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'Tone-deaf': Biden allies in Puerto Rico sound alarm over judicial picks

The island’s governor and others were already irked with Biden for failing to champion Puerto Rican statehood as president.
Image: Joe Biden
President Joe Biden speaks as he meets with members of his administration Monday in the East Room of the White House.Brendan Smialowski / AFP - Getty Images

MIAMI — President Joe Biden’s top allies in Puerto Rico are growing alarmed that the White House is creating a rift with the island’s governor by snubbing his recommendations for three federal court vacancies.

The controversy — fraught with political consequences for Puerto Rican-heavy states like Florida and New York — began to surface last week amid rumblings on the island that a bipartisan consensus pick promoted by Gov. Pedro Pierluisi, a Democrat; Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González-Colón, a Republican; and Democratic Rep. Darren Soto of Florida might never be interviewed or considered for federal judgeships in the territory.

At the same time, word leaked that the White House is vetting another candidate who's not supported by any of Puerto Rico’s political leaders and who, opponents said, has expressed pro-independence sympathies in the past.

And that’s a no-go for Pierluisi, González and Soto, all of whom are pro-statehood politicians.

“The White House has gone tone-deaf,” said Carmelo Ríos Santiago, a Puerto Rico senator and a top ally of Pierluisi who was a Biden campaign co-chairman in Puerto Rico in 2020.

Ríos, the secretary of the island’s pro-statehood party, added that the governor and others were already irked with Biden for failing to champion Puerto Rican statehood as president, despite his past support. During the 2020 campaign, he promised to engage with those on all sides of the status debate for a process that would allow Puerto Ricans to "determine their own status."

“It’s customary to at least have the courtesy to listen to and weigh the opinion of the governor and the resident commissioner of the island, but that’s not happening, and now we hear names not even on the list,” Ríos said. “How do you want to have a judge on the U.S. District Court who’s an independentista, one who doesn’t want Puerto Rico to be part of the U.S. but instead be independent?”

White House spokesman Andrew Bates cautioned that the process is early and said no decisions had been made for any of the three open spots on the U.S. District Court for the District of Puerto Rico.

“The White House has received recommendations from and been consulting in good faith with a variety of leaders in Puerto Rico, and that will continue,” Bates said in a written statement. “We do not discuss vetting processes publicly, but the President looks forward to nominating highly qualified individuals for these positions.”

A Pierluisi spokeswoman declined to comment and refused to provide NBC News with his list of recommended names for the federal bench, saying the names were confidential.

2020 Puerto Rican general election
A Puerto Rican flag outside the governor's residence as Puerto Ricans voted in the general election in San Juan on Nov. 3, 2020.Alejandro Granadillo / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

“The governor is annoyed. He’s pissed off, or as we say here, encojonado. But he’s a gentleman who won’t say that publicly,” said an adviser, echoing two other advisers who all spoke on background because they weren’t authorized to discuss the process on the record. “The fact is there’s a breakdown of communication. Everybody is at a loss. What is the White House doing?”

A third adviser called the situation a “slap in the face” and said strained relations could have ramifications in future elections, considering the number of Democratic politicians who rely on Pierluisi and other island politicians to campaign in heavily Boricua communities across the mainland.

The controversy points to a deeper and long-standing issue concerning Biden and Democrats’ outreach to Latino voters.

From the start of his presidential campaign in 2019, Biden was criticized for not doing enough to aggressively court those voters. Although he still won Latino voters overall in 2020, helping him clinch the White House, then-President Donald Trump made significant inroads. Biden performed slightly worse in the general election65 percent — among voters with roots across Latin America and the Caribbean compared to Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee who preceded him, exit polling suggests. President Barack Obama won the Latino vote in 2012 with 71 percent, according to exit polls.

“It’s no secret that Biden has underperformed with Hispanic voters. And since the 2020 election, he seemingly hasn’t engaged in a targeted effort to turn that around,” said Fernand Amandi, a Florida-based pollster and top Latino outreach strategist for Obama’s two successful presidential campaigns. “The bigger question I have is: Is the way he’s dealing with Puerto Rico yet another sign that he’s writing off Florida, where these issues actually matter and have political resonance with the large Puerto Rican electorate in a state he lost by huge margins?”

