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Governor urges Democrats challenging Trump in 2020 to focus on Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico: The exodus after Hurricane Maria
Puerto Rico: The exodus after Hurricane Maria... 29:01

Washington — Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló believes Democratic candidates vying to challenge President Trump in the 2020 presidential election need to make issues affecting the island and its approximately 3.2 million U.S. citizens central to their campaigns.

"It's not just a matter of having lip service and saying, 'Yes, we want equality for the people of Puerto Rico,' but what are you actually going to do about it?" Roselló told CBS News during a wide-ranging interview in Washington on Friday.

The 39-year-old governor of the U.S. territory, who has supported both Democrats and Republicans in congressional elections on the mainland, said he will back the eventual Democratic presidential nominee. He said contenders in the crowded primary field, the most diverse in U.S. history, should have a broad agenda that addresses Puerto Rico's most pressing challenges, including ongoing recovery efforts from the devastation of Hurricane María and a prolonged debt crisis.

Rosselló noted that two Democrats seeking the nomination, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and former Housing and Urban Development (HUD) secretary Julián Castro, visited the island shortly after launching their campaigns. The governor said stumping in Puerto Rico should become routine practice for all presidential hopefuls, and he expects all the Democrats who have declared their candidacies to visit the island soon. 

"I think it showcases that Puerto Rico has risen from a seven-page issue to a top-level issue in general discussion of policy and politics in the United States," he said. 

Although he said he still needs to evaluate the platforms of different campaigns on climate change, health care, recovery efforts and Puerto Rican self-determination before endorsing any candidate, Rosselló stressed the policy differences between the Democratic contenders and the president are "stark." In a thinly veiled rebuke of Mr. Trump and his policies, the governor said voters will be able to choose between two completely distinct options next November. 

"It's an election to see if we want to open ourselves to the world and invite diversity, or we want to close, shut ourselves out and have a more exclusive and divisive separated world view from the rest of the nation," he said.

No working relationship with Trump

In the aftermath of Hurricane María, which crippled the island's fragile electrical grid and led to the deaths of thousands of people, Rosselló said he had several conversations with the president, whose post-storm visit to Puerto Rico gained notoriety for a controversial incident in which he tossed rolls of paper towels to hurricane survivors.

But the governor said he no longer has a working relationship with Mr. Trump. In fact, he said he recently has requested several one-on-one meetings to discuss recovery efforts with the president, to no avail. 

"We've sort of have lost that connection," Rosselló added. 

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Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló told CBS News he no longer has a working relationship with President Trump, who he rebuked for not undertaking efforts to mitigate climate change. CBS News

Mr. Trump has repeatedly clashed with Rosselló and other Puerto Rican officials over federal assistance to the U.S. territory. His administration's handling of recovery efforts in the aftermath of María and Irma have been sharply criticized by some local residents and leaders. Recently, Rosselló has denounced the White House for considering diverting disaster relief funds to finance the president's long-promised wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and opposing $600 million in food assistance funding, which the White House called "excessive and unnecessary." 

"It is concerning to hear that at one point, on the table, was a consideration of taking recovery funds from Puerto Rico to use them to build a wall," Rosselló said. "That is very worrisome. That is very concerning. And I hope that that sort of mindset shifts away, because otherwise, what we're seeing towards the future is continuous conflict."

Rosselló, a former stem-cell researcher, added that another important policy disagreement with the White House is over climate change, which he said disproportionately affects Puerto Rico because of its location in the middle of the Caribbean. 

"[Climate change] is big for me, because we're on an island," he said. "Puerto Rico is [the] third jurisdiction that was most affected by climate change in the world. And now, we stand on a position to become the model for resiliency in the future."

He condemned the president for not believing in human-induced climate change and its broad implications on the environment, stressing the urgent need to undertake concerted steps to mitigate it. Mr. Trump has called climate change a "hoax," but scientists — including those working for his administration — have repeatedly rebuffed him for downplaying the assessment by the scientific community that the planet's changing climate is causing irreparable environmental damage.

"As a scientist, I can tell you: it's very real. And as a Puerto Rican that lives in the island and sees the coastline diminishing, that sees how an island, Palominito, which was there three years ago is no longer there," he said. "These things are having a real effect."

Although Rosselló said he agrees with the grievances many of his constituents have against the Trump administration, he noted that Puerto Rico has been treated in an "inferior fashion" by Washington for decades — long before Mr. Trump was sworn in.

For Rosselló, the only way to end what he believes is the federal government's unfair treatment of Puerto Rico is for the island to become the nation's 51st state. 

"We need to end colonialism once and for all"

In the past seven years, the Puerto Rican government has held two referendums on the status of the island. In both cases, voters chose statehood, but because any change in status requires congressional approval, the results were symbolic. 

For Rosselló, a vocal supporter of Puerto Rican statehood, admission into the union as a state would place the island on a "pathway of growth" that would allow it to curtail inequality, recover faster from the storms and alleviate financial woes.

Because the island is a "colonial territory," Rosselló suggested there's a salient disparity between the federal government's policies towards Puerto Rico and the ones for states in the mainland. He cited the fact that the nutritional program in Puerto Rico, known as NAP, can't expand to meet increased demand like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) available in states because it is funded through an annual federal block grant.

Rosselló believes news coverage of Puerto Ricans' plight post-María can generate political momentum to solve the island's perpetual struggle over questions of self-determination, which dates back to the late 19th century when the U.S. acquired the territory after the Spanish-American War. 

"We want, with the visibility that Puerto Rico now has, with the truth of the matter that folks are now starting to be aware of the fact that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, we're part of the United States, and we need to end colonialism once and for all," he said.

Democrats running for president in 2020, Rosselló added, should make a commitment to support a legally binding referendum that triggers a change in the island's political status if Puerto Ricans vote in favor of doing so once again.

"It has to be binding. You can't just say, 'I'm for self-determination,' and then have the people self-determine and do nothing about it," he said. 

Changing its status from a commonwealth to a state, Rosselló said, will allow Puerto Ricans on the island to have a voice in Washington. Puerto Rico currently only has a non-voting member serving in the House of Representatives.   

Statehood would grant Puerto Rico congressional representation in both the Senate and House as well as a stronger influence in presidential elections. Because they don't have voting representation in Congress, voters living in Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories are not entitled to electoral votes. Despite having non-voting representation in Congress, voters in the District of Columbia have been able to cast ballots in presidential elections since the 23rd Amendment was ratified in 1961. 

Rosselló said it is "bizarre" that more than 3 million American citizens can't vote for president because of where they live. 

"Any of these citizens, should they move to the states, would be able to vote anyway," he added. "Any U.S. citizen that would move to Puerto Rico would lose those rights."

Puerto Rican communities in the mainland, however, can help change this, he added. 

Although Puerto Ricans living on the island can only only vote in party primaries and not the general election, Rosselló said the large and growing Puerto Rican diaspora in the mainland is becoming an important voting bloc and can have some sway in national elections, particularly in battleground states like Florida

"If we get organized and have a clear platform, we will be a force to be reckoned with in national politics," he said.

Rosselló did not rule out out running for Congress if Puerto Rico becomes a state, but said his priority right now is to help the island achieve statehood. 

"My focus right now is governing Puerto Rico and turning Puerto Rico into a state," he said. "My dream would be that somebody in Puerto Rico would get to be a senator, and would get to be a congressman or congresswoman representing our island."

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