GOP Should Look to Puerto Rico

Monday, 19 Jul 2010 10:29 AM

By George Will

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A Republican 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 this 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 in the Bronx and elsewhere 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.

Fortuno, 49, who has degrees from Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service and the University of Virginia's law school, looks half his age. "Republicans," he 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.


George Will's e-mail address is georgewill@washpost.com.

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