Politics

Rubio calls out Puerto Rico’s governor and tempers statehood push

Governor Ricardo Rossello, right, and the Congresswoman representing Puerto Rico, Jennifer Gonzalez, celebrate the results of a referendum on the status of the island at the New Progressive Party headquarters in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Sunday, June 11, 2017.
Governor Ricardo Rossello, right, and the Congresswoman representing Puerto Rico, Jennifer Gonzalez, celebrate the results of a referendum on the status of the island at the New Progressive Party headquarters in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Sunday, June 11, 2017. AP

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló is learning what happens when you challenge Marco Rubio.

In December, Rosselló called out Rubio by name because he was unhappy with the Republican tax bill and said he would campaign against those who “turned their backs” on the U.S. territory.

Now, the Florida Republican, who is often regarded as Puerto Rico’s most important advocate in Washington, is throwing cold water on Puerto Rican statehood and is urging Rosselló, a Democrat who won election in 2016, to spend more time governing in San Juan than campaigning in Florida. Rubio’s comments in Puerto Rico’s largest newspaper are a blow to Rosselló’s hopes for Congress to act on statehood, his party’s most important policy issue.

“If I were the governor of a state or territory that does not have power, I would spend more time [there] than in Orlando,” Rubio said to El Nuevo Día. “Sometimes, when people feel criticized and under pressure, they look for someone to blame, because they did not achieve this or that. I do not think it is smart to turn the Puerto Rican issue into a partisan issue.”

Rubio’s comments come after Rosselló was in Washington last week to announce a Puerto Rican “shadow delegation” of two U.S. senators and five U.S. House members who demand to be seated in Congress. Puerto Rico’s “shadow delegation” is attempting to gain statehood through a similar plan successfully adopted by Tennessee in the late 1700s and copied by other states like Alaska.

Rosselló’s shadow delegation was a 2016 campaign promise, but the effort is getting more attention after Puerto Rico’s power grid was destroyed by Hurricane Maria and thousands on the island are still without power months later.

“Certainly the hurricane has had an influence,” Pedro Rosselló, Ricardo Rosselló’s father and the governor of Puerto Rico from 1993 to 2001, said in an interview with the Miami Herald.

Students and teachers at a San Juan, Puerto Rico, school that had gone without electricity for 112 days since Hurricane Maria struck the island were able to share a special moment on January 11 when the lights finally came back on. Academia Bautis

Pedro Rosselló said that the federal government’s slower hurricane response, compared to disaster recovery efforts in Florida and Texas, has raised the profile of the statehood issue.

“Stateside, U.S. citizens recognize that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, natural born,” Rosselló said. “That wasn’t so before [Hurricane Maria]. Before, our polling shows that about 25 percent recognize that fact, after that it’s up in the 85 percent level. That’s a direct result of the hurricane.”

But while Rubio hasn’t changed his longtime position supporting statehood, a public admission that there aren’t 60 votes for statehood in the U.S. Senate is a blow to Ricardo Rosselló’s pro-statehood New Progressive Party.

“At this moment, frankly, we don't have the votes in the Senate,” Rubio said to El Nuevo Día. “What I want is to avoid a defeat. That would be regrettable, because then people would say, ‘That was already voted on in the Senate’ and unfortunately many people who would vote against it still don't understand the issue.”

New aerial footage from the National Weather Service shows the scale of the damage wrought by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. The footage from eastern and central Puerto Rico shows the devastation the Category 4 hurricane caused to entire neighbor

Pedro Rosselló acknowledged that Rubio will remain an important figure for Puerto Rico in Washington and that it’s important for leaders on the island to have a good relationship with him. And his son hasn’t vowed specific political retribution on Florida Republicans like Rubio and Gov. Rick Scott, at least not yet. Puerto Rican Republicans in Florida warn that going after statewide Republicans could backfire if Scott wins a U.S. Senate seat in 2018, for example.

“Senator Rubio has been very supportive of Puerto Rico in general and has been supportive of moving to resolve finally the political status of Puerto Rico,” Pedro Rosselló said. “Those are preexisting relationships.”

It appears that some work must be done to repair that relationship.

“I am going to work on the issues of Puerto Rico, no matter what [Ricardo Rosselló] says,” Rubio said. “I have worked in favor of the issues of Puerto Rico before he was elected governor and I will continue working on the issues of Puerto Rico after he is no longer governor.”

Alex Daugherty: 202-383-6049, @alextdaugherty

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