RepresentUS ignores US territories in campaign

by | Oct 23, 2019 | Elections, Headlines | Comments

RepresentUs was launched as a non-profit organization in 2012 by founder Josh Silver, with a non-partisan aim of combatting legalized corruption in US politics. Its model is inspired by the 2011 American Anti-Corruption Act, which aimed to introduce new rules about lobbying and campaign finance to increase transparency in politics. Several dozen chapters across the continental United States, but none located in any of the US territories: Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa, and the Northern Marianas Islands.

Despite a growing involvement in promoting anti-corruption political reform across the country at the federal level and in state legislatures, the organization has largely ignored the US territories, although it has on two occasions evoked action by the Trump administration in Puerto Rico on Twitter for fundraising appeals.

Silver acknowledges two pathways to anti-corruption reform: passing legislation, and amending the Constitution. A Constitutional amendment requires the approval of 2/3 of state legislatures, and no input from the US territories. However, the path of state-level legislation is equally possible in the territories, who have local problems with corruption as well.

The exclusion of US territories from organizations like RepresentUS comes at a time when territorial politics are playing a bigger role in the federal government than ever. Funding for hurricane disaster relief in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands was a national conversation in 2017, and in the following year, politicians from Puerto Rico stormed Florida and DC to stump for candidates in the 2018 midterm elections.

Ten years ago, the House of Representatives added a seat for a non-voting delegate from the Northern Marianas Islands, bringing the total number of territorial delegates to 5, plus a sixth from the District of Columbia. Now, their Delegate Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan (D) has a place on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, as well as the committees for Natural Resources, and Veterans’ Affairs. In his tenure, Sablan has sponsored two bills and cosponsored 37 into federal law.

The newly-elected Delegate Michael San Nicolas (D) of Guam is also making his mark in the federal government; in May of 2019, San Nicolas was appointed Vice Chairman of the House Committee on Financial Services, where he has considerable ability and influence to draw attention to territorial financial issues.

“I really think that the time has come for this country to stop neglecting the territories,” San Nicolas said at a Financial Services Committee meeting, one month before being announced as Vice Chairman.

He also pointed out that exclusion from national statistics and involvement by organization and advocacy groups can make life more difficult for those living in the territories, and hinder progress to reform. San Nicolas addressed executives from Zillow, an online real estate database company, pointing out that by neglecting to have a presence in Guam, the company creates challenges for residents looking for mortgage loans.

The neglect by companies like Zillow and political advocacy organizations such as RepresentUS is an example of the type of discrimination that contributes the unequal status of the US territories beyond the lack of representation and federal funding that US states benefit from.

“While RepresentUs has members in US territories, including Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and Guam, we are not currently involved in any active reform efforts there,” Political Director Dan Krassner told Pasquines. “Our hope is that the historic wave of political reform victories in 2018 in many states will inspire reformers in all US states and territories to lead more campaigns to unrig the system as a movement builds towards federal reform.”

But the US territories are particularly vulnerable to corruption in government. In 2014, the Corruption Perceptions Index reported by Transparency International gave Puerto Rico a public sector corruption rating of 33, a rating considerably more corrupt than the US rating of 22. Similarly, the Center for Public Integrity rated the US Virgin Islands as the second-most corrupt state-level jurisdiction in the US, followed closely by Guam.

Corruption scandals have rocked the territories in recent months as well, with mass protests over the summer in Puerto Rico that resulted in the resignation of the rising star governor Ricardo Rosselló. Some of the grievances’ of the protesters involved controversy over misdirection of federal funds meant to hurricane relief, which saw top Puerto Rican officials arrested by the FBI on criminal charges. Similar corruption scandals hit the same refrain in the US Virgin Islands.

These scandals highlight the challenges the territories face to overcome their unequal status. As Puerto Rico contemplates voting once again on statehood (after two successful, if not flawed statehood votes), residents saw some lawmakers in Congress argue to reject statehood for Washington, DC on the basis that its government is too corrupt.

The same argument is also deployed against providing federal funds for the territories, even for disaster relief. The line is often repeated by President Trump (R) , who falsely claims that Puerto Rico “squandered away or wasted” its aid money. In this way, perceptions of corruption can hinder the ability of the territories to seek support from the federal government, especially as the territorial delegates to Congress have limited roles and voting power, and no presence in the US Senate.

By ignoring Americans in US territories, national organizations signal to the territories that they are not included in national issues, even as the unique challenges they face often stem from their relationship with the federal government itself. Organizations like RepresentUS contribute to this dynamic by treating the US territories separate from the rest of the country.