Ken Salazar, from Colorado, also. I met with Jose Serrano from New York, who is dean of the Puerto Rican members of Congress at this time. And I intend to meet with the others as well to make sure that I will be able to bridge that gap, and to make sure that we can work in tandem to move forward, both parties, national parties, to move forward what both national platforms say about Puerto Rico.

HERALD: As I analyze articles written about Puerto Rico in the United States, it seems that there is a problem of perception. Maybe you see it that way. If you do, how do you feel that the average American, if there is such a thing, perceives Puerto Rico?

FORTUÑO: Well, I understand that a lot of people really don't have a clear understanding of what is Puerto Rico, the fact that we (Puerto Ricans) are U.S. citizens, that we have fought in every single war in the 20th and 21st century on behalf of our democracy, that we can travel back and forth (between the island and mainland), as you can move back and forth from North Dakota to Florida, and the fact that we have been part of the United States for over 100 years already; but we do not have full rights as citizens. And I believe most mainlanders do not understand this. There are some that do, but very few do, and I believe that's a real challenge to move forward any type of legislation on Puerto Rico.

HERALD: On the other hand there was rhetoric that came out of Puerto Rico, particularly during the time of the Vieques controversy and Roosevelt Roads and other flash points that sounded very separatist -- almost anti-American -- coming from these American citizens that you're talking about.

FORTUÑO: Well certainly, those do not represent the feeling of a majority, a sentiment of the majority of Puerto Ricans living in Puerto Rico. But I am cognizant of the fact that indeed, the relationship between Puerto Rico and the mainland was affected by that. And especially decision-makers were affected by that and that is another challenge that I will face in this new Congress. I believe it's a welcome change in pace, the fact that I share many of the values that the majority in Congress now has. But certainly it will be a challenge with many of the members and other decision-makers and opinion-makers, not only within the beltway, but outside.

HERALD: There's a group that plays very much into these issues that we've been talking about. And it's the official government, Puerto Rican government entity in Washington and around through the country in different places, PRFAA, the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration. How would you prefer to see a group like PRFAA function?

FORTUÑO: Well, it should be representative of the people of Puerto Rico in the main, in the island. It is not right now. Actually, you've said that they got into some controversy. Indeed, they did get into that. They apparently, in the registration process, many people appeared as new voters that actually did not exist. And so there is fraud in that process, apparently, that took place. It's being investigated, and I hope the authorities get to the bottom of it. In the meantime, they (PRFAA) really have not done much in terms of strengthening our ties to the rest of the mainland. And to a certain degree they have acted as, or created a larger gap in that understanding that is needed to get results in Washington. I would like to see PRFAA working hand in hand with the Resident Commissioner's office to make sure we push forward the legislation that is needed for Puerto Rico and that our interests are indeed defended in an appropriate manner. We'll see what happens in the next few years.

HERALD: Would that be a part of the co-operative aspirations that you have for dealings with the governorship, even though it is controlled by another Party?

FORTUÑO: Certainly, and that will be a way of showing good faith in dealing with me and my office. So I certainly hope that's exactly what happens.

HERALD: One final question, and its kind of a personal thing. What is going to be the first thing you do after you're sworn in? I know you've got an office, at least one lined up, but when you hit that floor of the House of Representatives, what's your first move going to be?

FORTUÑO: Well, I'm trying to get involved in national issues. And actually, one of the issues has been tort reform, in which I have a personal interest. I believe that it's the right thing to do. And I am convinced that the best way to be effective in Washington is to not just get involved in Puerto Rico-specific issues, but get involved in national issues. And essentially take upon yourself some sort of leadership role in pushing forward some of those issues.

As you may or may not know, I was elected vice-chair of the Republican Freshman class for essentially doing what I'm telling you I intend to do, during my first meetings in Washington with other members of Congress. So, I intend to be very active in issues that have to do with the rest of the country as well, not just us. And tort reform may be one of them. Social security is another one and the deficit is a third one. In the meantime, certainly, I will make sure that I continue to provide information to my colleagues so that they understand who we are and what our aspirations are, and the fact that we are as American as they are, and that we also have a right to the American dream.

HERALD: Thank you very much for this interview. If you tell me that one of your first priorities is going to be in tort reform, you're telling me you've already turned the corner away from this law office and have your seat firmly planted on Capitol Hill..

FORTUÑO: Yes, indeed. That should be an indication of what I intend to do, and my mind is already set on what I am doing next.

HERALD: You should not take bread out of the mouths of your brother lawyers! (Laughter)

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