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Islanders Move to Follow Tennessee’s Plan for Obtaining Statehood

Puerto Rico advocates of the territory becoming an equal and permanent part of the United States have agreed during the past week and a half to expand their efforts to make the Commonwealth a State of the U.S.

A primary tactic will be to try to have Puerto Rico elect a ‘shadow’ congressional delegation. The two ‘U.S. senators’ and five ‘U.S. House of Representatives Members’ would lobby Congress for statehood based on the vote for Federal action to transition the territory to statehood in the Commonwealth’s November 2012 status plebiscite.

The vote opposed continuation of the Commonwealth’s current political status, territory but sometimes misleadingly called “commonwealth” after the formal name of the insular government, by 54% and it chose statehood among the possible alternatives that have significant support in the territory by 61.2%.

A resolution to pursue “all mechanisms to achieve statehood” proposed by Commonwealth Senator Thomas Rivera Schatz was approved by a statehood party statehood convention a week and a half ago. The election of a shadow congressional delegation was a key measure covered by the resolution.

The convention was initiated by the party President, Pedro Pierluisi, who is also the Commonwealth’s representatives to the Federal government with a seat — but not a vote — in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Other steps to obtain statehood supported by the party include a petition drive and a vote on statehood. Pierluisi has led 131 other House Members and three senators in sponsoring legislation for the Federal government to transition the territory to statehood if Puerto Ricans vote for the status a second time.

Last week, the statehood party members of the insular Senate led by Minority Leader Larry Seilhamer proposed a bill for the election of the shadow congressional delegation.

Sunday, a “peoples statehood assembly” called by activist Ricardo Rossello adopted an agenda of actions to take to achieve statehood, including the election of the ‘senators’ and ‘representatives.’

It also ratified his proposal to put U.S. presidential candidates on the ballot. Puerto Rico has no votes in the Electoral College, which elects the president of the United States, but the national Democratic and Republican parties give the territory voting representation in their presidential nominating conventions.

The Secretary General of the “commonwealth” party, Senator Jorge Suarez Caceras, called the legislation to elect shadow U.S. senators and representatives “ridiculous.” His reaction was predictable: his party supported the losing territory status option in the plebiscite and disputes the plebiscite itself as well as its vote for statehood.

As Seilhamer observed in announcing the bill, “The Popular Party [the “commonwealth” party] has remained unmoved by the mandate given by the people in the plebiscite.” He added that “It behooves us to continue to use all tools possible to continue the fight.”

The election of a shadow congressional delegation by a territory in its efforts to obtain statehood has a history that goes back to the first territory to become a State: Tennessee.

The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 outlined a path to statehood for territories. The system called for a population of 60,000 voters and a majority in favor of statehood.

Tennessee met both of those criteria, according to a census it conducted and a poll, and it petitioned for statehood.

The Congress initially rejected Tennessee’s petition but the territory was determined. It drafted a State constitution, elected shadow Federal senators and representatives, and demanded admission into the Union of States.

Congress initially resisted, saying that it should be up to Congress to initiate the process of a territory becoming a State. A territory, members of the Congress said, could not demand statehood.

Tennessee was successful, though. Half a dozen territories followed the ‘Tennessee Plan’ – Michigan, California, Oregon, Kansas, Iowa, and Alaska.

One difference between the plan of statehood activists in Puerto Rico and the Tennessee Plan is that the territories which became States through the plan also held a territorial convention to draft a constitution for the prospective State and Puerto Rico statehood activists have not proposed that step. The reason is that Puerto Rico was the first territory authorized by the Federal government to draft a constitution for the territorial government. It took effect with Federal approval.

Puerto Rico’s insular constitution would require few changes to be the constitution of a State, so island statehood activists suggests the constitution can be revised after there is Federal movement on the territory’s petition for statehood.

The Puerto Rico plan is similar to what the District of Columbia is doing. Its election of ‘senators’ and ‘representatives’ has been unsuccessful. But DC raises a constitutional issue: it is the Seat of the Federal government, provided for in the U.S. Constitution as such, and not a territory.

Many Republicans in particular have opposed DC’s petition for statehood because of this. Some have alternatively proposed that most of the Federal District rejoin Maryland, as parts did with Virginia: DC was carved out of the two States under the Constitution.

Most Democrats have, instead, proposed that most of the District be made a State, with the rest remaining the Seat of the Federal government.



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