GOP Makes History With Puerto Rican’s Election

Posted November 3, 2004 at 5:47pm

A GOP-backed candidate captured Puerto Rico’s sole Congressional seat Wednesday, marking the first time in a century the commonwealth will send a Republican to Washington, D.C.

Luis Fortuño, a member of Puerto Rico’s New Progressive Party — the island’s traditional pro-statehood party that identifies with mainland Republicans — claimed victory in the open-seat race with just 48.5 percent of the vote, edging out his nearest competitor by half a point.

Popular Democratic Party candidate Roberto Prats, a Senator in the commonwealth’s Legislature, earned 48 percent but announced Wednesday he would not seek a recount and conceded the race to Fortuño.

The election marked the first time in nearly 40 years that the two major parties have faced off for the post — the commonwealth’s nonvoting delegate is officially called the Resident Commissioner and serves a four-year term — and drew unprecedented attention from both the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

“It’s really the first time there was a true interest in this race from the national party, because it was the first time there was a real possibility a Republican could be elected,” Fortuño said Wednesday.

Although New Progressive Party candidates have previously held the seat, including Carlos Antonio Romero-Barceló in the 106th Congress, they elected to caucus with Democrats.

Only one other Republican has represented Puerto Rico since the nonvoting seat was created in 1900 according to the Biographical Directory of Congress. Federico Degetau held the post from 1901 to 1904.

In fact, the 2004 cycle is the first time since the seat’s creation that either mainland party has opted to endorse candidates for the post.

In 2003, National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) recruited Fortuño, the island’s former economic development and commerce secretary and an active member of Puerto Rico’s GOP.

“It’s been a priority of the Republican Party and the House leadership to recruit more Hispanics into the party and Luis Fortuño was pretty much a dream candidate for this Resident Commissioner spot in Puerto Rico,” said Alex Burgos, an NRCC spokesman.

Fortuño, 44, earned a bachelor’s degree from Georgetown University in 1978 and went on to receive a law degree from the University of Virginia. The San Juan native was elected a national committeeman for Puerto Rico’s Republican Party in 2001.

In addition to fundraising, Fortuño asserted that personal visits from several lawmakers, including Reynolds and Reps. Jerry Weller (R-Ill.) and Tom Feeney (R-Fla.), helped him capture the seat.

Fortuño is hopeful those same allies in the Republican Party could allow him to wield more clout in representing Puerto Rico’s interests in Congress.

“I have no doubts about it. In the past when we had Democrats representing Puerto Rico they were taken for granted and they really had very little to say … about various issues affecting the island,” Fortuño said. The Republican Party “really bought into the race in more ways than one. It will provide me with additional tools to move our agenda forward.”

Fortuño will replace Resident Commissioner Aníbal Acevedo-Vilá (D), who opted to run for governor of the commonwealth after serving one term in Congress.

The Puerto Rico State Elections Commission reported Wednesday that Acevedo-Vilá, a member of the Popular Democratic Party, won 48.4 percent of the vote, narrowly edging New Progressive Party candidate Pedro Rosselló, who received 48.2 percent.

According to an Associated Press report, State Elections Commission President Aurelio Gracia announced a recount in the governor’s race will be conducted Monday. Under commonwealth law, recounts are allowed when the margin of victory is less than half a percent.