In Puerto Rico, Jeb Bush pushes for statehood

CNN  — 

Jeb Bush reiterated his support for Puerto Rico statehood on Tuesday, telling a crowd that he’s long been a backer of the movement to make the U.S. territory the 51st state.

The former Florida governor and likely presidential candidate made the comments during a string of public events on the commonwealth, where he spent months campaigning for his father, George H.W. Bush, during his failed 1980 presidential campaign.

“Puerto Rican citizens, U.S. citizens, ought to have the right to determine whether they want to be a state. I think statehood is the best path, personally,” he said at Universidad Metropolitana de Cupey in San Juan. “I have believed that for a long, long while. I’m not new to this.”

With its primary awarding delegates, Puerto Rico is a popular stomping ground for presidential contenders. Mitt Romney picked up 20 delegates in the commonwealth during his primary battle with Rick Santorum in 2012.

Bush, who is fluent in Spanish and whose wife is from Mexico, spearheaded his father’s campaign in Puerto Rico back in 1980, helping him win the primary.

The push for statehood remains the biggest political flashpoint regarding the commonwealth. Proponents say statehood will help grant Puerto Rican citizens more rights and benefits as the 51st state, while opponents say it will increase their tax bill and dependence on the U.S. government. Most Puerto Ricans are exempt from paying federal personal income taxes.

In November 2012, nearly 54% of voters in Puerto Rico voted in a nonbinding referendum to change the commonwealth’s relationship with the United States. Asked in a second question what kind of political status Puerto Rico should have, 61% chose statehood, while 33% chose the semi-autonomous “sovereign free association” and 6% for outright independence.

But final approval for a move toward statehood must come through Congress.

Bush said the next president should “use their influence” to make sure Congress takes an up or down vote on statehood. “This should be a question of self-determination,” he said. “That’s just a question of principle and morality, I think. It’s not a question of politics.”

The Obama White House says the political status of Puerto Rico should be self-determined and proposed in its 2014 budget that $2.5 million go toward helping the commonwealth hold another referendum on the matter.

Bush has indicated he’ll make his ties to Latino communities a main staple in his potential campaign. On Sunday, he had lunch in Miami with Zeus Rodriguez, the president of Hispanics for School Choice in Wisconsin, who was selected in a contest to eat with the governor. Following his trip to Puerto Rico, Bush heads to Houston to address the National Christian Hispanic Leadership Conference.

Speaking in both English and Spanish, Bush grew nostalgic about his days stumping for his father in Puerto Rico and suggested he would make a big play for the commonwealth.

“I learned how to organize intensely, here. I learned the passion. I learned how to drink a lot of Puerto Rican rum,” he told reporters. “I had a blast. It was great.”