In addition to serving in government as President of the Senate of Puerto Rico, Secretary of State and Lieutenant Governor during the past 15 years, I’ve served twice as co-chair of Hillary Clinton’s campaign in Puerto Rico, in addition to being involved with candidates such as Dr. Howard Dean, which didn’t quite make it to the finish line.
After Senators Sanders and Warren made the ideological mistake of aligning themselves with the most vociferous militants, some not even affiliated to the Democratic Party, who proceeded to paint Bernie and Elizabeth into the corners of Puerto Rico politics, the two other viable Democratic candidates, Vice President Biden and Mayor Buttigieg, are starting to take a closer look at Puerto Rico, a little late, perhaps, if compared with Senator Clinton, who in 2008 and 2016 had set up their campaign leadership structure by summer, eleven months before the June primary. This time around, the primary has been moved up by law to March 29, so they needed to organize earlier than in the past.
Sanders and Warren, as I stated, made commitments with whoever walked up to them, accepted their generally anti-statehood policy suggestions, and gave them roles and titles, despite their little, if any, experience, in designing successful islandwide campaigns.
Other more ideological moderate candidates, such as Biden and Buttigieg, are seeking top-level allies. However, they haven’t studied past Democratic presidential primary campaigns and are prone to repeat the mistakes of others in the past.
For example, they have delegated Puerto Rico to those in their structures that handle Hispanic issues. They don’t understand that Puerto Rico is not a Hispanic issue, just like they wouldn’t put their Hispanic affairs outlets in charge of statewide campaigns in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas or Florida.
In 2016, we got that corrected in the Clinton campaign, where Puerto Rico was placed under the National Political Director and Puerto Rico policy issues under the National Policy Director. That’s the first mistake that should be brought to the attention of the candidate---that Puerto Rico should be treated as a state-like jurisdiction, not as an ethnic issue. If the Hispanic officials that reach out to Puerto Rico don’t convey that message to the candidate and top campaign managers, then they’re not serving the candidate, but rather their own personal agendas.
With regard to the issues that affect Americans in Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans in the rest of America, these should be handled by the candidate’s national policy team, just like agricultural issues in Iowa, or urban issues in Massachusetts, manufacturing issues in Ohio or border issues in Texas. Another big mistake is to negotiate the wording of statements on Puerto Rico’s political status or ad copy with a Hispanic team, because it is not an ethnic issue but a national issue.
When tackling political status, facts have changed since 2016 and since 2012, so you can’t repeat the tendency of political consultants to be bland. Since the 2016 campaign we had the 2017 plebiscite, we had the unanimous DNC resolution, and since the 2012 campaign we had the November 2012 referendum as well.
Likewise, local, regional and national polling on Puerto Rico issues are now reflecting dramatically different pro-statehood. Support for statehood is not only higher in Puerto Rico, but averaging 80 percent among Puerto Ricans in Florida and over 60 percent in polled areas in the Northeast. Nationally, recognition that Puerto Rico is under the Star-Spangled Banner has doubled and support for statehood is higher than ever before.
The worst mistake a candidate can commit with regard to Puerto Rico and with every other jurisdiction and issue is to allow aides and political consultants to try to impose their ideology, their old ideas, their biases and their preferences over the candidate’s own ideas, or the people’s preferences.
I’ll never forget a very long chat discussion held in 2016 to come up with a very nuanced, bland statement for Hillary where they were trying to keep the statehood majority as well as the anti-statehood minority somewhat happy, and when they succeeded, after being introduced by my friend Nydia Velázquez in her own district, Hillary followed the bland talking points prepared by the campaign and, at the very end, burst out in an ad libbed expression, breaking away from the blandness and exclaiming how utterly unfair and discriminatory it was that Puerto Ricans can’t vote for President, and Puerto Rican soldiers can’t vote under the Commander-in-Chief under who they serve. The face of my friend Nydia, after a weekend long chat trying to produce her statement, was worth a million.
Campaigns have to let the candidates be the candidates. I’ve never met Mayor Pete, but I’ve spoken extensively with Vice President Biden. He truly has believed for years in statehood, long before Puerto Ricans have produced robust majorities for admission. Their aides don’t serve their candidates well if they try to put words to the contrary in their candidates’ mouths. Been there, seen that!
If you want to place or win in Puerto Rico, learn from others’ mistakes in the past.