He might not seem as relevant as the Puerto Ricans serving in the US House when it comes to issues regarding the island territory, but many say Sen. Robert Menendez, D-New Jersey, has been Puerto Rico’s biggest ally in the Senate.
In different interviews with VOXXI, the Puerto Rican politicians who have been closest to Menendez only had great things to say about the senator from New Jersey, who has represented the Garden State on Capitol Hill since 1993. They described the relationship between the senator and Puerto Rico as a deep relationship that has spanned many years.
“There is no doubt that the senator that knew the most about Puerto Rico was Ted Kennedy,” said Sen. Eduardo Bhatia, the current minority whip in the Puerto Rican Senate and former head of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration in Washington. “Once [Kennedy] passed away, Bob Menendez became the most knowledgeable senator in regards to Puerto Rico, the one that deals and pays most attention to Puerto Rican issues.”
Before arriving in the Senate, Menendez — who is currently the highest-ranking Hispanic there — represented New Jersey’s 13th Congressional district in the House. When Sen. Jon Corzine left the Senate and became governor of New Jersey in 2006, Menendez was appointed to his seat, and he remains there today.
Bhatia pointed out the difference in environment between the two chambers.
“There is a very different dynamic in the Senate compared to the dynamic in the House, and Robert Menendez’s presence in the Senate guarantees Puerto Rico some space to insert the topic of Puerto Rico into the senatorial debate,” Bhatia said. “So his presence there and his friendship have been really important. Puerto Rico has in Bob Menendez a senator that knows very well all of Puerto Rico’s affairs, and that has great influence over the rest of the majority senators.”
Roberto Prats, who is the head of the Democratic Party in Puerto Rico, said that the relationship with Puerto Rico and the work Menendez did in the House definitely changed when he moved to the Senate.
“In the House of Representatives, he was one of 425 members,” Prats said. “In the Senate, he is one of 100, and he has ended up being part of the Democratic majority there, which allows him to be a part of the leadership in some of the most important committees in the Senate, such as the finance committee… This just places him in a position of a lot of influence in the United States Congress.” Prats added that it is difficult to imagine Puerto Rico having a presence in the Senate without Menendez.
The senator, who declined commenting on this story, was born in the United States to Cuban parents. Over the years, Menendez has gone on the record on many issues affecting Puerto Ricans, most importantly the island’s political status.
“He believes in Puerto Rico’s right to express itself freely as long as it involves proceedings that are not designed to get a particular result,” Prats said, perhaps referring to the upcoming plebiscite on status set to take place in the island in November, which has been controversial.
Back in November, Menendez spoke out against the previous proposal for the plebiscite, saying that it would have no validity because it was constructed to garner a specific answer.
The way the plebiscite is constructed now, it will include two questions: whether citizens approve of the current territorial status and it will ask voters to express their preference among the three alternatives to the current status: statehood, independence, and nationhood in free association with the United States.
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“Bob has always been a champion on issues of interest to Hispanics in the United States and, in the case of Puerto Rico, I’m confident to say he is our strongest voice in the U.S. Senate,” said former Puerto Rican Gov. Aníbal Acevedo Vilá. He was Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner from 2001 until 2004, when he was elected to be governor.
While Acevedo Vilá served on the Hill, the U.S. Navy exited the Puerto Rican island municipality of Vieques, where they had been training and practicing since the early 1940s. This only occurred after years of protest and civil disobedience from Puerto Ricans and others who opposed military practices there. The former governor said that Menendez’s help was “instrumental” in the struggle to get the Navy out.
However, when asked what has been the greatest thing Menendez has done for Puerto Rico, Prats, Bhatia and Acevedo Vilá credited the senator with the island’s inclusion in the Affordable Health Care Act.
“He was very successful when Barack Obama’s health reform was being debated,” Prats said. “The Puerto Rican government wanted Puerto Rico to be included and to benefit from this reform, and votes were needed to approve that. And Bob Menendez said, ‘If those votes are not there for Puerto Rico and what Puerto Rico needs, you cannot count with me.’”
When it comes to health care reform and Puerto Rico, “90 percent of the credit in the Senate needs to go to Bob Menendez,” Bhatia said. “He is the person that has worked directly with these things. And I think that his participation has obviously helped a lot what we are working towards.”
Acevedo Vilá explained what made Menendez’s efforts so significant.
“Bob took the lead in making sure Puerto Rico was included in the new private exchanges as well as ensuring increased Medicaid funding for the island,” he said. Acevedo Vilá pointed out that it is only thanks to Menendez that the law includes $1 billion in subsidies to “Puerto Ricans of modest means” to participate in the exchange.
Puerto Rico has one sole official representative in Congress, Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi. However, there are four other Puerto Ricans in the House: Democrat reps. Luis Gutiérrez, Nydia Velázquez and José Serrano, and freshman Republican Rep. Raúl Labrador.
Over the years, Gutiérrez, Velázquez and Serrano have been very vocal about issues affecting Puerto Ricans in the island as well as in the states, but the Senate has never had a Puerto Rican among its members.
Prats said that this relationship between the senator and Puerto Rico has only deepened over many years, and it is extremely valuable to have a friend in the Senate.
“The Puerto Rican people are very much in his debt,” Prats said.