Puerto Rico statehood push faces long odds

Puerto Rico statehood push faces long odds
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Puerto Rico's government made a huge political gamble on mounting a credible campaign for statehood, a proposition that only its most optimistic supporters view as realistic.

Puerto Rican voters overwhelmingly chose statehood in a plebiscite Sunday, but low participation rates and lack of federal support marred its credibility.

Now statehooders are mounting a campaign on the mainland to follow through on Gov. Ricardo Rosselló's (D) core campaign pledge. 

So far, that campaign has mostly fallen on deaf ears in Washington. 

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“Why would Congress respond to the results of a plebiscite that didn't follow the rules?” said Federico de Jesús, a Democratic political consultant and former deputy director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration (PRFAA).

In 2014, Congress passed a law to sanction a plebiscite on Puerto Rico's status. 

Under that law, the federal government would provide $2.5 million for an educational campaign before the election, and the Department of Justice would approve the wording of the ballot.

In April, DOJ returned Rosselló's first proposed ballot and asked for the current territorial status to be included as an option. 

Rosselló followed DOJ’s recommendations and sent in the new ballot for approval, but DOJ requested more time to review the new ballot, asking the governor to postpone the vote.

Rosselló went ahead with the original June 11 date, giving an opening to opposition parties who favor commonwealth status or independence to boycott the plebiscite.

Statehood supporters say DOJ approval was not a necessary condition for the plebiscite's validity, since territorial status is a process that only involves Congress and the territory in question.

“There are a lot of people who will make creative arguments to ignore an election that just happened,” said Rep. Darren Soto (D-Fla.), who is of Puerto Rican origin and represents one of the country’s largest Puerto Rican populations in central Florida.

According to de Jesús, sticking to June 11 was a calculated political risk for Rosselló.

On July 1, Puerto Rico's new budget will come into effect. That budget, the first approved by the Fiscal Control Board appointed by Congress to oversee the island’s finances, will enact unpopular austerity measures.

“They didn't want to mix the voters’ displeasure with the plebiscite,” said de Jesús.

For Rosselló and Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González-Colón (R), the island's most prominent elected officials, statehood is their core issue. They argue that equal voting and citizenship rights for Puerto Ricans are civil rights issues.

With their political futures tied to the plebiscite’s success, they decided not to risk changing the date.

The argument over DOJ certification aside, other issues have hurt the vote’s credibility.

Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Calif.), who heads the subcommittee of jurisdiction on territorial affairs, alluded to the low participation numbers when asked if he felt bound by the plebiscite’s strong pro-statehood results.

In the plebiscite, 97 percent of voters picked statehood, but only 23 percent of voters went to the polls.

“We have elections in this country with varying degrees of turnout. And we don't look back. We have them, we have a result,” said Soto.

But LaMalfa added that Congress' immediate priority regarding Puerto Rico is its financial situation, not its political status.

Proponents of statehood argue that a change in status is necessary to correct the structural issues that led to Puerto Rico's economic crisis.

“Statehood would get directly to the debt issue,” said Soto.

In Washington Thursday, Rosselló asked Congress for “action. Action so we can solve the 500-year-old dilemma of the territory in Puerto Rico.”

And González-Colón vowed to introduce a new statehood bill based on the plebiscite results.

She introduced a bill on statehood in January that failed to get any co-sponsors. Soto said he's submitted his signature as a co-sponsor either for the new bill or the old one, provided the text recognizes the results of the plebiscite. 

González-Colón also said she would lead the charge in involving international institutions like the Organization of American States, as well as in presenting the official results to both chambers of Congress.

She's likely to take the lead in promoting statehood, as Rosselló becomes tied up in the new budget and any necessary damage control once the austerity measures are put in place.

González-Colón will have help in her duties, as a Puerto Rican law signed by Rosselló shortly before the plebiscite compels him to appoint two senators and five congressmen to demand to be seated in Washington.

That process — known as the Tennessee Plan after the way that state got into the union — likely won't result in Puerto Rico receiving immediate full representation in Congress, but it will add seven full-time lobbyists to the government's cause.