In its purest form, politics is all about taking risks. Without taking risks, you can’t impact change. This past Sunday in Puerto Rico, Governor Luis Fortuño and the rest of the island’s New Progressive Party took a risk. They lost. Big time.
At the same time, Fortuño’s opponent in the upcoming November elections for governor, Alejandro García Padilla of the Popular Democratic Party, tried to play it safe and really didn’t take a risk. He lost as well.
So much can be said about the surprising results in Sunday’s vote that asked Puerto Ricans to consider two changes to its Constitution: one referendum that would “have reduced have reduced the size of the U.S. territory’s legislature” and another that would have “given judges the right to deny bail in certain murder cases.” Both YES votes were leading by wide margins in the pre-voting polls, according to El Nuevo Día, yet when the results were official on Sunday evening, the NO votes had won: 54%-46% against the legislative change and 55%-45% against the bail measure.
Fortuño and the rest of pro-statehood PNP had pushed hard to get YES votes in both measures. The legislative reform, if it passed, would have given Fortuño a huge boost in his “small government” philosophy and he would have been hailed as a conservative hero at next week’s Republican National Convention in Tampa, where he will be a featured speaker. The bail reform would have been seen as another accomplishment of Fortuño’s plan to reduce violent crime on the island, which saw 1,117 murders last year and has become victim to a growing drug trade.
García Padilla, who is currently leading Fortuño by 5 points in the latest polls for governor, also favored a double YES vote, and it is clear that in his mind he was making a calculated political bet, since all the mainstream pre-election polling on the measures showed both measures passing. García Padilla played it safe, perhaps too safe, since if he had the courage and know-how to read where the island’s voters were going to vote on the issue, there is no doubt that if he had favored a double NO vote (like many of his PPD colleagues), his quest to become the island’s newest governor would have been a slam dunk.
In the end, this surprise result was all about Puerto Ricans and how the message to vote NO twice spread throughout the island, particularly in social media, where tweets, posts, emails, videos, and shares calling for two NO votes took a life of their own. The push to vote NO had everything to do with the rights granted in Puerto Rico’s Constitution and how those rights still mattered. When I spoke about this vote last month on NPR, I always felt that the Fortuño administration and the two major parties pushing for YES votes were just window dressing and not really attacking the island’s real problems.
These two leaders literally did not see Sunday’s results coming, and that is a good thing. Politicians tend to get comfortable and lose focus. And maybe the vote still does matter.
Sunday night, Fortuño downplayed his losses, especially the one on legislative reform (he said very little, if nothing about it), and focused instead on fighting the good fight and standing behind the victims who have lost loved ones to violent crime. That is admirable. However, it is still ironic.
Fortuño’s push to limit rights of all citizens, even after changes to the island’s penal code were seen by some as unconstitutional, is a bit like the United States’s struggle over gun control. Fortuño the conservative was trying to limit people’s constitutional rights in the name of public order and safety. Was a new bail measure an effective deterrent? Or is a more serious debate about the reasons why crime is still major concern in Puerto Rico still needed? Maybe this vote will force the Fortuños and the García Padillas of the world to stop looking at band-aid solutions and start looking at ways to transform the island into a new chapter. I can only hope.
So in the end, where does Fortuño go from here? Does he even have a political future in Puerto Rico? My guess is no. He is probably already thinking of how he can position himself in the US as an “up and coming” Latino conservative, since the risk he took did not play out. Fortuño will be speaking at the RNC, a defeated politician who had to take a gamble if he was serious of winning a second term. He might be able to gain some points with a new unfamiliar audience who will see him as a rising star of the GOP, but on the island he is now seen as a loser.
As for García Padilla, the only thing he has going for himself is that he is not Fortuño, and unless a wave of change sweeps through Puerto Rico in the next three months before the November election and the other political parties who benefited from Sunday’s results (like the island’s independence party) win more hearts and minds, García Padilla will become the island’s new governor. Maybe this past Sunday might be the political lesson he needed to pass to make sure he learns to lead and not just be safe, since right now, the island needs leadership that still take risks. But they better take them for the right reasons.