WASHINGTON - Nydia Velázquez makes a gesture when she is described as the main liaison with Congress Democratic leadership on issues related to the Puerto Rican fiscal situation and recovery.
Velázquez, who has just began her 27th year in the U.S. House, argues that she does not seek to replace or overshadow anyone but suggests that the Democratic leadership knows that rather than defending justice for Puerto Rico, she works to justify its claims.
Since it became clear in Washington that the Puerto Rican fiscal crisis and public debt was deepening, Velázquez - Representative for New York’s 7th Congressional District which brings together areas of Brooklyn and lower Manhattan - has taken the lead in the Democratic caucus.
She has a close relationship with Speaker Nancy Pelosi and also, with the leader of the Senate Democratic minority Charles Schumer, who was her colleague in the House and whom she supported -before than any other elected official did - when he decided to become a New York senator two decades ago, what seemed unlikely back then.
Since she is convinced that President Donald Trump does not care about Puerto Rico, in an interview with El Nuevo Día, Velázquez asked Governor Ricardo Rosselló to be extremely cautious in overseeing reconstruction funds, as she insists that the Puerto Rican government lacks credibility in Washington.
Velázquez rejects the creation of a "federal coordinator" or reconstruction czar, but said she would support appointing a federal inspector general to oversee the entire process aimed at rebuilding the power grid.
She has just filed an appeal as a "amicus curiae” or friend of the court before the San Juan Federal Court supporting the full extension of key social welfare programs to Puerto Rico.
Although she recognizes the lack of political rights of the island before the federal government, she warns that, in order to advance the status debate in Congress, there must be a consensus process and a referendum including all the status alternatives supported on the island.
This session, Velázquez chairs the Small Business Committee and is a member of the Committee on Natural Resources and the Financial Services Committee, and co-chairs - along with José Serrano and Darren Soto - the Hispanic Caucus task force on Puerto Rico.
Where are we on the process of disaster relief funds for Puerto Rico to mitigate the damage caused by Hurricane María?
- The fundamental thing right now is to get the approval of the legislative assistance package passed in the House, that is pending in Congress (that includes $ 600 million in nutrition assistance). I was with Schumer, on Wednesday, at a meeting of the Hispanic Caucus, and he said: "Forget it, Nydia, if the money is not here as it has been proposed for Puerto Rico, no state will receive anything."
Will it be included in the budget bill expected to be approved this week?
-There are negotiations on that.
According to multiple reports, Trump has sought to block assistance to Puerto Rico. However, he asks to bring investigations against him to an end. Will the atmosphere intensify once the Democratic majority begins the investigation into the federal response to Hurricane María?
-Bennie Thompson (chairman of the Homeland Security Committee) is in conversations to begin public hearings on the federal response to natural disasters, such as María and wildfires in California. Speaker Pelosi and Schumer will not allow Puerto Rico to be treated differently in terms of disaster assistance.
The Trump administration is discussing the creation of a “federal coordinator” position. Should that position be created?
- There was lobbying from some sectors of Puerto Rico (last week). The Oversight Board oversees contracts over $ 10 million. Are they going to put another layer of power on top of that? I do not understand. It will create more conflict and delay the process. The governor spoke with me and one of the discussions was about ways to speed up the process.
You said that the government needs to recover credibility.
-Transparency and credibility. We have met and evaluated the process that Puerto Rico has established, which was praised by the former Deputy Housing Secretary (Pat Patenaude). I would like to take the opportunity to send a message to the governor. They have a credibility problem and Trump, who does not care about Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans, wants to use the corruption argument to divert funds. They should take responsibility and guarantee the people and the government here that corruption, fraud and mismanagement of funds are not an option.
Raúl Grijalva, as chairman of the Committee on Natural Resources, is evaluating the creation of a kind of general inspector for the Electric Power Authority (PREPA). Will he find support?
-I think so. This is a key moment for Puerto Rico and rehabilitating the electric power grid will define the economic future. That process has to respond to the people. This official can ensure compliance with the law and with renewable energy parameters.
