Status issue underpins Puerto Rico plank in DNC Platform
Political gamesmanship molds language regarding island’s self-determination
SAN JUAN — As the Democratic National Convention enters its second day in the virtual world of Covid-19, there is a positive, albeit muted, buzz in the run up to the roll call to be held Tuesday evening when simulcasts kick off on a long list of social media and broadcast media outlets. In fact, the event has overtones of the summer of “hope and change” coloring the 2008 coronation of then-candidate Barack Obama in Denver as the first African American nominated as the presidential candidate of a major party—but life during quarantine leads to some antiseptic speechmaking.
This love fest vibe in 2020—pre-recorded for the sake of expedient production in a compressed two-hour broadcast—is in stark contrast to the riotous beginning to the 2016 DNC conclave held in Philadelphia, where Sen. Bernie Sanders supporters were enraged at leaked emails calling for exclusion of their candidate by then-DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, which prompted her immediate resignation. This time, there is no ire as Biden prepares for what essentially amounts to a perfunctory roll call.
“Yesterday, we pre-recorded our portion of what is called the roll call, for which the DNC hired a production crew for the sake of uniformity. Essentially, every state and territory has their 30-second statement where they pledge the votes of their delegates, which will air Tuesday evening,” explained Sen. Carmelo Ríos, who told Caribbean Business that the Puerto Rico delegation would be sharing a virtual exchange with DNC Chairman Tom Perez and former presidential hopeful Sen. Amy Klobuchar on Tuesday.
What might seem like a pro forma exercise in convention protocol, Puerto Rico’s delegate selection process had its share of controversy tracing to the island leadership’s use of two separate ballots in the Puerto Rico primary. The decision was called into question by some observers of the process because it assigned delegates at the district level to candidates who failed to reach the 15 percent threshold at an island wide level on the first ballot.
“The law provides for two ballots—one for presidential preference and a separate ballot to elect the delegates at the district level,” Puerto Rico Democratic Party Chairman Charlie Rodríguez told Caribbean Business weeks prior to a ruling by the DNC. “So, two ballots were printed and were used for the primary in Puerto Rico. And we explained this; we told the DNC that the second ballot was to elect the delegates according to presidential preference…. So, in that second ballot you would vote for your presidential preference in the selection of delegates. Therefore, you apply the 15 percent threshold in the selection of delegates at the district level using the district ballot.”
Puerto Rico is different from the U.S. mainland where only one ballot is counted. Because the states use the preferential preference ballot, the DNC ultimately ruled that the island’s 58 delegates would be pledged to Biden. They also decided that five delegates garnered by Sanders would be pledged to the senator from Vermont in a symbolic gesture to obtain diversity of delegates sought by the top Democratic brass.
As this report was being filed, the DNC ruled that Puerto Rico should pledge its delegates on the basis of presidential preference. Although Rodríguez criticized the decision as an act of voter suppression, his political opponents in the pro-commonwealth faction of the Democratic Party called the chairman’s push for the two-ballot tack a failed attempt at gerrymandering to add statehood supporters to the delegate roster. The criticism is an extension of what some commonwealth supporters view as a penchant for exclusion of territorial status as a viable option at the national helm of the DNC.
“It is based on decisions made by the current chair of the DNC, Tom Pérez. He has only met with and served one faction of the Democrats in Puerto Rico. He has only appointed members of the statehood party to the DNC,” Roberto Prats, who was chairman of the Democratic Party in Puerto Rico for 12 years, told Caribbean Business. “He has failed to be inclusive with all Puerto Ricans. But coming out only in support of the statehood party’s people is a wrong-minded approach by the DNC. Just to give you an example—there are four appointed members of the DNC from Puerto Rico and all four belong to the statehood movement. That has never happened before in the DNC. And commonwealth supporters have had people involved with Democratic Party politics for years.”
“Tom has said that he believes statehood should be granted to Puerto Rico and to [Washington] D.C. because he believes that under the current status there is no equality for the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico. That is his personal view,” expressed Rodríguez, who sees things differently than Prats.
Can’t we all get along?
Time was when the pro-commonwealth Prats and former committeeman Kenneth McClintock—a statehooder who served as Puerto Rico secretary of State and Senate president—attempted bipartisan civility during the Democratic conventions while behaving much like Hatfields and McCoys as they jockeyed for position in the status language contained in the Democratic Party platform unveiled at the national conclave.
In 2020, the final language pertaining to Puerto Rico’s status, which declares that the people of Puerto Rico “should have the right to vote for President of the United States” drew the discontent of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party gubernatorial candidate Pedro Pierluisi for being tepid.
Pierluisi questioned in his letter to Perez why “all other rights that stem from American citizenship,” which “should also be afforded to the people of Puerto Rico,” were not included.
Delegation Chair Ríos explained that the rift over language had the commonwealth agenda being pushed by Puerto Rico House Minority Leader Rafael “Tatito” Hernández and former Gov. Alejandro García Padilla, while Ríos and former Sen. Zoe Laboy spearheaded efforts on behalf of the statehood movement.
“You can have former President Barack Obama saying that it makes no sense to have statehood for Washington, D.C., and not Puerto Rico when we are American citizens, and Biden saying that he favors self determination for the island, but the presidential candidates’ preferences do not always prevail in the platform—you have all sorts of advisers with other agendas influencing the language. So, who is the tie-breaker,” Ríos asked rhetorically. “On this occasion, you had Luis Miranda [father of Lin-Manuel Miranda], who is a Biden adviser and does not support statehood for Puerto Rico.”
Some veteran pols see the status divide as a harmful rift for Puerto Rico causes on the national stage.
“The platform of the DNC is designed to bring Democrats together behind the candidate for president. Traditionally, the DNC has been based on policies of inclusion and balance regarding Puerto Rico issues,” Prats told Caribbean Business. “Political parties should be obsessed with mathematics—the plus sign and the multiplication sign, not the minus sign and the division sign.
And it seems that, as pertains to Puerto Rico, they are more focused on subtracting and dividing. The DNC is undergoing a tremendous ideological calibration. It is in a process of evolution right now. And we must tread carefully. We must be careful not to do things so abruptly that we alter the delicate balance that you must have to win an election.”
DNC Chairman Rodríguez retorted with this: “I think the party has gone above and beyond in inclusion, trying to accommodate the requests by Bernie Sanders and his representatives in terms of having more openness and diversity. Biden and Sanders came to agreements beyond the scope of the rules. I am sure that we will all work to get Joe Biden elected president, but many Puerto Rico Democrats are disappointed that the party has gone backward on the issue of statehood in the platform. The truth is that many times the party adopts a platform but then the administration follows a different policy.”