Puerto Rico’s representative makes renewed push for statehood


Less than 24 hours after being sworn in, Puerto Rico’s new representative in Congress filed a bill that would make the island the 51st state by 2025.

The case for statehood, formerly a political hot potato, was the key campaign issue both for Resident Commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez, a Republican, and Gov. Ricardo Roselló, a Democrat.

“We’ve never had a resident commissioner start from day one with a very clear set of priorities and file for statehood on the first day,” said Ken Oliver-Mendez, a former special assistant to the governor of Puerto Rico.  

{mosads}The resident commissioner, elected every four years, can propose bills, serve on committees, and participate in discussions, but cannot vote on the House floor. 

The bill also calls for a status referendum by November of this year. However, since it was introduced so early in the 115th Congress, the bill does not yet have any co-sponsors. Gonzalez has said that she will be filing additional measures with fellow lawmakers. 

The island’s financial crisis and the creation of a fiscal control board under 2016’s PROMESA bill, which allowed the island to restructure its debt, has given new urgency to the issue of Puerto Rico’s status, but the debate has been brewing for years.

“We have a territorial status on the island, without being a nation and without being a state, so we are kind of in limbo,” said Gonzalez. 

But by making a push for statehood her first act, Gonzalez accelerated a trend started by her predecessor, former Rep. Pedro Pierluisi (D).

Pierluisi presented a similar bill a month into the 114th Congress, after having introduced bills to simply consider the issue or invoke a referendum on it in the 111th and 113th.

A 2012 non-binding Puerto Rico referendum on status saw statehood win 61 percent of the vote, but 2016 was the first time status became the core issue of the congressional and gubernatorial campaigns.

“No one except for Jenniffer Gonzalez had a solid mandate,” said Oliver-Mendez.

The main difference between the two bills is their timing — the Gonzalez bill calls for admission by 2025, while the Pierluisi bill set a 2021 deadline, with Puerto Ricans voting in the 2020 federal election.

“There are budgetary impacts, and there are economic impacts so there’s probably a need for a longer period of transition,” said Jeffrey Farrow, a former White House aide and expert on territorial affairs. 

“You’re kind of removing the politics from it because some people are already thinking about the 2020 election,” he added.

Reluctance to discuss the island’s status was long a holdover of the Cold War, said Farrow. The U.S. government considered Puerto Rico a commonwealth, neither a territory nor a sovereign nation, to avoid comparisons to the Soviet Union’s satellite states.

But in a 2015 criminal Supreme Court case that centered on double jeopardy, known as the Sánchez Valle case, the court effectively said Puerto Rico had limited sovereignty and is considered a territory.

The passage of PROMESA in summer 2016 – which in part installed a fiscal oversight board appointed by Congress and the White House – took power away from the local government, chipping away at voters’ confidence in Puerto Rico’s special status.

“There’s been a real diminution in the idea that there’s something between statehood and nation,” said Farrow.

Some predict that the Republican-controlled Congress will not take the bill seriously because of the potential cost of admitting a financially strapped state to the Union.

“What was the mantra of the PROMESA? ‘It doesn’t cost us a cent,'” said Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), a proponent of nationhood. 

“Do you really believe that until you eliminate, deal with, the underlying lack of economic infrastructure, of independence, autonomy, that allows the people of Puerto Rico to flourish, that you’re going to have statehood?”

Gutierrez also argued that the gubernatorial election did not provide a mandate for statehood, because less than half of the island’s voters cast their ballots for Roselló.

“They campaigned on it, they got 42 percent of the vote,” said Gutierrez. 

But Gonzalez, who won her election with 48 percent of the vote, said the island’s dire economic straits should bolster the case for statehood.

“The fundamental problem is territory status and inequality, and the economy will not reach its potential until Puerto Rico is treated equally among the states, which requires statehood,” she said. 

President-elect Donald Trump, in a statement over the summer, said he was “firmly committed to the process where Puerto Ricans might resolve their status according to Constitutional and Congressional protocols.”

“I believe the people of Puerto Rico deserve a process of status self-determination that gives them a fair and unambiguous choice on this matter,” he said. “As president I will do my part to insure that Congress follows the Constitution. The will of the Puerto Rican people in any status referendum should be considered as Congress follows through on any desired change in status for Puerto Rico, including statehood.”

Gutierrez compared Gonzalez’s legislation to the Young Bill, a Clinton-era proposal to allow Puerto Ricans to vote on their status.

“They had the Young Bill in 1999. [Democrats] controlled the House, they controlled the Senate, they controlled the presidency. Everybody was for the Young Bill. It failed. Waiting for Puerto Rico to become a state is like waiting for Donald Trump to be respectful of women: It’s not going to happen,” he said.

Farrow said that perhaps the GOP majority could look at statehood, proposed by a Republican resident commissioner, as an opportunity rather than a threat. 

“The truth of the matter is most Puerto Ricans haven’t thought of being Democrats or Republicans,” said Farrow.

“When Hawaii was admitted, the assumption was that Hawaii was going to be a Republican state. When Alaska was admitted, the assumption was that it was going to be a Democratic state. That was based on the politics of the time and it didn’t take that long before the politics changed. Puerto Rico is essentially tabula rasa.”

Tags Donald Trump Luis Gutierrez

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