Soto, the Florida congressman, confirmed the identity of the consensus candidate he, Pierluisi and González advanced: Veronica Ferraiuoli Hornedo, a lawyer from San Juan and an aide to González, Puerto Rico’s nonvoting member of Congress.

Some insiders say Ferraiuoli could have trouble getting the nod from Biden because González is a Republican, although she also belongs to the same pro-statehood political party on the island as the governor.

Soto and four other knowledgeable sources said in interviews that Ferraiuoli has yet to be vetted or interviewed by the White House team. Meanwhile, those sources said, Sulay Rios-Fuentes, a federal public defender based in San Juan, has been interviewed.

Neither Ferraiuoli nor Rios could be reached for comment.

There’s a persistent rumor in Puerto Rican political circles that other candidates are being fast-tracked for the open spots. NBC News has been unable to verify the rumor or the identities of other possible candidates who were recommended by Pierluisi or other politicians.

According to people close to Pierluisi, possible other candidates whose names have been floated are a former chairman of the territory’s Democratic Party, a criminal defense attorney, a judge who is a favorite of the LGBTQ community and lawyer who is a friend of a top White House official and isn’t from Puerto Rico or of Boricua descent.

“We have concerns,” Soto said. “We all hope to make Puerto Rico a state, and the person should be from Puerto Rico and of Puerto Rican descent. And hiring someone with a history of being for independence could be an issue when it comes to the interplay of the law concerning the territorial status of the island and statehood, which we want one day.”

Soto said he reached out to a top Biden adviser “weeks ago, but I haven’t heard back.” He said he’s not troubled by the delay because the White House is busy with other issues.

In Puerto Rico, the political system revolves around the status of the island — whether it remains a territorial commonwealth, becomes a state or achieves independence. Mainland Democratic and Republican political affiliations aren’t scrutinized as closely as views on the island’s political status, which is unlikely to change, chiefly because of GOP opposition in the U.S. Senate to statehood.

As White House officials began vetting Rios and calling references on the island, word quickly reached pro-statehood supporters and alarmed them. Rios locked her Twitter account and took down her Facebook page, according to a Pierluisi adviser who said her pro-independence views were well-known for years in their circle of friends.

But Rios checks progressive boxes for the Biden White House, which has tried to keep the left wing of the Democratic Party happy, sometimes at the expense of moderates.

Progressives have pushed Biden to nominate public defenders and civil rights lawyers, as opposed to corporate attorneys and prosecutors, for the federal bench. It’s such a big issue for progressives that they opposed the nomination of a Latina judge in Colorado who had the support of the state’s two Democratic senators.

Because Puerto Rico isn’t a state, it lacks senators and has only a nonvoting member of the House, González, making it harder for the island’s power brokers to get their way in Congress.

Pierluisi and the island’s pro-statehood party got their way by successfully advocating for the confirmation in October of Gustavo Gelpí, then a federal judge in Puerto Rico,to the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes the District of Puerto Rico. Behind the scenes, three sources close to Pierluisi said, progressive advocates were pushing for a different nominee: Puerto Rico appeals Judge Gina R. Méndez-Miró, the wife of the first openly gay chief justice of the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico, Maite Oronoz Rodríguez.

In addition to Gelpí’s old seat on the federal bench, two more vacancies were created with the retirements of judges Carmen Consuelo Cerezo and Francisco Besosa.

In a written statement, González didn’t disclose all the potential nominees she has referred to Biden’s White House, but she referred to the confirmation of Gelpí and her bipartisan work with Pierluisi in making “recommendations to the White House of highly qualified individuals to fill the current federal judicial district vacancies.”

So far, she said, she and the other Puerto Rican political leaders were waiting on word from Biden.

“As of this moment,” she said, “we have not heard anything from the White House on these important recommendations which we stand by.”