The tide of history is turning to statehood for Puerto Rico: Charlie Gerow – PennLive.com

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By Charlie Gerow

My kids have a hard time believing me when I tell them that when I was a little guy there weren’t 50 states.  

Republican strategist Charlie Gerow (PennLive file)

The United States had been stuck on 48 for nearly half a century. 

Arizona was admitted to the Union on St. Valentine’s Day, 1912, completing the map of the continental United States, now affectionately known as the “lower 48.”  In 1959, Alaska and Hawaii were added.

It’s now been more than half a century since then and there’s increased political chatter about if and when another state might be added. 

Washington, D.C would love to be a state. That’s unlikely for a number of reasons centered on the unique character of the federal district and the fact that it was established to be a non-state. 

Back in the late 1970’s Washington, D.C. sought voting rights in Congress “as if it were a state” and that, too, was rejected.

Then there’s Puerto Rico.  Earlier this month the citizens of Puerto Rico, all of them American citizens, held the latest in a long line of “status referendum.” 

The result: a staggering 97 percent in favor of statehood.

Hidden in that overwhelming majority, however, is a very low voter turnout, spurred by an organized boycott of the referendum by several parties opposed to statehood. Turnout for previous votes on statehood hovered around three quarters of the electorate. 

This one produced only about one quarter.

Despite the boycott, Puerto Rico’s governor sees an opening and fully intends to use the mandate to maximum advantage in seeking statehood. 

The legal path is simple.

An affirmative vote by the House and Senate and the signature of the President provides admission to the Union as a state. The political process is much more complicated.

Puerto Rican’s have been American citizens for a century.  Puerto Rico is officially a commonwealth, since Congress officially approved that status 65 years ago. 

The island came under U.S. control long before that,  in 1898 following the Spanish-American War.

Since Puerto Rican’s became U.S. citizens, they’ve fought in every war.  In fact, by percentage of population, there are more Puerto Rican’s in our armed forces than from just about any state. Their commitment to the United States is pretty clear in that regard.

Puerto Rican’s pay into Social Security and thus are eligible for benefits.  They also have access to Medicare and Medicaid. However, they currently only pay federal income taxes on work done within the United States.  Making Puerto Rico a state would make them responsible for federal taxes on all of their eligible earnings. 

Politically, some folks are concerned about the Spanish language of the population. However, for many years both English and Spanish have been taught as first languages in Puerto Rican schools. Recent visitors to the island often remark about how English-speaking it has become.

Others are concerned that admitting Puerto Rico as a state would automatically result in two liberal senators and a handful of liberal Members of Congress.  Not necessarily. There are plenty of Republicans  and conservatives elected on the island.

For example, Puerto Rico’s former governor, Luis Fortuno, a Republican, and I serve together on the Board of the American Conservative Union. 

Gov. Fortuno is a strong advocate of statehood. Likewise, the Republican Party platform has called for statehood. 

The 2012 platform declared, “We support the right of Puerto Rico to be admitted to the Union as a fully sovereign state if they freely so determine.”

After the 2012 referendum, in which Puerto Rican’s, for the first time, supported statehood, the 2016 Republican Party platform specifically recognized the historic significance of the 61 percent pro-statehood vote and reiterated the declaration of their 2012 platform, this time without the qualifying “if they freely so determine” clause.

By contrast, the Democrat platform doesn’t go as far, talking only more generally about “self determination.” 

That should allay fears about some attempt to infuse liberal Democrats into the Congress through statehood for Puerto Rico.

During the recent presidential campaign even Donald Trump was not opposed to statehood, saying that self determination was the right of the island’s citizens.

“The will of the Puerto Rican people in any status referendum should be considered as Congress follows through on any desired change in status four Puerto Rico, including statehood,” said then-candidate Trump.

The matter of the free determination is pretty well settled by both the 2012 and 2017 referendum.

The biggest, remaining obstacle to congressional action in favor of statehood is the financial condition of the island. It recently declared bankruptcy and is saddled with roughly $75 billion in debt.  Unemployment runs in double digits and poverty is rampant.

Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo Rossello, argues that statehood would provide the opportunity for a massive boost to their economy, thus offsetting many of these problems.  That’s a tough argument to make to this Congress right now. 

Still, you cannot easily ignore or explain away a 97 percent pro-statehood vote. The tide of history certainly appears to be flowing in the direction of statehood. 

Since the birth of the Republic, expansion and new statehood has always come from the west. 

The 51st star on our flag may be the first from the east.

Charlie Gerow, the CEO of Quantum Communications in Harrisburg, is a PennLive Opinion contributor. His “Elephants & Donkeys” column appears weekly opposite liberal commentator Tony May.