updated 11/2/2004 10:48:35 AM ET 2004-11-02T15:48:35

The long-standing question of whether Puerto Rico should push to become the 51st U.S. state is at the center of Tuesday’s gubernatorial elections in this American territory.

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Former Gov. Pedro Rossello, whose previous terms from 1993 through 2000 were marked by a series of corruption scandals, has made the statehood demand a central theme of his campaign to return to the post.

Polls give him a narrow lead over Anibal Acevedo Vila, who favors the island’s current status as a U.S. commonwealth. Ruben Berrios of the Puerto Rican Independence Party, making his fifth run for governor, was running third in the polls.

Puerto Rico’s 4 million residents are U.S. citizens but cannot vote for U.S. president.

Some 2.4 million Puerto Ricans were registered to vote Tuesday for governor, the island’s nonvoting delegate to Congress, 51 senators and 27 House members in the island’s legislature, 78 mayors and other municipal officials.

Polls close at 2 p.m. ET. Preliminary results are expected late Tuesday.

Corruption claims, jail time
Rossello stepped down as governor at the start of 2001 amid allegations his administration was corrupt. He has denied wrongdoing and accused the pro-commonwealth government of outgoing Gov. Sila Calderon of persecuting his New Progressive Party. Calderon declined to seek re-election.

Several members of Rossello’s previous administration have been prosecuted, including former Education Secretary Victor Fajardo, now serving 12 years in prison for a fraud scheme that diverted more than $4 million, and top aide Maria de los Angeles Rivera, facing trial on bribery charges.

Rossello has pledged to lead a clean government if elected again.

Acevedo Vila, who is currently the island’s delegate to Congress, says he is determined to prevent the “rampant corruption” of Rossello’s two terms.

Standing in a voting line at a school, accountant Enrique Vasallo said he backed Acevedo Vila because “I like the way things are” with Puerto Rico as a U.S. commonwealth and because he fears more corruption under Rossello.

“They stole money, they did so many things wrong, and still people are supporting him. I can’t see why,” Vasallo, 51, said.

Shopkeeper Ana Laura Arroyo, 63, said she does not blame Rossello for the corruption cases, and she is backing him because she believes statehood would benefit the island.

Vote, lawsuit pledged
Rossello promises another vote on statehood — an option narrowly defeated in nonbinding referendums he oversaw in 1993 and 1998.

He also pledges a lawsuit challenging what he calls islanders’ “second-class citizenship” and demanding they be allowed to vote in U.S. presidential elections.

The Caribbean island has been a U.S. territory since 1898. The island was given limited autonomy in 1952 and dubbed a “commonwealth,” in which Puerto Ricans elect a local government and generally pay no federal income taxes but have no vote in Congress and pay substantial local taxes.

In another American territory, the nearby U.S. Virgin Islands, nonvoting delegate to Congress Donna M. Christensen was seeking re-election in a race focusing on how to deal with $1 billion in public debt. Christensen, of the Democratic Party, faced challengers Krim Ballentine of the Republican Party and independent Warren Mosler.

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