Rep. Young breaks with GOP colleagues in supporting Puerto Rico statehood

The East Plaza of the U.S. Capitol in 2019, which has been closed to the public since the Jan. 6 mob attack. (Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)

Alaska Congressman Don Young champions statehood for Puerto Rico, defying his fellow Republicans in Washington.

The people of Puerto Rico want it, Young said at a hearing Wednesday.

“I think it’s time,” he said. “As far as the plebiscites, we’ve had three of them. Each time we’ve actually been victorious, in the sense of being a state. It’s long overdue.”

The most recent plebiscite, or non-binding vote, was in November. More than 52% of Puerto Ricans voted for statehood. But only Congress can grant it.

With Democrats in control of the House, Senate and White House, statehood advocates see a chance for Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. to join the union. Both jurisdictions are predicted to send Democrats to Congress. That scares a lot of Republicans, who say it could lock in Democratic leadership of the Senate for decades. In GOP fundraising appeals, adding two more states is described as a radical move that threatens democracy.

Young, drawing on Alaska’s example, said the partisan tilt of Puerto Rico’s electorate shouldn’t guide the decision.

“Although I have some opposition on my side about, ‘they’ll all be Democrats.’ They said the same thing about Alaska and now we’re all Republicans,” Young said at the hearing, which he attended remotely. “So, everybody has the right to decide what they’re going to be, but don’t pre-think what they’re going to be because it doesn’t work out that way. Hawaii was supposed to be Republican.”

Young was referring to how Alaska and Hawaii finally won statehood in 1959. It was a package deal. Alaska was predicted to send an all-Democratic delegation to Congress, which was to be offset by Hawaii’s all-Republican team.

But the predictions were wrong. Alaska has mostly sent Republicans to Washington while Hawaii has almost always sent Democrats.

Young sponsored the only Puerto Rico statehood bill to ever pass the House. That was in 1998.

“I’m proud of that,” he said.

Young isn’t entirely alone in his party. Fourteen other House Republicans joined him as sponsors of the most current Puerto Rico statehood bill. And like the majority of Republicans, Young opposes statehood for Washington, D.C.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski has the distinction of being born in a U.S. territory: In Ketchikan, a year and a half before Alaska became the 49th star on the flag. She said the people of Puerto Rico should work harder if they want statehood, like Alaskans did.

“They need to own this, determine this, fight for this rather than let this be a D.C.-led initiative,” she said outside the Senate chamber, before an unrelated voted. “Right now you’ve got some folks that are looking at this saying ‘It’d be great to have another two senators here.'”

Murkowski acknowledges Puerto Ricans have already voted for statehood, but said that’s not enough.

“We voted, too,” she said, referring to territorial Alaskans. “What did we do? We fought and fought and fought for decades.”

Sen. Dan Sullivan’s office didn’t provide a statement of his views on the subject, but during his last campaign, Sullivan discussed statehood for Puerto Rico and D.C. as a move by the far left to pack the Senate with Democrats.