News & Politics

Norton to Puerto Rico: Drop Dead?

Spinning bad poll results, the DC delegate resisted the idea of statehood for the island.

(Photo courtesy of Flickr.)

It may be hot in Washington this week, but Eleanor Holmes Norton is chilly on one measure: statehood for Puerto Rico.

Speaking on the Gallup Podcast today, DC’s Congressional delegate pushed back on the notion that Americans overwhelmingly favor statehood for Puerto Rico over DC—even though Gallup’s polling results have shown exactly that trend. The firm’s poll  this week found that two-thirds of Americans favor admitting the Caribbean island as the 51st state, while almost the same amount oppose doing the same for DC.

When asked by the podcast’s host, Mohamed Younis, about the polling disparity, Norton pointedly questioned the merits of Gallup’s statistics. “I’m not sure of your statistics on Puerto Rico,” Norton replied, immediately adding, “[Y]ou say that they favor statehood for Puerto Rico. I would question that. Because my colleagues in the House are divided—I’m talking about from Puerto Rico.”

Then Norton seemed to offer another reason why Puerto Rican statehood would be a bad idea. “Puerto Rico cannot support itself at this time,” she said. “Now, remember that Puerto Rico, who’s undergoing very hard times—and I must say our nation…has to do much more for Puerto Rico because they have become insolvent. And you can understand almost how that could happen. They’re in the middle of the storm area of our country and they are very much dependent on the federal government now.”

It was an odd talking point from someone who was advocating for statehood—rightly!—back when DC was considered a municipal basket case. Should Americans really rethink their support for Puerto Rico, given that the island has taken an economic beating after a brutal storm season? You don’t have to be a statehood die-hard to note that the drubbing was compounded by an incomprehensibly negligent federal government response—precisely the thing that statehood for Puerto Rico would probably avoid.

The case for DC statehood has never been purely about economic utility—and for good reason. According to that logic, DC’s own case was dramatically weakened during the nineties, when the city very nearly became insolvent. But the argument for statehood in 1995 wasn’t about economic utility, but principles of fairness. Even if Norton were correct, and economic contributions were a conditional requirement for statehood, Puerto Rico already has a higher GDP output than fourteen states—and only four places behind Washington, D.C.

Norton is right that some Puerto Ricans are divided over statehood. But her argument is concerned with broader American support, not Puerto Ricans themselves. Perhaps she thinks that Americans need to curb their enthusiasm for Puerto Rico, and park some of that support over with the D.C. cause. But statehood is a rising tide that raises all boats, not a zero sum game. In fact, Puerto Rican statehood would be the best thing that ever happened to DC. Once Puerto Rico is admitted to the Union, and the magical round-number thinking of 50 non-fungible states is shattered, it will have created a natural glide path to DC statehood, too.

As Puerto Rico goes, so goes the District.



Benjamin Wofford
Staff Writer

Benjamin Wofford is a contributing editor at Washingtonian.