Q&A With Shadow Sen. Paul Strauss: How Does Puerto Rico's Statehood Movement Help D.C.?

How Does Puerto Rico's Status Vote Help D.C.'s Statehood Push?

WASHINGTON -- Is there a connection between Puerto Rico's upcoming statehood referendum and the District of Columbia's statehood movement?

D.C. Shadow Sen. Paul Strauss (D) thinks so.

Strauss, a long-time statehood advocate, has been making the case that D.C.'s statehood movement could be "emboldened" by Puerto Rico's upcoming "status" vote.

The feeling appears to be mutual -- in 2009, Puerto Rico's non-voting delegate to Congress, Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi (D), made a statement to the House Judiciary Committee in favor of D.C. voting rights legislation linking D.C.'s struggle for enfranchisement with the U.S. commonwealth.

Now it's Puerto Rico's turn.

In November, voters on the island will decide if they want to remain a self-governing U.S. commonwealth or if they want a change in status with regard to their relationship with the United States.

Previous status referendums are not auspicious for statehood advocates: In 1967 and 1993, voters approved continuing their commonwealth relationship with the U.S.

In 1998, voters in Puerto Rico chose "none of the above," preferring this option to statehood, independence, free association or maintaining a commonwealth status.

If the people of Puerto Rico were to choose statehood, becoming a state would take congressional action -- which, as the DIstrict of Columbia knows, presents its own political difficulties -- among them, there are those in Congress who believe that Puerto Rican statehood would be a massive drain on the U.S. budget.

So what about Puerto Rico's current statehood movement gives Strauss hope for D.C. residents? The Huffington Post spoke with the shadow senator recently to find out more about the relationship between Puerto Rico's and D.C.'s statehood movements.

Also we were curious to see if Strauss, who famously brought actress Hayden Panettiere into the statehood movement, will be traveling with the actress to Puerto Rico to lobby for a closer relationship between these two territories.

The Huffington Post: What's the connection between D.C. and Puerto Rico?

Paul Strauss: If you look most recently at Alaska and Hawaii, the last states to join the union, there are a lot of similarities between D.C. and Alaska and Hawaii and Puerto Rico. Starting with the arguments against statehood. Alaska, they were like, oh my god, the population is not so big -- it's actually roughly the size of D.C. I even got more more votes in the last election for D.C. senator than [Alaska Senator] Mark Begich did as Alaska senator. [Strauss won 183,519 votes in the 2008 election; Begich won 151,767 votes.]

And with Hawaii you've got the old 'it can't be a state, it doesn't look like a state, it's an island for god's sake.' A lot of the arguments against Hawaii and Alaska are made against D.C. and Puerto Rico.

HuffPost: It sounds like what you're trying to do is overcome some of the mental hurdles people have trying to think of D.C. as possibly being a state by pointing out that many of the objections have already been addressed other places, and have been dealt with.

Strauss: I think that's part of it. The other thing is that states traditionally come in a pair. The big balancing issue used to be slave versus free. We've thankfully evolved beyond that. Even with Alaska and Hawaii the difference was partisan, with Hawaii being perceived to be pro-Republican and Alaska being pro-Democratic. And then obviously for a long time Hawaii's senators have both been Democratic and Alaska's senators have been Republican. It just goes to show that you can't really predict.

And I'm sure one reason D.C. is so overwhelmingly Democratic is because the Republican Party is so overwhelmingly anti-District of Columbia. It's hard to get traction in a community where one of your platform points is denying them their fundamental rights. It's an interesting idea that in Puerto Rico, the statehood movement is actually a movement from their political right. Independence being seen as the extreme left.

HuffPost: Do you worry that by associating D.C. with the other territories, like Puerto Rico, that you're asking to be associated with the more problematic sides of the statehood debate.

