Puerto Rico mayor: Territory's profile has grown since hurricanes

Puerto Rico mayor: Territory's profile has grown since hurricanes
© María Meléndez

Puerto Rican officials are encountering more sympathy from Washington since two hurricanes devastated the island last September, according to the mayor of Ponce, the island's second largest city.

María Meléndez, a staunch supporter of statehood for the U.S. territory, told The Hill she's seen a change on Capitol Hill since the hurricanes raised the island's profile in the media. 

Through constant visits and lobbying efforts, Meléndez is striving to remind Congress that Puerto Rico — like other territories — lacks voting representation in Congress.

In a wide-ranging interview, she also discussed encouraging Puerto Ricans in the U.S. to vote.

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Meléndez, known as Mayita, recounted a visit with Rep. Rodney FrelinghuysenRodney Procter FrelinghuysenTop House GOP appropriations staffer moves to lobbying shop Individuals with significant disabilities need hope and action Exiting lawmakers jockey for K Street perch MORE (R-N.J.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, who she says told her that many members of Congress had been previously unaware that Puerto Rican nationals are natural-born U.S. citizens. 

"Frelinghuysen told me, 'You are right, you are absolutely right. I am a Republican, but why can't you vote? We don't get it. But we didn't know enough about Puerto Rico until after María,' " said Meléndez, referring to the hurricane that, along with Hurricane Irma, rocked the island last summer.

Many Puerto Rican officials, including Meléndez, have made a habit of visiting senators and representatives with large Puerto Rican constituencies to lobby for support for the island's reconstruction after the devastation of the hurricanes last summer.

The island is represented only by a resident commissioner, a four-year elected official who has access to the House floor, but can only vote in committees.

The current resident commissioner is Del. Jenniffer González-Colón (R), who was elected in 2016.

Meléndez, a member of the New Progressive Party (PNP) in Puerto Rico, said the island's lack of representation is a civil rights issue, a position she shares with González-Colón and Gov. Ricardo Rosselló (D).

The island's other large political party, the Popular Democratic Party (PPD), opposes statehood.

Most PPD members support either a continuation of the current territorial status, or an expansion of Puerto Rico's benefits as a territory without joining the Union.

Meléndez says the current status has delivered scant results.

"Look at the results of the commonwealth up to now. We've worked for what? For whom?" she said.

Puerto Rico is coming out of a decadelong recession, where public debt shot up to over $72 billion, forcing Congress to pass the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (Promesa), essentially putting the territory's finances under direct control of the House of Representatives.

In January, Meléndez, a Democrat, also visited Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenSanders campaign reports raising M in less than a day The Memo: Bernie Sanders’s WH launch sharpens ‘socialist’ question Gillibrand uses Trump Jr. tweet to fundraise MORE (D-Mass.).

Meléndez says Warren told her, "If you mayors don't come to visit all members of Congress, we're going to have a problem."

Warren's office confirmed the visit, and highlighted a bill she co-authored with Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersSanders campaign reports raising M in less than a day The Memo: Bernie Sanders’s WH launch sharpens ‘socialist’ question Gillibrand uses Trump Jr. tweet to fundraise MORE (I-Vt.) to restructure Puerto Rico's debt — another issue that made headlines after the hurricanes.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump nominates Jeffrey Rosen to replace Rosenstein at DOJ McCabe says ‘it’s possible’ Trump is a Russian asset McCabe: Trump ‘undermining the role of law enforcement’ MORE last October suggested wiping out Puerto Rico’s debt because of the steep recovery costs after Hurricane Maria. The White House has since walked back that suggestion, with the director of the Office of Management and Budget, Mick Mulvaney, talking about the island needing to "fix the errors that it’s made for the last generation on its own finances.”

Officials in Puerto Rico have pushed back against such criticism, and Meléndez said the Puerto Rican diaspora — over five million Puerto Ricans live in the states, and about 3.4 million on the island — will play a key role in ensuring the territory's needs are met by politicians in Washington.

Puerto Ricans who live on the island are only allowed to vote in national primaries, and can't vote for president in the general election.

Puerto Ricans in the states are allowed to vote in any election, and are they key demographic in at least one major race this fall, the Florida Senate race between Sen. Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William Nelson2020 party politics in Puerto Rico There is no winning without Latinos as part of your coalition Dem 2020 candidates court Puerto Rico as long nomination contest looms MORE (D) and Gov. Rick Scott (R).

"If you're going to stay here, vote," Meléndez said. "If they're not treating you well, voice your opinion."

Puerto Rico was first called a commonwealth in 1952, after a 1951 referendum to expand the territory's self-rule.

Meléndez, even in the early days of the commonwealth, supported statehood.

When Meléndez was a child, her father hosted listening sessions with many of Puerto Rico's top politicians in the family basement.

"Of all those men I was impressed by Luis A. Ferré," she said.

Ferré was among the founders of the PNP and an early proponent of statehood who as governor in the 1960s and '70s oversaw a period of massive economic expansion.

But Puerto Rico's economy has taken a steep downturn since then, leading to the current debt crisis.

Meléndez says both Congress and the Fiscal Control Board created under Promesa focused on the territory's finances but overlooked the 78 municipalities.

"This economic crisis has forced the central government to impose more responsibilities on the municipalities," said Meléndez.

Meléndez explained there are three main sources of income for Puerto Rico's municipalities: business licenses, building permits and property taxes.

After the hurricane, Meléndez decided to grant exemptions on building permits, taking a budget hit in the short term, hoping to attract new businesses and the income from property taxes and business licenses.

Ponce has also built up alliances with five neighboring municipalities — regardless of the mayors' party affiliations — to pool costs and get better deals on construction contracts.

Meléndez added that, despite the financial strain, the island's often-overlooked municipalities will have an outsize role in rebuilding.

"Reconstruction won't take a year, it will take several years. It took New Orleans 13 years to recover from Katrina," said Meléndez.

But municipalities have a limited toolkit when it comes to attracting investments.

"The island has to reduce the cost of power," said Meléndez. "At 23 cents per kilowatt, no company is going to set up shop."

The hurricane showed many deficiencies in Puerto Rico's infrastructure, but none like the weakness of its aging power grid.

Ten months after the disaster, many families still rely on generators or simply don't have electricity available at home.

"I have to thank [the Federal Emergency Management Agency], I have to thank the federal government, but the first three weeks weren't easy," said Meléndez. "There was no communication, there were no roads, there was no electric grid."

Many Puerto Ricans are still without power on the island even as it is facing another hurricane season this summer.