SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Hispanic voters will play a key role in determining if President Obama wins reelection. In 2008, he was able to take the Democratic share of the Hispanic vote to 67 percent, up ten points from what John Kerry got against George W. Bush four years earlier. In the next election, Hispanics are likely to make up nearly 9 percent of the total vote, and in key states such as Florida they represent one-seventh of all eligible voters.
Such numbers have led many to suggest that the Republican Party’s next nominee should select an Hispanic running mate. Florida Senator Marco Rubio tops everyone’s list, but he has said he “absolutely” doesn’t want the job — and he might just really mean it. New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez, a former prosecutor, is sometimes mentioned. But she remains untested on the national stage and when the GOP convention rolls around she’ll have only been in office as a governor the same number of days as Sarah Palin was in 2008 when named to the ticket.
But there is another intriguing possibility. Luis Fortuño is the 51-year-old governor of Puerto Rico, whose four million people have all been U.S. citizens since 1952, making their governor eligible to become vice president. Mr. Fortuño made history in 2004 by being elected the island’s lone delegate to the U.S. House as a conservative and followed up that feat in 2008 by being elected governor with the largest margin of any predecessor since the 1960s. His party not only won control of the legislature by historic margins but also won the power to name three supreme court judges, giving that body its first conservative majority in history.
But the reasons for his sweep were sobering. The economy was in meltdown, suffering from a recession that began in 2006, predating the one on the U.S. mainland by two years. “I inherited a deficit that was proportionately speaking the largest in the country, representing 44 percent of revenues,” Fortuño told me recently in an interview at La Fortaleza, the 500-year-old medieval castle that serves as the island’s seat of executive power. “We had to take a loan to get enough money to meet our first payroll.” The state had had negative economic growth throughout the previous decade. Fortuño recalls, “My wife asked me if we could seek a recount.”
The previous government’s answer had been to spend money and raise taxes. When Fortuño took office, a staggering one out of three Puerto Ricans worked for the state and a new sales tax of 7 percent had been imposed.
Fortuño shifted everything into reverse. “The people expected leadership,” he told me. “I went on TV to tell the public exactly what we faced and what we needed to do. People will respect you if they see you are doing what you see is right and what you promised to do.”
So he immediately cut spending by 20 percent and laid off 17,000 state workers, enduring weeks of protests. He reduced the top corporate tax rate from 41 percent to 30 percent, with a further reduction scheduled down to 25 percent. Individual income tax rates were cut by a quarter in 2010 and entire government agencies privatized. (“They will do a better job. They will do it cheaper.”)
He also attacked red tape. A small army of 250 police were in charge of approving liquor licenses. Fortuño reassigned almost all of them to other tasks. Whereas it had once taken 28 different regulations and permits to open a small business, Fortuño reduced that to one simple procedure that can be done online.
Fortuño says his political philosophy is rooted in his admiration of Ronald Reagan’s conservative principles. “I was a student at Georgetown in D.C. as Carter was failing as president and being replaced by Reagan,” he recalls. “I was so inspired by Reagan I licked envelopes for him. I saw how he revitalized an economy and country by freeing the American people to be free and industrious.”
Today, Puerto Rico has stabilized and is in the recovery room. Unemployment is still high at 15.7 percent, but that’s down from more than 17 percent at the height of the crisis. The island has the highest bond rating in 35 years. Standard & Poor’s has given Puerto Rico its first positive economic review since 1983. Companies ranging from Coca-Cola to Merck and Walmart are expanding operations.
There are sticking points. The number of murders hit a record in 2011, fueled by the transfer of much of the drugs and weapons trade from the more closely watched U.S.-Mexican border to the Caribbean. Governor Fortuño has pledged to spend $52 million more next year on enhanced police training and higher salaries. Polls show the governor trailing his most likely opponent when he runs for reelection in 2012, but he is confident the improving economy will prompt voters to reward him with a second term.
BUT WHAT IF HE GETS a call asking him to join the GOP presidential ticket? Fortuño isn’t eager for that conversation, saying “that isn’t going to happen” but avoiding a definitive statement that he wouldn’t take the job.
He says Republicans must do a better job reaching out to Hispanics in America, noting that they believe in many core conservative principles such as hard work, family values, and entrepreneurship. “Whether I was campaigning for [now Senator] Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania or Marco Rubio in Florida, I could feel a willingness to give Republicans a second chance if we have the right message,” he told me.
Luis Fortuño would certainly be an out-of-the-box pick for vice president but it would likely represent shrewd politics. Florida alone has 800,000 Puerto Ricans living within its borders, and every one of the adults in that group is eligible to vote. Puerto Ricans also make up enough of the voting population in Pennsylvania and New Jersey to put those states potentially in play for the GOP.
But whatever his future holds, Governor Fortuño has already earned a profile in courage award for showing that even the most dismal economies can respond to doses of the right fiscal medicine.