Julián Castro made Puerto Rico his first stop after announcing his presidential bid. Elizabeth Warren showed up days later. And Bernie Sanders just named San Juan’s lightning-rod mayor as his campaign co-chair.
Puerto Rico has vaulted into the presidential primary limelight like never before, both as a campaign stop and a campaign issue.
Between the well-publicized ravages of Hurricane Maria, loud criticisms of President Donald Trump’s disaster response and the delegate yield from the commonwealth’s primary, Puerto Rico is now something close to a must-stop for Democratic White House hopefuls.
Adding to Puerto Rico’s political value, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló is backing a plan to move the 2020 primary from early June to one of the final two weekends in March. Just as candidates wax on about corn in Iowa, Rosselló hopes they pay attention to what’s important in Puerto Rico: federal recovery efforts and the governor’s push for statehood for the island, although he’s expressed frustration with candidates who won’t weigh in clearly on the issue.
“We’re working hard to make statehood a top-tier issue,” said Manny Ortiz, an advisor to Rosselló who’s also a Democratic National Committee member. “Puerto Rico moving up the primary can only help highlight the issues that are important: the unequal treatment of citizens and the statehood issue.”
The commonwealth is also chafing under what’s called the Fiscal Control Board, which Congress and former President Barack Obama approved to manage the island’s finances under a law that has given Puerto Rico less control of its destiny. And Trump’s handling of disaster response has made him deeply unpopular with Puerto Rican voters on and off the island, making it fertile ground to campaign against him.
With 64 delegates at stake and a population of about 3.2 million, Puerto Rico is larger than 21 other states — and it’s also a springboard to reach the growing Boricua diaspora in Florida and New York, as well as the smaller communities in California, Pennsylvania and Illinois.
The governor’s political team and advocacy groups like the Latino Victory Fund and others have been speaking with emissaries for candidates Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Pete Buttigieg as well as possible candidate Joe Biden about visiting the island.
Latino Victory last month called on all the candidates to campaign on the island, which is home to the nation’s second-largest population of Latinos. It’s not a hard sell to make: For Democrats, the island stands as a mammoth and tangible reminder of the incompetence of the Trump administration’s hurricane response and his overall poor relations with Hispanic voters.
“The symbolic value is at play, and it’s definitely very powerful,” said Latino Victory’s Mayra Macias. “The visual Trump created by throwing paper towels at people who needed relief is easy to point to as an example of the failures of the administration.”
Puerto Rico’s emergence as a campaign trail hot spot follows a midterm election in which it played an outsize role in Senate and gubernatorial races in Florida, home to the largest mainland Boricua population. Candidates from both parties traveled to the island and even advertised on San Juan’s WAPA-TV, which is still popular with stateside residents.
Campaigning in Puerto Rico is fraught with unique political complications. The major political parties there revolve around the question of the island’s status as a commonwealth. The mainland political parties of the United States are of secondary concern on the island.
And then there are the rivalries.
Rosselló and San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz — whom Sanders named as his campaign co-chair — have had a frosty relationship and this week traded barbs in the press over the governor’s involvement in U.S. intervention in nearby Venezuela. Cruz has been rumored to be eyeing a race against Rosselló or against the island’s resident commissioner in Congress next year. Rosselló is also a Democrat; Cruz hasn’t been a regular member of the party.
Underlying the tensions between the two: Cruz has advocated for Puerto Rican sovereignty, Rosselló for statehood.
So far, the announced Democratic presidential candidates who have weighed in on Puerto Rico have refused to say clearly where they stand on statehood. Instead, they say, the people’s will in Puerto Rico should guide Congress on whether to admit Puerto Rico as a state, a position that essentially ignores the fact that Puerto Rico has voted twice, in 2012 and in 2017, for statehood by wide margins.
Rosselló and others want to know if candidates favor statehood, independence or commonwealth status. Rosselló wants voters to be able to cast ballots in the general election for president (they’re currently limited to primaries) and for members of Congress who have a binding vote.
“What I want to hear everybody talk about, is their stance on the equality of U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico. It should be a yes or no answer,” Rosselló told reporters last week, according to Reuters. “There should be no room for wiggle.”
But some are wiggling.
Castro, the only Latino candidate in the field, made his first official campaign visit not to Iowa last month, but to Puerto Rico to highlight the plight and importance of the island. When asked by reporters about what status he favors, Castro praised Puerto Ricans “self-determination” and insisted it is their decision to make.
Then came Warren. She had essentially the same response as Castro, saying that, “For years, too many leaders have imposed too many decisions on you against your will. Respect for Puerto Rico means you have the right to determine your association with the United States, period,” Warren said in her prepared remarks. “Puerto Rico deserves self-determination. And on this question, I will support the decision of the people of Puerto Rico.”
The Castro and Warren campaigns couldn’t be reached to clarify their positions on the island’s status.
Though some supporters of Sanders’ criticized Warren for taking no position last month, his campaign did the same thing, telling POLITICO this week that the Vermont senator has “introduced a bill that had a provision for the federal government to respect a binding resolution on statehood or independence.”
Asked which status option Sanders preferred, the campaign said that “he favors what the people of Puerto Rico choose.” Yet Sanders left no doubt on the question of statehood for Washington, D.C., tweeting this week that he “strongly” supports it and subsequently ignored those who asked about Puerto Rico’s status.
By picking Cruz as a co-chair of his campaign, Sanders highlighted his interest in Puerto Rico and found an ally who angers the president. Trump complained in 2017 that the San Juan mayor was “nasty” to him for her criticisms of his administration’s disaster response after Hurricane Maria. Cruz, at one point, proudly wore Trump’s insult when she gave TV interviews dressed in a black T-shirt with the word “NASTY” printed in large white letters — a move that made her a face of the anti-Trump progressive movement and a sought-after political speaker on the mainland.
More than a year later, Trump was still miffed and cited Cruz in saying he was “an absolute no” on the issue of Puerto Rico statehood.
“With the mayor of San Juan as bad as she is … Puerto Rico shouldn’t be talking about statehood until they get some people that really know what they’re doing,” Trump said in comments that were widely panned within the Puerto Rican community.
Trump also became embittered with Rosselló, who stepped up his criticisms of Trump after the president in 2018 without evidence called Puerto Rico’s estimated death toll a conspiracy.
Afterward, Trump reportedly discussed ways of blocking disaster aid to the island, considered diverting the money to fund his stalled plan to build a border wall with Mexico and has refused to meet with Rosselló over recovery efforts, the governor told reporters last week.
The first Puerto Rican congressman from Florida, Democrat Darren Soto, said voters on and off the island have been paying attention to disaster recovery, which could haunt the president in 2020 in Florida.
“Trump’s recovery effort has been a monumental failure. And you don’t have to look far,” Soto said. “Whoever our nominee is will drive that point home.”
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
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