Former Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, a Chicago Democrat and prominent Puerto Rican voice in U.S. politics, withdrew his support for Jon Ossoff, the Democratic Senate candidate in Georgia, on Tuesday afternoon before changing course after speaking with Ossoff later that day.
Ossoff, a supporter of Puerto Rican statehood, had failed to adequately assure Gutiérrez, a supporter of Puerto Rican independence, that he is committed to letting the Puerto Rican people determine the future of the U.S. commonwealth.
In response to Gutiérrez’s announcement, Ossoff reached out to the former congressman by phone on Tuesday night and assured him of their shared commitment to Puerto Rican self-determination.
“I was so happy to hear from my brother Jon. Neither one of us has changed our positions on the future status of Puerto Rico. That’s not what’s important,” Gutiérrez told HuffPost on Tuesday night. “What’s important is that we talked tonight and recognized there is a lack of communication. We support an open and democratic process of self-determination where Puerto Rico decides its own future.”
Gutiérrez said he will now resume plans to travel to Georgia to campaign for Ossoff with San Juan, Puerto Rico, Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz. He also deleted tweets from earlier on Tuesday that were critical of Ossoff and that had announced the suspension of his support for Ossoff’s bid.
Gutiérrez’s issue with Ossoff began in early November, when Ossoff told Axios that he supports Puerto Rican statehood.
His response prompted Gutiérrez, who supports independence rather than statehood for the island, to scramble to establish contact with Ossoff’s campaign. Gutiérrez was looking for confirmation that despite his position, Ossoff would allow the people of Puerto Rico to decide whether they want to become a state or adopt a different status, he told HuffPost.
President-elect Joe Biden’s comments supporting statehood, while emphasizing that it should be solely up to Puerto Ricans to decide their future status, are a fine model for Democrats like Ossoff to emulate, according to Gutiérrez.
But because Gutiérrez, who reached out to U.S. senators to try to get through to Ossoff, did not succeed in establishing contact with Ossoff’s team, he announced on Tuesday that he would be suspending his support for Ossoff’s candidacy pending an explicit commitment from Ossoff to respect the island’s right to self-determination. To that end, Gutiérrez immediately canceled plans to spend six days in Georgia campaigning for Ossoff with the labor union UNITE HERE’s political arm. (UNITE HERE, which represents hospitality industry workers, is sending 500 canvassers to knock an estimated 1 million doors.)
“How come the white privilege man from Georgia doesn’t say, ‘Hmmm, maybe I might want to do what Biden says?’” Gutiérrez asked while speaking to HuffPost. “When they try to unilaterally impose their will on the people of Puerto Rico, there have to be consequences, and Ossoff is simply the first.”
In recent years, U.S. policy toward Puerto Rico has rarely played a pivotal role in mainland elections.
But Gutiérrez has some leverage. The outspoken advocate for immigration reform, who served in Congress for 26 years and moved to Puerto Rico after he left Capitol Hill in 2019, retains a following among many Puerto Ricans. And thanks to emigration from the island after Hurricane Maria in 2017, Georgia is now home to an estimated 100,000 Puerto Ricans — all of whom, as U.S. citizens, are eligible to vote once they reach the age of 18.
Gutiérrez is a proponent of a bill introduced by New York Democratic Reps. Nydia Velázquez and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that would create a formal mechanism through which Puerto Ricans could democratically determine the future of their relationship to the United States. In their call on Tuesday night, Gutiérrez said Ossoff told him that he supports Velázquez and Ocasio-Cortez’s bill.
Although Republicans have fretted that Democratic control of the Senate would result in Puerto Rican statehood and permanently entrench two new Democratic Senate seats, the cause of statehood is more closely associated on the island with the more conservative New Progressive Party. Members of the center-left Popular Democratic Party — like Cruz, the mayor of San Juan — tend to be more supportive of Puerto Rican autonomy or independence.
A slim majority of Puerto Ricans voted to approve statehood in a nonbinding vote in November, but critics like Gutiérrez note that a binary “yes” or “no” vote on statehood excludes other options.
“We are a Latin American country that is a colony of the United States,” Gutiérrez said. “How do you end colonialism? By allowing people to be free.”
This story has been updated to reflect Gutiérrez’s phone conversation with Ossoff and subsequent decision to reendorse the Georgia Democrat.