Delegate Looks to Boost Statehood Hopes

Posted September 12, 2007 at 6:29pm

Puerto Rico’s statehood advocates could get a boost next fall, if polls showing Resident Commissioner Luis Fortuño (R-P.R.) winning his bid for governor are correct.

The statehood supporter has emerged as the favorite in a candidate pool that so far includes current Gov. Aníbal Acevedo Vilá and former Gov. Pedro Rosselló. As the top two Puerto Rico officials, Acevedo Vilá and Fortuño have butted heads on how to tackle the long-unresolved issue of whether to change the island’s status. That all could change if Fortuño defeats Acevedo Vilá in 2008 and another pro-statehood candidate wins the resident commissioner seat — a scenario that seems increasingly likely.

Such a match would help “not only the cause of statehood but of self-determination,” said Kenneth McClintock, a statehood advocate who is president of the island’s Senate. McClintock said he has not yet endorsed a candidate but admitted that he and Fortuño are “extremely close.”

Self-determination is what Fortuño and McClintock call a plan to determine Puerto Rico’s status through plebiscite, or referendum. Acevedo Vilá, who supports retaining Puerto Rico’s commonwealth status, instead hopes to hold a constitutional convention where delegates would mull Puerto Rico’s options and present a proposal to Puerto Rican voters for ratification. Separate bills providing for each scenario are making their way through the House.

Fortuño said his efforts to work with Acevedo Vilá on the issue have been rebuffed.

“I’m willing to bend over backwards to change wording,” he said, adding that the governor doesn’t want the question of status resolved. “He’s going to oppose anything we say.”

A bill introduced by Reps. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.) and Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), and backed by Acevedo Vilá, would call for Puerto Rico to host a convention on the issue. But Fortuño’s bill, co-sponsored by Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.), would allow Puerto Ricans to vote on whether the commonwealth should become the 51st state or seek independence. The vote would be in two stages: The first would ask whether Puerto Rico should change its status as a commonwealth, and if voters say yes, they’ll take a second vote on what that change should be. The bill has 125 sponsors but hasn’t yet made it to the House floor.

“If Congress does not approve of this by [the election], this will certainly be an issue,” Fortuño said, emphasizing his determination to make the decision by plebiscite, not convention. “My position is that my constituents have a right to express their preference in a process that is sanctioned by Congress, not a process that is cooked up.”

Of course, the fight between statehood and commonwealth advocates — and the small-but-vocal group that supports independence for the island — has flourished for almost a century. The issue won’t be resolved just by having a pro-statehood governor, Serrano said, but Fortuño has furthered the statehood cause by reaching across the aisle and forging friendships with powerful lawmakers like House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).

“If he gets elected governor, he would have established a very good relationship with Hoyer, with myself, with other folks,” Serrano said. “That can’t hurt.”

In a primary in March, Fortuño will face Rosselló, a statehood advocate who retired as governor in 2000. Rosselló is now president of the Partido Nuevo Progresista, or the New Progressive Party — the party Fortuño runs under locally. Rosselló also is pro-statehood, as are most PNP members, but in the past he has championed more aggressive tactics than Fortuño. During his unsuccessful campaign in the 2004 gubernatorial elections, Rosselló said he would bring a lawsuit against the United States in an effort to force a decision declaring Puerto Rico a state. He lost the election to Acevedo Vilá (of the Popular Democratic Party), and the statehood issue has been championed in Congress by Fortuño ever since.

Fortuño’s chances of winning the primary seem good. In May, Fortuño led Rosselló 49 percent to 37 percent in a Kaagan Research Associates poll commissioned by the Puerto Rican newspaper El Nuevo Dia. Fortuño also led 46 percent to 25 percent in polls pitting him against Acevedo Vilá, while Rosselló trailed the governor 26 percent to 33 percent. The governor’s popularity is waning, McClintock said, because of a U.S. investigation into alleged violations of federal election law during Acevedo Vilá’s 2000 campaign for resident commissioner (Puerto Rico’s delegate to Congress). Some speculate that Acevedo Vilá will be forced off the ballot before the 2008 elections because of the scandal.

Everything at this point is speculation, Aníbal José Torres, executive director of the Popular Democratic Party, said in a statement.

“We are waiting to know who will be the candidate that wants to [lose] the election against the Governor Aníbal Acevedo Vilá,” he wrote in an e-mail. “[Neither] Fortuño or Rosselló are options for the future of Puerto Rico.”

Requests for an interview with Acevedo Vilá were denied.

Both Acevedo Vilá and Fortuño have running mates, or candidates for the Puerto Rico resident commissioner who campaign beside them. Fortuño hopes former Attorney General Pedro Pierluisi will take his place as resident commissioner, while Acevedo Vilá supports Alfredo Salazar, president of the Puerto Rico Government Development Bank. Pierluisi, a moderate Democrat, will face two opponents in the New Progressive Party primary, while Salazar is the only candidate from the Popular Democratic Party.

With almost 14 months to go until the general elections, the political climate could change, Serrano said. But he called Fortuño’s decision to run a “great idea,” which could help get more Puerto Rico issues on Congress’ agenda.

“There’s a feeling in Puerto Rico that Puerto Rico needs a dramatic change. The question is will people see him as a younger breath of fresh air that will bring about that change,” Serrano said. “I would say his chances are very good.”