Ousted Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló ready to return to politics as statehood lobbyist

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Less than two years after he was forced to resign from office following massive protests, former Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló appears poised to return to public life as an elected lobbyist for Puerto Rican statehood in Washington, D.C., according to preliminary results from a special election held Sunday.

The vote to elect six special delegates to push for Puerto Rican statehood in Congress has drawn widespread criticism from advocates who oppose making the island a state. Two of the elected lobbyists will operate at the Senate level, while the other four will advocate for the island’s annexation in the House of Representatives.

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The official count won’t begin until Wednesday, but preliminary figures from Puerto Rico’s State Commission on Elections, which oversees voting on the island, indicated there were over 67,000 write-in votes in the election for House lobbyists. The pro-statehood New Progress Party, known by its Spanish acronym, PNP, conducted its own tally. That count shows that Rosselló captured over 65,000 write-in votes, more ballots than any other candidate, said Edwin Mundo, one of the PNP’s top election officials, who was involved in the party’s count.

Rosselló was already claiming victory on Facebook Monday.

“Both the situation in Washington DC regarding statehood and the support of the people have moved me to accept this honor,” he wrote, adding that “a few days ago, this was not on the horizon.”

Most outside Puerto Rico might remember Rosselló best as the governor ousted in 2019 after massive protests sparked by leaked, profanity-laced messages in which he and others in his close circle blasted everyone from high-profile journalists to public officials. The comments were littered with sexist and homophobic remarks. In the Telegram group chat, a participant even mocked Hurricane Maria victims.

The 889 pages of online chats drew tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans frustrated with the island’s dismal economy and slow recovery from the disastrous storm to the streets, forcing an abrupt end to Rosselló’s political career — or so it seemed. Though he didn’t campaign for a delegate position, several pro-statehood supporters rallied for voters to write in his name.

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In his Facebook post, Rosselló described the movement to elect him as a spontaneous effort from citizens with “self initiative and conviction” — though he made his interest known. He confirmed to local reporters last Thursday that he would be available to take the post if elected. That same day, he also endorsed a federal Puerto Rico statehood bill spearheaded by the island’s resident commissioner, Jenniffer González, and Florida Rep. Darren Soto, in a column published in the Orlando Sentinel.

Rosselló did not respond to a request for comment from the Miami Herald.

“Rosselló and his followers, hungry for revenge for what happened just two years ago, saw a perfect space and occupied it,” said Leo Aldridge, a Puerto Rican lawyer and political analyst. “Rosselló would never be elected in an election involving all Puerto Ricans. He took advantage of the cult of personality that many pro-statehooders feel towards him.”

‘We can all make mistakes’

Turnout was decidedly low for the vote, with the state elections agency reporting 104,700 ballots cast, with 10 other precincts and 4,000 provisional ballots still to be added. That’s far lower than the 55% turnout from Puerto Rico’s 2.3 million eligible voters in recent general elections. Candidates in the special election, which officials said cost an estimated $1.2 million, had little time to campaign outside of an election year and make themselves known.

At the University College of San Juan Sunday, 11 people lined up to vote before doors opened. By mid-afternoon, a slow but steady trickle arrived to cast their ballots.

Among them was Magdalena Rodríguez, 66, who wrote in Rosselló’s name, saying the former governor deserved a second chance. She said his English-language skills and commitment to statehood made him a strong candidate.

“The decision to remove him from the governorship was unfair,” she said. “We can all make mistakes. And I think he would be a good person to carry the message over there.”

Puerto Rico has been struggling with the pandemic, a series of earthquakes, and the ongoing recovery from Hurricane Maria, which killed thousands and demolished critical infrastructure. Statehood proponents have introduced legislation in Congress, but it is considered highly unlikely to pass. Those in favor say it would give the U.S. territory stronger legislative representation, access to additional federal funds and allow residents to vote for president.

Gov. Pedro Pierluisi announced he planned to fund the vote for shadow representatives to lobby for statehood in Washington shortly after taking office earlier this year. The vote follows a November 2020 non-binding referendum, where 52.52% of voters voted “yes” for statehood — the sixth such vote since 1967.

Detractors say the initiative is a waste of time and money, given that statehood bills are long shots in Washington and divisive on the island. The shadow delegation and the special election were bound by two laws passed at the eleventh hour last year, right before the pro-statehood party was set to lose party control of Puerto Rico’s legislature. Leaders of the Popular Democratic Party, which supports the current territorial status, sought to claim the laws were unconstitutional through the courts, to no avail.

According to the preliminary results, Elizabeth Torres, a right-wing pundit, Roberto Lefranc Fortuño, a municipal lawmaker related to former Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuño, and former Ponce Mayor María Meléndez followed Rosselló with 60,453, 45,771, and 40,349 votes each.

On Monday, some PNP officials and supporters, such as San Juan Mayor Miguel Romero, were congratulating Rosselló and the other delegates on their victories. The head of the elections agency said the vote had occurred “normally” and without any major occurrences, save for one incident in the central city of Caguas, where an elections official allegedly called people over the phone and offered to cast a ballot on their behalf.

Rosselló’s history could complicate statehood lobbying efforts

If he goes to Washington, it’s unclear how much influence Rosselló, a Democrat, will garner.

In July 2019, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker called for his resignation. Leaders of the Democratic Party, like then-candidate Joe Biden and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, condemned Rosselló’s offensive words and called for accountability in the island’s government. Sen. Rick Scott, a Republican, said at the time of the chat leak that “Puerto Rican families deserved better” and that “all credibility” had “been lost.” Meanwhile, Marco Rubio said the scandal had negatively affected efforts to help the island at the federal level.

Aldridge, the Puerto Rican political analyst, said that Rosselló and his supporters had identified an opportunity in this special election as a smaller, internal event where his base could secure a win.

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He believes the shadow delegates will not have any impact on Washington policy. But he viewed the results as a “blow” to the PNP. Party leadership publicly favored candidates who were on the ballot. Aldridge likened Rosselló’s standing in the PNP to that of Donald Trump in the Republican Party, where many do not agree with his influence. However, he said, many do not speak against him for fear that it could cost them votes from their base.

The political analyst, as well as some statehood supporters, believes that the selection of Rosselló to carry the message of Puerto Rican statehood in Congress could be personally beneficial for the former governor, but potentially detrimental to the objectives of the pro-annexation sector on the island.

“They saw this event more as a matter of local politics rather than as a matter of sending serious messengers to advocate for statehood in the capital,” said Aldridge.

Alberto Valentín, who is a former legislative aide for Rosselló and a pro-statehood activist, said he believes Rosselló’s image is no longer the same in Washington, but that the process for his election was fair and democratic.

“I think that unfortunately, Ricky’s opportunities went away, he lost his chance. He acted wrongly and made a mistake. But this is a democratic process and if people elected him, he’s going to be there,” said Valentín. “I do think it could have a negative impact.”

Valentín, who is also a prominent LGBTQ advocate on the island, added that he believes the election of Torres, the right-wing commentator, would ultimately prove more damaging to the movement for statehood because she is “openly homophobic and anti-feminist,” on a U.S. jurisdiction with disproportionate rates of violence against people based on gender identity.

“It’s totally dissonant and hypocritical to demand the civil rights of a colony and demand equality and not demand equality for all of us on the island,” said Valentín, who said he no longer considered himself part of the pro-statehood party, despite believing in statehood for the island.

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