Inside Puerto Rico’s Plan to Influence the Midterm Elections

Frustrated by Congress’ response to Hurricane Maria, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló is preparing to drop a ‘hammer’ in targeted states in 2018.

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló says months have gone by since he’s talked to President Donald Trump.

By: Politico -Edward-Isaac Dovere

But more than 200 days since Hurricane Maria made landfall—what Rosselló in an interview for POLITICO’s Off Message podcast called “the most catastrophic event in the modern history of the United States”—the governor is gearing up to get everyone else’s attention in November: Rosselló and allies are finalizing plans to push their way into the midterms on the mainland.

The Trump administration and Congress offered prayers and promises for help last year, but many Puerto Ricans haven’t seen the follow-through. Six months in, 55,000 Puerto Ricans still don’t have electricity.

“It’s all based on one thing: political power. We don’t have it,” Rosselló said.

Rosselló and allies want to reward the politicians who’ve helped and punish those who haven’t.

“We need to demonstrate that we have a hammer,” Rosselló said. “Congressmen need to know that if we go to their office, they can’t just give us a happy talk, as has happened in the past. So, if you’re going to give us happy talk and then take actions that clearly affect the people of Puerto Rico, then the only strategy that we have left ... is to go to your districts.”

Rosselló kicked off the effort in January with a trip to Florida, which was already home to many Puerto Ricans before they were joined by many others who had been displaced by the hurricane—but which also holds critical elections this year for governor and U.S. Senate in addition to a collection of tight House races.

With Senate and House races getting priority, Rosselló and allies have already started voter-registration drives in Florida, New York and Pennsylvania, and are eyeing New Jersey, Ohio and Texas. They’ll build a list of voters to activate, put money and effort into keeping after them throughout the year and push them to the polls for the primaries and midterms. There will be more travel and fundraising to support the efforts.

Rosselló’s model: Cuban-Americans, who for 60 years have mobilized what are still fewer than 2 million people into a force that’s shaped American politics and foreign policy. Compare that with the 5.6 million Puerto Ricans concentrated in just a few states.

Details are still coming together, but Rosselló thinks that under these circumstances he can kick-start that kind of action in just a few months and keep building it into the 2020 election.

“Puerto Rico has never had a structure like the one that we’re forming. It has never demonstrated to have the national wherewithal and political power that we hope to showcase in this election,” he said. “And if we do that, I think it will start pressing on these issues of second-class citizenship, equality and then what are the solutions for Puerto Rico.”

Rosselló grew up the son of a governor but went about as far away from the family business as he could: first to MIT, then to the University of Michigan, where he earned a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering. He envisioned a life for himself in science. But Puerto Rican statehood remained a passion, and eventually that pulled him back to the island full time, and into politics more broadly. In 2016, he was elected governor at age 37, and likes to point out that he’s the only governor in the country who’s anywhere close to being a millennial (he’s older than the cutoff by about a year and a half).

He was elected to a much different job than the one he’s had since October. He expected to use his bully pulpit to push for Puerto Rico statehood. Instead, he’s been trying to get the island back to the basics of food, electricity and running water—though that, he argues, is about statehood, too.

It’s great, he says, that post-hurricane, so many more Americans now know that Puerto Rico is part of the United States. Now it’s time to do something about it.

“When they ask the question ‘why’ [Puerto Rico has been treated differently], it opens this whole new Pandora’s box of reasons that I think showcase one of the weaknesses that we have as a nation. It hurts me because I’m a very proud U.S. citizen,” Rosselló said. “But how can we talk about democracy in Cuba, in Venezuela, in Afghanistan, if in the United States, we have 3.5 million U.S. citizens that are disenfranchised, essentially?”

It’s personal; it’s professional. He has uncles who made it to March without any power at home. So did some employees in the governor’s office.

“Some people ask me, you know, ‘What do you say to somebody that doesn’t have energy?’ You can’t say anything, right? I mean, I can explain all the process and so forth, but all I can do is share their frustration,” he said.

One sure way to rile him: Bring up the idea that Americans are apprehensive about Puerto Rican statehood because 50 states is a round number, and that many people find it hard to envision an American flag with another star on it or a U.S. Senate with 102 members.

He’s become a regular arguing the case for statehood behind closed doors in Washington, and wrangling Puerto Rican leaders from both parties for an ongoing series of public events. “We don’t want to be more. We don’t want to be less. We just want to be equal,” said former Puerto Rican Gov. Carlos Romero.

Rosselló says it’s a mission everyone else should be cheering on. Puerto Ricans have voted for statehood in their own organized elections, so now they need Congress to initiate the formal process with a mandated vote, which if successful, begins a process that includes a formal petition for inclusion, followed by House and Senate votes and the signature of the president.

Rosselló is sure Puerto Ricans will pass it again, and believes the combination of the hurricane, Trump and the pressure in Congress opens a window in which statehood can actually happen.

“I can see that, if we showcase that we have political power, that we can affect different races and that we’re serious about making this push,” Rosselló said.

Or, the governor says, there’s the less desirable alternative of just cutting Puerto Rico loose and letting it be an independent country.

“What I am trying to do,” Rosselló said, “is help facilitate the unfinished business of American democracy, where we finally eliminate colonialism.”

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