In Congress, you have to know your place. Alliances matter, and traditions are as tough as weeds.
Not that Jenniffer González-Colón, Puerto Rico’s lone voice in Washington, needs reminding.
As the island’s resident commissioner, she isn’t a full-fledged member of Congress — not quite. She can introduce bills, vote in committee and even send out mass mailings on the taxpayers’ dime.
But she can’t vote for legislation on the floor. And there’s another difference, too.
“I don’t think there is any member of Congress here who would be willing to live under a territorial clause that would give their citizens, their constituents, the discriminatory treatment that mine receive, all 3.3 million,” she said.
It may just be Congress’ loneliest job. While González-Colón represents more American citizens than any other House member, she also has the task of teaching colleagues that Puerto Ricans are citizens at all.
That could be changing, after Hurricane Maria thrust the island into the spotlight and an ongoing debt crisis has kept it there.
“If one good thing has come from Maria, it was that the world and members of Congress now know that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens; that we have spent 120 years under the American flag and 101 years as U.S. citizens,” she said in an interview in Spanish last month.
Weeks after the September storm, González-Colón boarded Air Force One for San Juan, where Donald Trump became just the second president in 50 years to visit the island and spent time lobbing rolls of paper towels into the assembled crowd during a church visit.
Then came the congressional trips. González-Colón, who supports statehood for Puerto Rico, has travelled with dozens of colleagues to the island to survey the relief efforts, most recently with a group of 15 Democrats led by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
“It’s different seeing it in real life rather than watching it on TV,” she said.
The first woman to serve as resident commissioner, González-Colón is also set to become the most visible in decades, as she walks the line between appeasing a volatile president and demanding a more robust disaster response.
If ever there were a time for a nonvoting member to make headway with her colleagues in Congress, now might be it.
Meanwhile, news out of the island this month was grim. Officials quietly acknowledged what many had long suspected — the death toll of the hurricane, on record as 64 people, actually topped 1,400.
With eyes still turned on the unincorporated territory, González-Colón has redoubled her push for statehood, which she insists is not a pipe dream.
That’s put her in conflict with a few of her House colleagues who are former Puerto Rico residents themselves.
Retiring Democratic Rep. Luis V. Gutiérrez, who grew up on the island and now represents a Chicago-based district, believes full independence is the only way forward. “In the new America of Donald Trump,” there’s no way the Spanish-speaking commonwealth would be welcomed into the fold as a state, he said. Instead, Puerto Rico should break away and become a republic.
González-Colón has little patience with that view.
“He does not represent the people of Puerto Rico,” she said of Gutiérrez. “The person who represents the people of Puerto Rico in this Congress is me.”
There may be several members of the House with Puerto Rican roots, but that doesn’t mean they see eye to eye with González-Colón, a Republican and a member of Puerto Rico’s pro-statehood New Progressive Party.
“It’s very easy for someone … to talk about how Puerto Rico should become a republic while he continues to be a congressman of the United States and has all the protections that a United States citizen has once he buys a JetBlue ticket,” González-Colón said.
In her view, change is an incremental process.
“It is very easy, from statehood, to ask for Puerto Rico’s independence. It’s a lot harder, as second-class American citizens, to ask for equality in Congress,” she said.
With the midterm elections closing in, no one expects the current Congress to accomplish much before November.
Here again, González-Colón stands out: as resident commissioner, she is the only person in the House to stick around for four years instead of two. As everyone else thinks about campaigning, she has other things on her mind, such as the new statehood bill she introduced in June.
It’s hardly the first bill to broach the issue. But González-Colón thinks this one could be different. She’s managed to draw 52 co-sponsors so far from both sides of the aisle, though that number includes all her fellow members without a floor say — the nonvoting delegates from Guam, American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the District of Columbia.
For starters, she has the support of Utah Republican Rep. Rob Bishop, the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over Puerto Rico.
And hers is the first proposal of its kind to add an extra step toward statehood — a transition from an unincorporated territory to an incorporated one, meaning island residents would pay new taxes without new rights for a time.
Bishop sounded positive but vague when asked about the chances of this latest statehood push. “She is incredibly creative in trying to find a way to move that situation through the hurdles that have been plaguing statehood in decades past,” the congressman said of González-Colón.
As for the chances of a hearing in September? “We will see,” he said.
The people’s voice?
If González-Colón has met with resistance or blank looks in Congress, she’s also getting heat back home.
The opponent she defeated in the 2016 election, Héctor Ferrer, has complained that the resident commissioner is trying to ram through a plan that few Puerto Ricans want.
González-Colón’s bill relies on the results of a controversial 2017 referendum, in which 97 percent of Puerto Ricans said they wanted statehood.
The problem? Only 23 percent of registered voters came to the polls, after Ferrer’s Popular Democratic Party, which advocates maintaining the island’s current status, urged a boycott.
Ferrer has slammed “statehooders” for selling “statehood as the cure for all illnesses,” saying the island would be better off remaining a commonwealth.
“What the statehooders are saying now is tax us with this bill — you can tax us as an incorporated territory but we still won’t have representation,” he said at July press conference.
The only thing that both sides can agree on is that the territory’s status is a civil rights issue.
To the resident commissioner, it seems astonishing that the same country that has championed democracy around the world won’t change the colonial status of Puerto Rico.
Many Puerto Ricans, who are barred from voting in presidential general elections, have fought and died for a commander in chief they can’t even choose.
“When they return home in a box, that box comes wrapped in a flag with 50 stars, none of which represents us,” González-Colón said.
Ferrer sees it differently.
“It is a civil rights issue, but it’s a civil rights issue for the more than 50 percent of the people of Puerto Rico who don’t want statehood,” he said.
“We are Americans, we respect, love our American citizenship, but we are also Puerto Rican,” he added. “We are of Puerto Rican background, a different heritage.”
This statehood push may die like the others, but another pressing issue remains: how the island will overcome the damage from the hurricane and bust — or at least restructure — its whopping $70 billion in debt.
González-Colón has had choice words for the current working solution, a federal oversight board established by a two-year-old law known as PROMESA, or the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act.
The oversight board has clashed with local officials on multiple occasions, and the government of Puerto Rico even sued it last month.
The Natural Resource Committee’s Bishop, who shepherded the law, believes PROMESA is the only way to help the island. But González-Colón said it only highlights the problem of second-class citizenship.
“Even though the officials have been elected, the federal decisions are being imposed without voting representation,” she said of the board.
It’s one point on which she and Bishop can’t seem to agree.
Asked whether the oversight board could exist with her statehood bill, González-Colón said she would leave it to the task force established by the bill to transition out of PROMESA. Bishop, meanwhile, thinks the two could coexist.
“Actually, the PROMESA board is there for the people of Puerto Rico. It’s not a requirement for statehood, but it’s a requirement for the people to actually have a lifestyle that’s viable,” Bishop said.
Everyone talks about helping Puerto Rico, González-Colón said, but the statehood bill is the moment of truth.
More than a century has passed since American soldiers first landed on the island. And the resident commissioner, who stands alone in Congress in so many ways, believes time is running short. Now is the chance, she said, for the United States to show that “that the constitution follows the flag, not the other way around.”
Jael Holzman contributed to this report.