August was supposed to be a great month for Puerto Rican Governor and pro-statehood Republican Luis Fortuño.
He was supposed to claim victory for changes to Puerto Rico's constitution. He did not, essentially setting himself up for an unsuccessful re-election bid in November against an opponent who quite frankly is not the strongest of candidates.
He was supposed to start proclaiming success in his push to turn the Puerto Rican economy, but he can't. Even after close to four years in office, Fortuño and policies have basically moved the island's unemployment rate from 13.8 in January, 2009 to 13.7 in July, 2012, after it was as high as 16.6% in May, 2010. During his four years as governor, the Fortuño administration has seen the following happen to the island:
January, 2009: Puerto Rico had a labor force of 1,349,246 people. 1,163,674 people were employed. 185,572 people were unemployed. That would be a 13.8% unemployment rate.
July, 2012: Puerto Rico now has a labor force of 1,267,154 people. 1,093,903 people are employed. 173,251 people are unemployed. The overall unemployment rate is now at 13.7%.
Therefore, since Fortuño took office in 2009, Puerto Rico has seen a 7% decrease in its labor force (loss of about 82,000 people) and a 6% decrease in the number of employed people (a total loss of 80,000 jobs). Where are these people going? Very likely to places like Florida. In fact, they are going to Florida in growing numbers, as the latest US Census can confirm:
And that is where the Mitt Romney campaign comes in.
Unless you are totally shut off from the national election, to paraphrase the late Tim Russert: FLORIDA, FLORIDA, FLORIDA. Romney 2012 knows fully well that its candidate must make inroads into the Puerto Rican vote in Florida if it even thinks it has a chance of winning. So, being the out-of-touch campaign strategists that they are when it comes to the Latino vote, why not promote Fortuño?
Here is the problem with that. Think about it. The Puerto Rican population is migrating from the island to Florida because there are no jobs in Puerto Rico. Who has been at the helm of the worst economic crisis in Puerto Rico since the Great Depression? Luis Fortuño. There is no question that Fortuño has become a polarizing figure in Puerto Rican politics, and to think that his presence would help Romney's efforts along the Interstate 4 corridor is unrealistic. Yay, the governor who forced me to leave the island is now telling me to vote Republican!
What is so ironic about this is that Fortuño has become a lot like President Obama, in the fact that both of them have to answer to stagnant economies and no true net changes in employment. Fortuño is quick to blame the previous administration of the opposing party, just like President Obama. But while Romney 2012 has no problem criticizing the President's policies, it has always perplexed me why he would even roll out Fortuño. Hey, everyone, let's celebrate the leader who has not created jobs for his own people and has seen people leave for better opportunities in the United States! Let's hear for the guy who put a lot into pushing for changes to the Puerto Rican constitution, only to lose because people in Puerto Rico know how to Facebook and Twitter with the best of them! Right now, Luis Fortuño is damaged political goods, and his presence in Tampa will do nothing to move the needle with I-4 Puerto Ricans.
But I guess this is all about a deal. Fortuño has already assured anyone and everyone that Romney has promised the governor that if Puerto Rico were to vote for statehood in its upcoming November plebiscite (and that is one BIG IF), Fortuño were to win his re-election (another BIG IF) and if Romney were to become President Romney (a tossup IF), Romney would formally recognize the island's desire to become the 51st state of the Union. That is the deal, and the unknowing US online media who has no clue about the complexities of Puerto Rico's status (for example, does it even know that Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi—the Fortuño administration's Resident Commissioner in Washington and the governor's Number 2 guy on the ticket—is a pro-statehood Democrat who has distanced himself from both Romney and Fortuño?) eats up this whole public relations charade.
So instead of actually exploring Fortuño's record and his growing unpopularity on the island, we get comments of how much fun Puerto Ricans love to party from Ann Romney and how Fortuño represents the new Latino Conservative (the same Latino Conservative who got billions in federal stimulus money to actually improve the situation on the island somewhat). Instead of stories that speak of a Puerto Rico that continues to see a rise in crime and a rise in income inequality, we get the shouts of "¡Buenas noches, Puerto Rico!" in Tampa. Forget the issues and the direction Puerto Rico is heading. This is all about getting the holy grail of statehood and it is also about what Fortuño will do and where he will go AFTER he loses in November.
From his speech in Tampa this week, we get a different view of a Puerto Rico from Fortuño. Cut taxes! Keep government small! Double-digit unemployment! People leaving the island I lead! Oh, wait…
In the end, all the Puerto Rican pride in the world could not hide the fact that the Romney campaign is trying to pander to Puerto Rican voters in Florida and the US every time it rolls out Fortuño as an example of success (and yes, we know, pandering to Latinos has become a tactic of both the GOP and the Democrats). As for Fortuño? It is clear that this is all about political opportunism and partisan loyalty. By not being truthful about what is really going in Puerto Rico and becoming "proof" that the GOP has new Latino stars, he is once again disrespecting and ignoring the people he serves. We thought he learned that lesson two weeks ago when he suffered a stunning defeat in the polls.
You would think he would be more humble about it. Guess not, since in a few months Luis Fortuño will be out looking for a new job.
Julio (Julito) Ricardo Varela (@julito77 on Twitter) founded LatinoRebels.com (part of Latino Rebels, LLC) in May, 2011 and proceeded to open it up to about 20 like-minded Rebeldes. His personal blog, juliorvarela.com, has been active since 2008 and is widely read in Puerto Rico and beyond. He will pen a weekly column on LR each week. Recently, Julito represented the Rebeldes on CBS' Face the Nation, NPR, and The New York Times.