The GOP should start ex­plor­ing the Puerto Ri­can op­tion

Austin American-Statesman - - OPINION -

ARepub­li­can gover­nor — a very Repub­li­can gover­nor — has an idea for solv­ing one of his party’s co­nun­drums. The party should lis­ten to Luis For­tuno, the Rea­gan­ite who re­sides in Puerto Rico’s ex­ec­u­tive man­sion.

Con­ser­va­tives need a strat­egy for ad­dress­ing the im­mi­gra­tion is­sue with­out alien­at­ing Amer­ica’s largest and most rapidly grow­ing mi­nor­ity. Con­ser­va­tives be­lieve the south­ern border must be se­cured be­fore there can be “com­pre­hen­sive” im­mi­gra­tion re­form that re­solves the sta­tus of the 11 mil­lion il­le­gal im­mi­grants. But that pol­icy risks mak­ing Repub­li­cans seem hos­tile to His­pan­ics.

For­tuno wants Repub­li­cans to cou­ple in­sis­tence on border en­force­ment with sup­port for Puerto Ri­can state­hood. This, he says, would res­onate deeply among His­pan­ics na­tion­wide. His premise is that many fac­tors — par­tic­u­larly, the Tele­mu­ndo and Univi­sion tele­vi­sion chan­nels — have cre­ated a com­mon con­scious­ness among His­pan­ics in Amer­ica.

How many know that Puerto Ri­cans are Amer­i­can cit­i­zens? That ev­ery pres­i­dent since Tru­man has af­firmed Puerto Rico’s right to opt for in­de­pen­dence or state­hood? That ev­ery Repub­li­can plat­form since 1968 has en­dorsed Puerto Rico’s right to choose state­hood? That Ron­ald Rea­gan, an­nounc­ing his can­di­dacy in 1979, said, “I fa­vor state­hood for Puerto Rico”?

For­tuno sup­ports H.R. 2499 (also sup­ported by such House con­ser­va­tives as Mi­nor­ity Whip Eric Can­tor, Repub­li­can Con­fer­ence Chair­man Mike Pence and for­mer Repub­li­can Study Com­mit­tee Chair­man Jeb Hen­sar­ling), which would con­duct a plebiscite on the is­land’s cur­rent sta­tus. If a ma­jor­ity fa­vor this sta­tus, the ques­tion could be asked again in eight years. If a ma­jor­ity vote for change, a sec­ond plebiscite would of­fer a choice among the cur­rent sta­tus, in­de­pen­dence, “sovereignty in as­so­ci­a­tion with the United States,” and state­hood.

Puerto Rico, which is only half as far from Florida as Hawaii is from Cal­i­for­nia, is about the size of Con­necti­cut. Its pop­u­la­tion is larger than the pop­u­la­tions of 24 states. There are, how­ever, prob­lems.

Puerto Rico’s per capita in­come ($14,905) is only 50 per­cent of that of the poor­est state (Mis­sis­sippi, $30,103) and 27 per­cent of the rich­est (Con­necti­cut, $54,397). The fact that Puerto Ri­cans are at home in Amer­i­can so­ci­ety does not en­tail the con­clu­sion that the com­mon­wealth, a dis­tinct cul­tural and lin­guis­tic en­tity (most on the is­land do not speak English), be­longs in the fed­eral union. Cur­rently Puerto Ri­cans pay fed­eral in­come taxes only on in­come from off the is­land.

For­tuno says the present sys­tem has failed to pre­vent the in­come dis­par­ity with the main­land from widen­ing. But Amer­ica does not want luke­warm cit­i­zens. In three ref­er­en­dums (1967, 1993, 1998), Puerto Ri­cans fa­vored the sta­tus quo — an un­in­cor­po­rated ter­ri­tory — over state­hood. In 1998, the vote was 50.4 per­cent to 46.5 per­cent. In the 1950s, the last time the fed­eral union was en­larged, Hawai­ians and Alaskans over­whelm­ingly sup­ported state­hood.

Many Repub­li­cans sus­pect that con­gres­sional Democrats sup­port state­hood for the same rea­son they want to pre­tend that the District of Columbia is a state — to get two more sen­a­tors (and in Puerto Rico’s case, per­haps six mem­bers of Congress). Such Repub­li­cans mis­tak­enly as­sume that the is­land’s pop­u­la­tion of 4 mil­lion has the same Demo­cratic dis­po­si­tion as the 4.2 mil­lion Puerto Ri­cans on the main­land.

For­tuno dis­agrees, not­ing that while Repub­li­cans on the main­land were los­ing in 2008, he was elected in the is­land’s biggest land­slide in 44 years. The party he leads won more than two-thirds of the seats in both houses of the leg­is­la­ture, and three-fifths of the may­or­ships, in­clud­ing that of San Juan. For­tuno, who calls him­self a “val­ues can­di­date” and goes to Catholic ser­vices al­most ev­ery day, says Puerto Ri­cans are cul­tur­ally con­ser­va­tive — 78 per­cent are pro-life, 91 per­cent op­pose same-sex mar­riage, 30 per­cent of the 85 per­cent who are Chris­tian are evan­gel­i­cals. A ma­jor­ity sup­ports his agenda, which in­cludes tax and spend­ing cuts, trim­ming 16,000 from pub­lic pay­rolls to be­gin elim­i­nat­ing the deficit that was 45 per­cent the size of the bud­get.

“Repub­li­cans,” For­tuno says, “can­not con­tinue to op­pose ev­ery His­panic is­sue.” If he is cor­rect that Puerto Ri­can state­hood is, or can be­come, such an is­sue, Repub­li­cans should hear him out.

The United States acquired Puerto Rico 112 years ago in the testos­terone spill called the Span­ish-Amer­i­can War. Be­fore an­other cen­tury passes, per­haps Puerto Ri­cans’ am­biva­lence about their some­what am­bigu­ous sta­tus can be rec­ti­fied to the ad­van­tage of Repub­li­cans.

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