Strauss: I don't necessarily think so. Because for a lot of us it's more about autonomy than federal representation. Like today's press silliness is restrictions on a woman's right to choose. Whatever your view on abortion, nobody rationally thinks that it should be based on ZIP code. I can respect a variety of points of view, but not one that says depending on which side of the Potomac you live on is how your rights should be.

So, no, it's not about silly stuff like getting your own quarter. Although that was a bizarre debate. There were coin collectors that were hostile toward us getting a quarter. I had to do op-eds in Coin Collectors Monthly. But it was important because I remember it was the first time someone gave my little girl a 50-state quarter set. And it was the very first time as a child she got a sense that D.C. was different. Here's the New York quarter, here's Virginia where your cousin lives. Where's ours? We didn't get one.

HuffPost: Have you spoken with Puerto Rico's resident commissioner Pedro R. Pierluisi?

Strauss: No, I haven't really gotten that close with him. I was pretty chummy with the last guy. [Puerto Rico's Secretary of State and pro-statehood advocate] Kenneth McClintock is really the point person that we use to coordinate stuff. And believe me we need to coordinate. The first couple of years it was just bad. I remember one year we went to the Democratic convention with red "51" stickers and they showed up with blue "51" stickers. We just cancelled each other out.

I don't think we should be competing. One of the things I want to avoid is D.C. statehood being used as a wedge against Puerto Rican statehood. Every time Puerto Ricans get a little bit of progress people bring up D.C. statehood. It sort of chills Republicans from supporting it. Any American that wants to join the union as a state, they ought to be allowed to do it.

HuffPost: Do you think D.C. should have a referendum?

Strauss: I suppose if the issue before Congress was a legitimate doubt -- nobody's been protesting or picketing or getting arrested because we don't want statehood. I don't think anyone's credibly making the argument that there's any reason to doubt the desire of D.C. residents to have statehood. But if we wanted to have another referendum, fine. The problem is that elections cost money. Our opponents would still be against us. Their opposition to D.C. statehood isn't based on interpretation of our will.

D.C. residents want statehood. I support statehood for the District of Columbia. Because there's more happening in terms of the Puerto Rican status issue, smart journalists ask me what I think about what's happening in Puerto Rico and I think it's up to the Puerto Rican people. The fact that people are talking about statehood for anybody else doesn't hurt the struggle in the District of Columbia. And I don't think the District of Columbia's aspirations for statehood hurt aspirations of the Puerto Rican people for statehood. If that's what in fact they want.

HuffPost: Are you and [D.C. statehood advocate] Hayden Panettiere planning any trips out to Puerto Rico?

Strauss: I've been in Puerto Rico a couple of times on trips. I can't speak to Ms. Panettiere's schedule. And I have no immediate plans to go to Puerto Rico. But if I do, it'll probably be a lot more fun than my last out of town trip, which was to New Hampshire -- in the middle of winter.

HuffPost: Are you feeling optimistic about how the movement along for D.C. statehood is going?

Strauss: I think it's tough to be optimistic about a lot of movements right now because we're in such gridlock. But every time a Rick Santorum supporter goes on TV to talk about aspirin as birth control, you're hopeful that there will be big change in this country. But you're also fearful that there will be big change in this country. It could go either way.

HuffPost: Are you hopeful that Puerto Rico will vote yes for statehood?

Strauss: I would respect them if they chose to become an independent country. It's their own choice. I think the status quo argument is losing some of the support it once had, because we are no longer interested nationally in subsidizing them the way we used to. We are not afraid of them going communist. All of the great benefits they got in the '50s, from the Cold War hysteria, they're not getting anymore. So I understand why they're looking to change the parameters of their relationship with the United States.

HuffPost: Would you make the argument that up until the point where D.C. has statehood, we should at least not be paying federal income taxes, like the other territories.

Strauss: We have made that argument. That's certainly popular here. It's $3 billion out of the federal treasury at a time when we're struggling to balance the budget now. They won't give us that exemption.

RELATED VIDEO: Hayden Panettiere's PSA for D.C. voting rights.

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