Republican Chairman Michael Steele Owes His Victory To Puerto Rico, Other Territories

By Michael Barone, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

An interesting sidelight on Michael Steele's election as Republican National Chairman. He owes his victory, as this article from Politico notes, to the territories: the 15 votes cast for him from Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, the Northern Marianas and American Samoa put him over the top against South Carolina Republican Chairman Katon Dawson. The delegates from the territories, or many of them, have something in common with Steele, as a "person of color," but as Politico also notes he has made commitments to support Republicans in elections there.

Not that they necessarily need such commitments. Luis Fortuño, elected in 2004 as the Resident Commissioner from Puerto Rico (its non-voting member of the House of Representatives, and the only member of the House with a four-year term) was elected Governor of Puerto Rico this year. He's not the first member of the New Progressive Party (Spanish acronym PNP) elected governor, but he's the first PNP governor elected who identifies himself with the mainland Republican rather than the mainland Democratic party since Luis Ferrë in 1968.

Is it fair that the territories hold such outsized influence in the election of a Republican national chairman? While Puerto Rico has nearly 4 million people, none of the other territories has a population nearly as large as a single mainland congressional district. But they are part of the United States, they contribute volunteers to the U.S. military (more proportionately than any state, Puerto Ricans will tell you at the drop of a hat) and they are also important to our national defense (in recent years the U.S. military base with the most ongoing construction is Andersen Air Force Base in Guam).

Anyway, there are precedents. As I remember in the 1972, 1976 and 1980 Democratic National Conventions, the territories played a disproportionate role--through the medium of San Francisco Congressman Phil Burton. Burton was an operator--and also the political ancestor of Speaker Nancy Pelosi: after he died in 1983 his wife Sala Burton was elected to fill his place, and on her deathbed in 1987 she told Burton's brother John, then formerly a Congressman and then a longtime state senator, that she wanted Nancy Pelosi elected to succeed her. By 1972 Phil Burton was a member of the Democratic National Committee's Interior and Insular Committee and Chairman of the Insular Subcommittee which had jurisdiction over the territories. The Democratic National Committee in those days (like the RNC, but not the DNC, today) consisted of one national committeeman and one national committeewoman from each state (plus the state chairman in the case of today's RNC). The credentials, rules and platform committees of the Democratic National Convention consisted of one member from each state and territory.

This gave huge power to Phil Burton. He started with the vote of California (which, with its huge population, was of course hugely underrepresented). Then, with his sway over the Insular Subcommittee and his huge force of personality, he cast the votes of the then five territories--Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa, the Canal Zone (in 1972 and 1976 anyway; after the ratification of the Panama Canal Treaty the Democrats transmogrified into Americans Abroad). So Burton had 6 votes on the 56-member committee (the District of Columbia was the 56th vote). I suspect that he cast them brusquely and openly on his own, without any consultation; perhaps a simple thumbs up or down. Perhaps he justified this as simply giving California it appropriate demographic weight. Or, more likely, he did it because he could--and because no one would stop him, and he thought it was in the right cause. It is recorded somewhere that when he was a California assemblyman and as chairman of a committee was recording one member as voting with him automatially, the man stomped out of the hearing and complained to Speaker Jesse Unruh. Unruh advised him to go back. "I hear he is still voting you." This may be one of those stories too good to check. For the definitive account, go to the late John Jacobs's biography of Burton, A Rage for Justice: The Passions and Politics of Phillip Burton. For those conservatives who find Nancy Pelosi a hard-edged and tough partisan, go through this thought exercise: imagine what it would be like if Phil Burton, who chain-smoked Pall Malls and drank tumbler glasses of vodka (I stayed up with him one night, and he seemed to get more lucid as I got groggier) had lived beyond his actual days (he died in 1983 at 57) and had, in January 2007, become Speaker of the House at age 80. Then you'd see what tough and hard-edged and partisan is really all about.

Does Michael Steele, who played the territorial card in something like the way Phil Burton did, have the same fiber? It might not be so bad for the Republican party if he does.

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By Michael Barone