Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley became the first Democratic presidential candidate to make a campaign stop in Puerto Rico this year as part of an effort to woo Latino voters.
He met Saturday with local legislators and residents to talk about their concerns as the U.S. territory tries to emerge from a nearly decade-long economic slump and struggles with $72 billion in public debt. O'Malley also was scheduled to attend a fundraiser Saturday night.
In a brief interview with The Associated Press, O'Malley said Puerto Rico should receive the same treatment as the U.S. mainland.
"Right now, the people of Puerto Rico ... are being treated very unjustly by forces on the mainland, forces on Wall Street and the intransigence of this Republican Congress in taking action to restore simple bankruptcy protections," he said.
The administration of Puerto Rico Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla has been pushing for the right for the island's public agencies to file for bankruptcy under Chapter 9, but the proposal has not drawn any Republican co-sponsors in the U.S. Congress. Garcia said in recent weeks that the public debt is unpayable and needs to be restructured.
O'Malley said Garcia should not be alone in that fight.
"He doesn't have a magic wand," he said. "This should be something that our Congress, even our Republican Congress, cares about because it would do some damage and it would impact the United States if Puerto Rico were to go under, or its economy to tank, because we can't renegotiate this debt."
U.S. open-end bond mutual funds together own more than $11.4 billion of Puerto Rico bonds, or just over 15 percent of its outstanding debt, according to a Morningstar report. Hedge funds hold roughly one-third of Puerto Rico's debt.
Puerto Rico Sen. Jorge Suarez was among the local legislators who met with O'Malley.
"It's incredibly important to have people who can give us a hand in such a difficult moment," he told The AP. "Clearly, we're dealing with an economic abyss."
O'Malley declined to comment on Puerto Rico's future political status, saying it's up to Puerto Ricans to decide, but he said he would fight for equal treatment for the territory, which he noted receives lower Medicaid and Medicare reimbursement rates compared with the mainland.
O'Malley is trailing in a field of five main Democratic presidential candidates, which includes former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, whom he declined to talk about.
"Our country wants new leadership, they want leadership independent of the old politics of the past and the relationships of the past that are holding us back from a better future ... we want an economy that works for all of us again instead of just for a few of us," he said.
He said he expects to soon release his health records and that he and his wife have already disclosed what they owe.
"Like many other Americans, we're under a mountain of debt because of the money we had to borrow to send our kids to college," he said. "I think I can safely say I am the poorest candidate running for the nomination of president in the Democratic party."
O'Malley is scheduled to leave Puerto Rico on Sunday. His visit comes three months after GOP presidential hopeful Jeb Bush arrived in Puerto Rico for a fundraiser and a town hall meeting where he endorsed the idea of statehood and discussed immigration.
Some 144,000 people have left Puerto Rico between 2010 and 2013 amid the economic crisis. Many have settled in states including Florida and New York.
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