In your "amicus curiae" appeal before the federal court, you advocated for access to Supplemental Security Income (SSI), full access to food assistance under SNAP, and subsidies for medicines for the most vulnerable under Medicare. Democrats have supported better access to Medicaid, full access to Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit. What shall we see this session?
- We have discussed many of those issues with Richard Neal, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. There should be a more formal conversation. We have to see what legislative vehicle can be used. Soon, there may be legislation on temporary tax laws that need to be extended.
Although you say you do not feel comfortable when people describe you as the liaison with the Democratic leadership on these issues, effectively, you have been in that role. How do you describe your role?
-Nancy Pelosi knows of my passion for Puerto Rico and my commitment. She sees and realizes that we work. It is not the same to say I support Puerto Rico, than to do the analysis work, just like the "amicus curiae" brief we filed. That takes meetings and work. It is not only demanding justice for Puerto Rico, but demonstrating that need with data and information before the leadership. You have to roll up your sleeves and do the work.
-When he sees me, he says: "You do not have to tell me about Puerto Rico, you know where I am". He was my colleague at the Financial Services Committee ... and I was the first elected official to back him for the Senate, when his name did not even appear in the polls. A week after he won, he came to celebrate with my community. He is the kind of person who never forgets who supported him.
Can you see the "amicus curiae" brief in favor of better access to federal benefits as a step towards statehood? (In the appeal, Velázquez warns that the "discriminatory treatment" to the island in federal programs is aggravated by the lack of political rights before the federal government)
-Puerto Ricans are American citizens. The Constitution does not establish second class citizens. When Puerto Ricans go to war, they have the same responsibility any American has. It's a matter of justice and the United States assuming responsibility with Puerto Rico.
You don´t support statehood…
-If people vote overwhelmingly in favor, more than 50 percent, with a high voter turnout, in a referendum that includes other formulas defined by the people of Puerto Rico, I will be the first to tell Congress that it has to act.
Would there be a favorable atmosphere for statehood in Congress?
- There may be interest in looking at what people want. But, we cannot call plebiscites as if they were contests, not sanctioned by Congress.
After the local plebiscites in 2012 and 2017, in which those who advocate for statehood say they won, but were rejected by Donald Trump´s government, Congress should define what it is willing to accept. Can you file a bill?
-I still do not know. If it were possible for the leaders of Puerto Rico to come together and there were a decision to come here all of us would resolve this political limbo once and for all ...
A process like the one in 1989?
-Yes. An open, transparent and democratic process. The most important lobbyist of the people of Puerto Rico, by the way, are Puerto Ricans in the United States. Congressmen realize that 50,000 or 100,000 Puerto Ricans, and considering how districts are won or lost, are really relevant.
Democratic Puerto Ricans, including you, support statehood for Washington D.C.
- There is no doubt that Washington D.C. voters have overwhelmingly supported statehood. D.C. is not a colony. It does not present other options.
Will it be possible to amend PROMESA, to soften the influence of the Board as Grijalva has said? (Grijalva and Velázquez voted in favor of that law)
-Now I am promoting my bill that seeks to close gaps in the area of ethical conflicts (with Board consultants)
Twenty-one months before elections, with Trump's approval rating low pin the polls, do you believe it is likely for him not to be re-elected?
-A week in politics is a world. We must wait for Robert Mueller's report and (Congress) investigations.
Do you have a candidate on the Democratic side? A pre-candidate is your state senator Kirsten Gillibrand, and you have worked closely with Senator Elizabeth Warren.
- Kamala Harris has also done a lot. I'm watching and listening.
How do you see the work of Alexandria Ocasio Cortez? Do you expect her to join the debates on Puerto Rico?
-Alexandria has an incredible future, she is charismatic, intelligent and fears no one. They admire her, particularly congresswomen. I see some similarities with me I went against Stephen Solarz (in 1992), who had $ 4 million for his campaign. We had a little meeting. As for Puerto Rico, we have not sat down to talk. I'm going to do it.
Luis Gutiérrez retired from Congress in December. Your opponents in Puerto Rico may be crossing fingers to see when you are leaving.
- (She laughs) They will have to drag me off.