In Puerto Rico, it's common knowledge that its nonvoting delegate to the House of Representatives, Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Pedro R. Pierluisi, is running for governor in 2016, and thus cannot seek re-election to Congress. But in Washington, D.C., his office has not put out an official announcement that the Democrat, currently serving his second four-year term, is leaving at the end of this Congress.
First elected in 2008, Pierluisi has been an outspoken advocate for Puerto Rican statehood, and he told Roll Call Thursday that all of his congressional colleagues know he's running for governor.
But why would he want to leave?
"The power you have in D.C. is very minimal. He thinks as governor he can do more for Puerto Rico," said Puerto Rican political consultant Onix Maldonado, who works for the firm WP Group in San Juan.
"No question about it," Pierluisi told Roll Call Thursday. "My biggest quest in my political life is to obtain equal rights for the American citizens of Puerto Rico."
"In terms of pecking order, the governor is considered to be the leader in the island, whereas the resident commissioner is the No. 2 politically," said Luis Fortuño, the former delegate to Congress and former governor of Puerto Rico, who has served as Puerto Rico's national committeeman at the Republican National Committee.
Pierluisi declared his gubernatorial candidacy on Nov. 15, but in effect, he's been a candidate for governor ever since he became head of the New Progressive Party three years ago.
But just because he's president of the party doesn't mean he's the de facto nominee. He'll face a competitive June 5 primary against Ricardo Rosselló, the son of popular former Gov. Pedro Rosselló. Each candidate argues that he is best suited to help Puerto Rico achieve statehood, the central platform of the New Progressive Party.
Voters who believe Pierluisi hasn't done enough in his eight years in Washington, D.C., are instead looking to Rosselló — and his father's legacy — as a fresh opportunity. "When his father was governor, the economy was growing. Many people think that he can do that again," Maldonado said. "I got Congress to allow us to have a referendum [on statehood] but it’s not happening because the sitting governor isn’t wanting it to happen," Pierluisi said. "A big reason why I’m running is because once I’m in office I will be holding a referendum on the admission of Puerto Rico as a state with the blessing of the attorney general of the United States."
In a November 2012 non-binding referendum Puerto Ricans rejected their current status as a commonwealth 54 to 46 percent. A majority chose statehood as an alternative.
A November poll from the El Nuevo Dia newspaper showed Rosselló leading Pierluisi 47 to 30 percent. A third candidate who's no longer in the race garnered 17 percent, but his supporters, Maldonado said, tend to lean toward Rosselló. Pierluisi, however, pointed to internal polling from his own campaign showing him up by double digits. "Whenever there are public polls of government officials, I do the best. I get the highest scores, and that’s in a way what supports my candidacy," Pierluisi said. In the November general election, the New Progressive Party nominee will face former Secretary of State David Bernier of the Popular Democratic Party, which advocates for Puerto Rico to remain a commonwealth.
Puerto Rican political parties don't cleave along the same lines as the mainland Republican and Democratic parties. "Our politics are different because of the status issue," Pierluisi said. "In the pro-statehood party, you have both Democrats and Republicans. And my educated guess is that our party is pretty much split halfway."
"A lot of my constituents are not that familiar with the mainland political system because they’re not participants in it," Pierluisi said. "But when you look at their ideology, I would say most of the population falls in the middle. I'd view it as potential swing state."
But Fortuño, a Republican, prefers that his party, which grew out of the Republican Statehood Party, be translated into English as the New Party for Progress, instead of the New Progressive Party. "Progressive," he said, means something else.
The race to replace Pierluisi in Congress will also be contentious, beginning with primaries on both sides. In the New Progressive Party, former speaker of the House and current Minority Leader Jenniffer González, currently president of the Puerto Rican Republican Party, is running against Democrat Carlos Pesquera, former secretary of transportation and public works and a former president of the New Progressive Party. Pierluisi is endorsing Pesquera, the Democrat.
Two Democrats are running for the Popular Democratic Party nomination for Congress: Puerto Rican Senator Ángel Rosa and former party chairman and former Representative Héctor Ferre.
Maldonado, who's not working for any of the candidates, predicts that the November general election races for both governor and Congress will be toss-up contests.
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