For the second time in two years, a bill to admit Puerto Rico as the 51st state has been introduced in Congress, this time by Rep. Darren Soto (D – District 9), striking many people by surprise.
“Our historic legislation will finally end over 120 years of colonialism and provide full rights and representation to over 3.2 million Americans,” Soto said. “We have seen time and time again that colonial status is simply not working.”
The proposal, H.R.1965 Puerto Rico Admission Act of 2019 co-sponsored by Puerto Rico’s non-voting delegate Jenniffer González (R) and Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), sets the terms for Puerto Rico to be admitted as a state based on the results of an unofficial and extremely flawed status plebiscite held in 2017 that favored statehood. In that election, 97 percent of voters supported statehood but only 23 percent or 525,000 people cast a ballot out of 2.3 million eligible voters, the lowest turnout ever for a Puerto Rico election.
The Trump Factor
Puerto Rico has never conducted an “official” status consultation, that is, a vote authorized by Congress on the future of Puerto Rico. Which says a lot because Congress has sole power over Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory since 1898 considered “separate” from the United States, as upheld by numerous, and today embarrassing, U.S. Supreme Court decisions. All status votes have been “beauty contests,” in which political parties, including pro-commonwealth and pro-independence forces, measure their strength but Congress is under no obligation to abide by the plebiscite results.
Soto appears to be driven in part by the federal catastrophic response to Hurricane María, a Category 4 storm that devastated the island, killing nearly 3,000 people and generating $90 billion in damages, according to official island estimates. While reeling from the hurricane’s destruction, Puerto Ricans and elected officials also had to contend with a hazard of a different kind – the abysmal, and some might say, bigoted federal attitudes toward the island. Almost from the beginning President Donald Trump resented any federal aid flowing to Puerto Rico.
This week Trump beat the drum again, doubling down on slashing hurricane-related aid to Puerto Rico. He justified his move saying, “They don’t know how to spend money, and they are not spending it wisely.” Then he praised his own efforts by adding, “I’ve taken better care of Puerto Rico than any man ever,” citing $90 billion in federal funds to Puerto Rico, more than for Florida’s Hurricane Irma and Texas’ Hurricane Harvey.
It’s unclear where the $90 billion figure came from. Rep. González herself boasted last year of $40 billion committed to the island, although most of it has not been appropriated, slowing the island’s recovery. More funds have been committed since then.
The Third Rail
Regardless of the adolescent arguments flying among elected officials – Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said this week, “If the bully gets close, I’ll punch the bully in the mouth” – Soto has touched the third rail of Puerto Rico politics, one that will divide his Florida constituents and supporters. Soto’s Congressional District 9 sweeps south Orange County, Osceola County and part of Polk County, and is about 46 percent Hispanic, mostly Puerto Rican.
Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico and Florida are deeply divided on the question of the territory’s political future, meaning that Soto has alienated a chunk of his political base. Polls, such as a 2016 Latino Decisions survey for the Center for American Progress action Fund, showed 56 percent of Florida Puerto Rican voters support statehood. However, many Florida community leaders and organizers, people who have boosted Soto’s political ambitions, have a decidedly pro-independence bent.
On Facebook, Soto’s announcement generated over 800 comments, mostly approval for statehood for Puerto Rico. But the internecine warfare also was on full display.
“Soto knows that’s how to get your vote, that is why he us [sic] posturing like this.”
“If you whant [sic] a state, move on to one of the 50, its [sic] simple at [sic] that.”
“45 and the US Congress have no love for Puerto Rico. This is an embarrassing display of self loathing. Shameful and futile.”
“97% of the 23% that voted. That equals to about 19% of the population. Hardly a majority.” [It’s actually 16 percent of the population.]
“ALL Puertoricans [sic] will decide that, NOT you or jgo!!!”
“Darren, you’re supposed to be representing Florida and Floridians, not Puerto Rico.”
“The future of PR is NOT decided solely by you! Simple as THAT!!!😡”
Therein lies the problem. Although Soto has demonstrated great support for the island during his terms in Congress and as a Florida state senator and representative, he doesn’t appear to have consulted with voters in Puerto Rico or Florida, where the people who put him in power reside.
He now looks like a captive of Puerto Rico’s pro-statehood movement, as represented by leaders Rosselló and González. “You’re either with Puerto Rico or against Puerto Rico,” Rosselló said during the Washington press conference announcing the bill. “It is time to put up or to shut up,” he added.
In fact, the pro-statehood bill calls for “direct statehood,” designed to bypass consultation over there or over here. Just statehood. Never mind the half of Puerto Rico voters who favor something else.
González’s 2017 pro-statehood congressional bill obtained more than 50 co-sponsors, she said, but the bill went nowhere. The same fate may await Soto’s H.R. 1965.
Soto is up for re-election to a third term in Congress in 2020, a voter consultation, if you will. He has raised over $1.5 million in campaign contributions thus far, over half from PACs, according to the Federal Elections Commission. Maybe the cash will be enough to scare away a potential Democratic primary opponent. But maybe not.
Unwittingly or not, Soto may have put a 2020 political bullseye on his back.
˜˜María Padilla, Editor