Both Parties Now Interested in Puerto Rico

Posted December 12, 2003 at 5:24pm

While political gurus focus on a handful of races in next year’s elections, the two parties have also decided to lavish attention on a race for a nonvoting Congressional seat in a traditional Democratic stronghold.

The chairmen of both the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee have recently endorsed candidates for Puerto Rico’s nonvoting delegate, known as the Resident Commissioner.

The open-seat contest for this four-year term — the only such term in Congress — could be seen as yet another gauge on the health of the Democratic Party and serve as a bellwether election on the political preferences of the all-important Latino voting bloc. Long held by delegates who align with Democrats, the seat could fall into Republican hands in 2004.

Next year “could be the first time Puerto Rico has a Republican Resident Commissioner,” said Annie Mayol, campaign manager for Luis Fortuño.

The island has its own political parties, and Fortuño is running as a New Progressive — the traditional pro-statehood party that identifies with mainland Republicans. Some past resident commissioners have belonged to that party but have caucused with Democrats.

“It’s the first time there’s been a Republican candidate for Congress in 40 years” in Puerto Rico, said Bo Harmon, deputy communications director for the NRCC. “That we even have a dog in the fight is a significant victory.”

In the past, whether a candidate ran as a New Progressive or as a member of the Popular Democratic Party, which favors maintaining the island’s commonwealth status, they were always Democrats in Congress.

All of the past races — Puerto Rico has had a seat since 1900 — featured a Democrat versus a Democrat, so neither mainland party bothered to endorse.

This time around, DCCC Chairman Robert Matsui (Calif.), Democratic Caucus Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.) and NRCC Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) have all taken sides.

Revealing what’s at stake for Democrats, Matsui reminded Puerto Ricans how much his party has done for them in endorsing the PDP candidate, Roberto Prats, a Senator in the commonwealth’s Legislature.

“Next year, the people of Puerto Rico will have the opportunity to choose between a Democratic candidate that represents the party that has done the most for children and families and his Republican opponent, representing a party that has paid only lip service to Puerto Rico,” he said in a statement.

Mayol praised Republicans for stepping up their outreach to Puerto Ricans. Harmon said the candidacy of Fortuño, Puerto Rico’s former economic development and commerce secretary, signifies that Republicans have made inroads in traditionally Democratic territory.

“Obviously it’s very exciting to us and very troubling for the Democrats,” Harmon said.

A Democratic leadership aide said party leaders are not worried. “We’re confident that we will retain the seat based on our history and proven record on behalf of Puerto Rican-Americans,” he said.

Prats and Fortuño are vying to replace Aníbal Acevedo-Vilá, who is not seeking re-election, opting instead to run for governor.