Puerto Rico deserves more attention

In 1992, I was polling for Michael Huffington’s primary challenge to California’s veteran Republican Rep. Bob Lagomarsino. Our opposition research discovered that the incumbent was a promoter of statehood for Puerto Rico. The campaign-consultant team huddled and decided to use this as one point in our critique of Lagomarsino’s congressional record.

In 1992, I was polling for Michael Huffington’s primary challenge to California’s veteran Republican Rep. Bob Lagomarsino. Our opposition research discovered that the incumbent was a promoter of statehood for Puerto Rico. The campaign-consultant team huddled and decided to use this as one point in our critique of Lagomarsino’s congressional record.

But, as it turned out, the Puerto Rico attack fizzled. The issue was obscure to the public and press. Even Huffington seemed disinterested. Our polls showed that just 23 percent of the Republican primary electorate would vote against the incumbent solely because he favored making Puerto Rico the 51st state. Other issues were much hotter. And the challenger toppled the incumbent using alternative issues.

Today, I am relieved to know that Bob Lagomarsino didn’t lose his job simply because of his interest in Puerto Rico. On that issue, he was right and I was wrong. Mea culpa!

Like most Americans, I didn’t know much about Puerto Rico. As one longtime observer of this topic observed in 2001, “In the United States Congress and public, ignorance about Puerto Rico was exceeded only by indifference toward Puerto Rico, a place most Americans would have had difficulty finding on a map.” A nationwide poll of registered voters conducted last July by Opinion Dynamics found that just 13 percent of voters are “very familiar” with the island of Puerto Rico. Only 41 percent know that all Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens.

Last week, I learned firsthand what a huge mistake it is for Americans to be so ignorant about the Island. Attending a meeting of the Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce as part of an exchange delegation of Florida business and community leaders, I was stunned by a presentation made by Jorge Silva-Puras, Puerto Rico’s secretary of economic development and commerce. Silva made a persuasive case for the commonwealth’s desirability for economic investment. His sophisticated marshalling of statistics and facts about Puerto Rico’s economy was first-rate.

But what was most compelling about Silva’s pitch was his vision for the future of Puerto Rico’s economy. To understand his vision, though, you must understand where Puerto Rico is today. Unlike other Caribbean economies that are largely devoted to agriculture and tourism, Puerto Rico has high technology. Most impressively, pharmaceutical and medical-device makers are the major employers. It is these biotech assets, combined with the island’s bilingual capabilities, that point to a bright future. Silva pledged that his government’s educational focus will be on math, science and English as its economic-development plans unfold.

I began to hear with my own ears that English is in far greater usage in Puerto Rico than statehood opponents allege. Puerto Rico today may, in fact, be a model for a bilingual America of tomorrow. People aren’t fussy about language in everyday situations. Politicians may be, but people aren’t. People just want to work, buy, sell and get on with their lives.

Commercially, the places I traveled seemed like most of the rest of the United States. American brands from Chrysler and Burger King to Verizon and Wal-Mart dominate the landscape. If the economy says anything about the culture, it says that Puerto Ricans are typical American consumers.

But Puerto Rico, like every state and region of our country, has unique cultural qualities that will never be fully blended by America’s melting pot or mass marketing. Because of that uniqueness and Silva’s vision, Puerto Rico would be another great state. But that is a decision that only the people of Puerto Rico can make, voting in a referendum.

If the day for such a referendum ever comes, Puerto Rican voters will doubtless be influenced by the opinions in the existing 50 states. The Opinion Dynamics poll taken last year found that 60 percent of voters here describe statehood as a good idea. More firsthand knowledge of Puerto Rico could boost those numbers, wooing Puerto Rican voters to choose statehood.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988. Fellow columnist Mark S. Mellman, a Democratic pollster, is off this week.

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