America’s most conservative Democratic governor is in Puerto Rico
The 2018 midterms grew the ranks of the Democratic Governors Association with 9 new members: 7 from states and 2 from the territories, each representing a flip to Democratic control. Nearly half, or 11 out of 25, were sworn in for the first time in 2019. The new DGA outlook is a much more progressive and national bench than before, but its most conservative member remains Governor Ricardo Rosselló of Puerto Rico, who was first elected in 2016.
Rosselló is a member of the New Progressive Party in Puerto Rico, a pro-statehood party, and identifies nationally with the Democratic Party. But his moderate positions on social issues and emphasis on austerity-minded policy places him closer ideologically to some of his Republican peers. For example, Rosselló opposed gay marriage and recreational marijuana during his election in 2016, contrary to the Democratic Party platform that year.
Requiring bipartisan support to achieve his goal of statehood for Puerto Rico, an appeal to Republican politicians, including President Trump, is a key part of Rossello’s long-term strategy. Rosselló met with President Trump in June of 2018 to speak about Hurricane Maria relief, where the governor took the opportunity to pitch statehood, to which the president reportedly suggested that statehood would be a speedy process if Rosselló “could guarantee two Republican senators.”
Rosselló’s eagerness to work directly with the president largely sets him apart from his Democratic colleagues. It also underscores the unique dynamic of Puerto Rico’s relationship with the federal government, especially in time of crisis—one in which the territory can’t effectively address its budget woes or disaster relief without the oversight of Congress. With national challenges and federal constituencies to court, Rosselló has been active in inserting himself onto the national stage with television appearances and interviews aimed at a mainland US audience, even making appearances on conservative Fox News programs such as Tucker Carlson, a rarity for Democratic governors.
Never having held public office before, Rosselló’s fiscal platform is uniquely local and tailored to address the fiscal challenges of governing the territory. Proposing to cut public spending for pensions, higher education, public employment, and labor reform slashing vacation and sick leave may sound more in harmony with mainland Republicans than Democrats, the drastic measures to address the territory’s runaway debt and appease creditors reflects the severity of Puerto Rico’s debt crisis.
The governor’s strategy to address the crisis with austerity and tax cuts rather than increasing public spending may not win him applause from progressives, but it does put him in harmony with the congressionally-appointed Oversight Board, which, until January, reported to a Republican-controlled House of Representatives. Still, Rosselló’s cost-cutting measures have not yet proved to be enough for the oversight board, whose recommended reforms and cuts he called “too austere.” But faced with challenge of the largest bankruptcy in the history of the United States, the governor may not many options—though a new Democratic House majority could change the dynamic.
Rosselló’s centrist reputation goes beyond ideology and extends to his willingness to extend support to elected officials of the opposite party. In his first bid for elected office in 2016, Rosselló endorsed Jenniffer González-Colón for Resident Commissioner, fellow NPP member, but a Republican in the US House of Representatives. The governor had a close working relationship with Republican Governor of Florida Rick Scott, hosting him several times in San Juan in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. In fact, when the 2016 midterm elections drew closer, there was ample speculation that Rosselló would breach party lines and endorse Scott.
When Rosselló decided to ultimately endorse his Democratic opponent Bill Nelson, he cited Nelson’s help in securing disaster relief funding and support as his motivation, rather than a shared policy objective or party loyalty. Notably, Rick Scott has been a vocal proponent of Puerto Rican statehood.
The dynamic of national party politics in tandem with local parties in the Puerto Rico has always been a complex one, with neither Democrats or Republicans neatly aligning with the factions of the territories’ political landscape. If Governor Rosselló succeeds in his goal of achieving statehood, his centrist approach to policy may be challenged by the integration of Puerto Rico into the national battleground between the parties.